When the season began a month ago, the consensus among college basketball fans and analysts was that the Big Ten was clearly the best conference in the country.
That's no longer the case.
A slow start by preseason No. 2 Michigan State, an injury to Purdue’s Robbie Hummel and Minnesota's head-scratching home loss to Virginia have caused the Big Ten to a take a back seat to the Big East in the quest to be labeled as the country's top conference.
At least for now.
The Big Ten has three months to reclaim its throne, and there's a good chance it will do just that. Here are some things working in the league's favor:
• Ohio State is an NCAA title contender. That's obvious even though the Buckeyes have played a relatively weak non-conference schedule. Florida was ranked No. 9 when it got pasted 93-75 by Ohio State on Nov. 16. But the Gators were clearly overrated and have since fallen out of the Associated Press poll. Thad Matta's squad whipped the only other relatively strong team on its slate thus far (Florida State). Even though Ohio State has looked stagnant at times, it's possible the team is just bored and ready for some better competition. This is a very, very good team – one of the few good enough to beat Duke.
• Michigan State is a national title contender, too. There's no need to panic about the Spartans. All three of their losses came against opponents currently ranked in the Top 10. Michigan State always plays a tough schedule and it shows in its record. Tom Izzo's teams have appeared in three of the last six Final Fours, and each time Michigan State had at least seven losses. That will probably be the case again this year but, as always, you can count on Michigan State to be playing its best ball when it matters most. This team has too much experience and too much talent not to be in the mix in the end.
• Northwestern and Minnesota are as good as they've been in years. The high-scoring Wildcats are gunning for their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history, and there's a good chance they'll get there thanks to the presence of standout John Shurna. Minnesota, meanwhile, has already defeated West Virginia and North Carolina, which lends you to believe that the Gophers will be able to compete with anyone in the Big Ten – and, for that matter, the entire country. Trevor Mbakwe is a double-double machine, Ralph Sampson III is playing the best ball of his career and Blake Hoffarber is as good of a long-range threat as there is in the conference. Having Tubby Smith on the bench doesn't hurt, either.
• There are no bad teams in the Big Ten. Iowa isn't the embarrassment that it was a year ago. Indiana appears good enough to make the NIT, Penn State features one of the conference's top players in Talor Battle and Michigan is off to its best start under John Beilein. The Big East has DePaul and South Florida, and Oklahoma and Texas Tech are the dregs of the Big 12. But in the Big Ten, there is no easy out. None.
Still, while all of those things may be true, it's hard to argue that the Big East hasn't been better than the Big Ten thus far. Here are some reasons why:
• Connecticut, which was picked to finish 10th in the Big East, defeated Big Ten preseason favorite Michigan State in the second round of the Maui Invitational. MSU's loss came one day after it struggled to beat Chaminade in an opening-round game. The Spartans also labored to defeat South Carolina (by nine points) and Oakland (one point). MSU was also lambasted by Syracuse, another Big East team.
• The loss of Hummel for the season will be devastating for Purdue, which would've had legitimate Final Four aspirations had its star stayed healthy. Purdue has yet to play a Top 25 opponent, and the Boilermakers lost to Richmond, which is a solid team, but a mid-major, nonetheless.
• Minnesota's home loss to Virginia was one of the more puzzling results of the season thus far. Virginia is certainly improved from last season, but the Cavaliers are still considered one of the worst teams in an ACC that's as down as it's been in years. Before beating Minnesota, Virginia had lost to Washington by 43 points, Stanford by 21 and Wichita State by 12. Another mild upset came when Illinois fell to unranked Texas.
• Big East teams won three of the nation's premier November tournaments: Coaches vs. Cancer (Pittsburgh), the Maui Invitational (Connecticut) and the Old Spice Classic (Notre Dame, which beat the Big Ten’s Wisconsin in the title game).
The Big Ten is still one of the top two leagues in the country. But right now it'll have to settle for being second best.
(Last week's rank in parenthesis)
1. Ohio State (8-0) – The Buckeyes rank fifth in the nation in scoring margin (23.6). (1)
2. Illinois (10-1) – The Illini's seven-game winning streak is their longest since 2008. (3)
3. Michigan State (7-3) – Each of the Spartans' losses came against teams currently ranked in the Top 10. (2)
4. Purdue (9-1) – Guard John Hart, who is averaging 8.6 points per game, will be sidelined until at least Jan. 5 because of a stress fracture in his right foot. (4)
5. Wisconsin (9-2) – Freshman Josh Gasser came up big defensively against Marquette on Saturday. (5)
6. Minnesota (9-1) – Point guard Al Nolen has missed four straight games with a foot injury. (7)
7. Northwestern (6-0) – Monday's victory over Long Island was the Wildcats' first game in nearly two weeks. (6)
8. Indiana (7-2) – Saturday's 81-62 loss at Kentucky was much closer than the score indicated. (9)
9. Michigan (7-2) – Darius Morris has four double-digit assist games this season. (10)
10. Penn State (7-3) – The Nittany Lions couldn't take advantage of a banged-up, downtrodden Virginia Tech squad in Blacksburg. (11)
11. Iowa (5-5) – The Hawkeyes' losses have come by an average of 5.8 points – and all have been by 10 points or less. (12)
Wisconsin at the line – The Badgers have connected on 79.6 percent of their free throws, a mark that ranks third in the nation. Bo Ryan's squad has attempted 152 fouls shots and made 121 of them.
Melsahn Basabe, Iowa – The freshman forward flirted with a triple-double in last week's 75-72 loss to Iowa State. Basabe finished with 12 points, 14 boards and seven blocks. The New York native is averaging 8.6 points and 6.8 boards and has scored in double figures in three of his last four games.
Purdue's defense – The Boilermakers forced an average of 18.3 turnovers through their first 10 games. That should help Matt Painter's squad make up for the rebounding issues that could plague Purdue throughout the course of the season.
Maurice Creek, Indiana – The sophomore guard is regarded as one of the Hoosiers' top players, but Creek has eclipsed the 15-point barrier just once all season. And he only scored five points on 2-of-8 shooting in Saturday's loss at Kentucky.
Illinois' rebounding – Through its first 10 games, Illinois averaged just 0.2 more rebounds than its opponent – a mark that ranked last in the Big Ten. Even though Bruce Weber's team has played a tough schedule, the stat is rather surprising for a squad that is full of big bodies and long arms. Mike Davis, who led the league with a 9.2 average last season, is snaring just 6.8 boards a game this season.
Adreian Payne, Michigan State – The 6-foot-10 freshman is averaging just 4.5 minutes over his last two games and scored just one point in each of those contests. Payne – who missed the entire summer because of a shoulder injury – still hasn't picked up enough of the offense or defense to satisfy coach Tom Izzo. Still, don't be surprised if Payne becomes a key contributor for Michigan State later this season.
Maurice Creek wasn't the only Indiana player who struggled against Kentucky on Saturday, as Verdell Jones finished with just five points … Jared Sullinger became the first Big Ten player since 1995 to score 40 points in a game when he accomplished the feat against IUPUI last week. Sullinger's efforts earned him league Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. He was also named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the fourth time … Michigan State's victory over Oakland on Saturday was the Spartans' eighth game in a 20-day span in which they logged more than 20,000 travel miles … Michigan State freshman shooting guard Russell Byrd has removed his orthopedic boot and should soon be cleared to begin shooting. The plan is still for Byrd to redshirt … Illinois freshman center Meyers Leonard injured his shoulder during a Dec. 11 practice and missed Sunday's game against Northern Colorado. He is expected to recover in time for Big Ten play, if not sooner … Michigan's Zack Novak had back-to-back double-doubles against Harvard and Concordia … Penn State plays just one game in the next 15 days … Six of the nine players in Iowa's rotation are either freshmen or sophomores. Jarryd Cole is the only senior … Wisconsin ranks third in the nation with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.62.
THREE TO WATCH
Oakland at Michigan, Saturday – The Golden Grizzlies came within a point of upsetting Michigan State at the Palace of Auburn Hills last week.
South Carolina at Ohio State, Saturday – Buckeyes freshman Jared Sullinger is blossoming into one of the country's top players.
Iowa at Drake, Saturday – A victory over their in-state foe would put the Hawkeyes above .500.
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- Big East