The Big Ten released its conference schedule Thursday. With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers creating an even more unbalanced schedule, here are five thoughts on who benefits and who suffers because of the new format:
1. Nobody has a dream slate: When the Big Ten announced its scheduling format to accommodate for the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, there was concern that the unbalanced schedule could tip the league race in favor of a contender with a particularly favorable slate. Big Ten teams will now play five league opponents twice and the rest once, so a team that played Rutgers, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue twice apiece would theoretically have an advantage this season over one that drew a pair of games apiece against Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. That may come to fruition in the future, but credit the Big Ten for doing a good job avoiding that scenario in year one — at least on paper. Every preseason league title threat faces at least one other projected contender twice and nobody has a breeze of a schedule.
2. Northwestern drew the short straw: Whatever chance Northwestern had of reaching its first NCAA tournament in Chris Collins' second season got even slimmer thanks to the arduous league schedule the Wildcats received. All five of the Big Ten teams Northwestern will face home and away are contenders to finish in the upper half of the league. Wisconsin is the Big Ten favorite, Michigan and Michigan State are two of the biggest threats to the Badgers and Iowa and Illinois both have NCAA tournament potential. Making matters worse, the schedule is so front-loaded that Northwestern could be playing for pride by Valentine's Day. From Jan. 4 to Feb. 10, the Wildcats face Wisconsin and Michigan State twice, visit Michigan, Nebraska and Maryland and host Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. Yikes.
3. Hail to the victors? If the Big Ten race comes down to Wisconsin and Michigan this season, then the Wolverines have a slight edge. The only matchup between the two league title contenders will take place on Jan. 24 in Ann Arbor. Beyond that, neither team has much to complain about regarding its schedule. The only projected Big Ten title threat Wisconsin faces twice next season is Nebraska, though home-and-homes with Iowa and rival Minnesota will still be challenging. Michigan sees rivals Michigan State and Ohio State twice apiece, but it avoids visiting Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa in addition to Wisconsin — each among the toughest venues in the league for road teams.
4. Indiana's challenging start: Of the Big Ten's 14 teams, none has a more difficult start to league play than Indiana. The Hoosiers visit Nebraska on New Year's Eve and Michigan State on Jan. 4 before returning home to host perennial NCAA tournament team Ohio State. This could work one of two ways for Indiana. Survive the opening gauntlet, and the Hoosiers can take advantage of a favorable next three weeks to build momentum and try to return to the NCAA tournament. Start 0-3, and suddenly the heat will be on Tom Crean and the poor start could snowball. Regardless, there's no doubt that three-game stretch will be critical to Indiana's chances of bouncing back from a disappointing 2013-14 season and returning to the Big Ten's upper echelon.
5. Illinois' rough road: If John Groce's Illinois team is going to comfortably make the NCAA tournament this season, the Illini will probably have to figure out how to defeat marquee teams away from home. Illinois will face all six of the Big Ten's NCAA tournament teams from last season on the road, as well as NIT champ Minnesota. The only league road game in which the Illini will likely be clear favorites is at Northwestern. As if that weren't tough enough, the Big Ten schedule makers also did Illinois no favors with how it will start league play. Four of the Illini's first five games are on the road, a stretch that sandwiches visits to Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Northwestern around a home game against Maryland. Maybe Groce can call up Crean and commiserate.
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