Big Ten now home to best basketball

The wooden bleachers inside the jam-packed Assembly Hall were bouncing and quaking, and the game hadn’t even started. Hoosiers fans have known for a while they have something special with this Indiana team, ranked No. 1 in the preseason and with the preseason player of the year in the nimble 7-footer Cody Zeller. But preseason rankings are meaningless, especially if you can’t perform at home against the nation’s 14th-ranked team.

Which is what the Indiana Hoosiers had to do on Tuesday night, when North Carolina came to town as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

What did the Hoosiers do, exactly? They dominated in an 83-59 win. They proved Indiana basketball is back, just like the pundits said in the preseason.

They went on a 22-4 run to end the first half and begin the second half. At one point they were up by 32 over a North Carolina team with five McDonald’s All-Americans. By the end of the blowout, Hoosiers fans had to keep up their interest by singing their alma mater as head coach Tom Crean put in his bench players for the last few minutes.

But the top-ranked Hoosiers proved something a little more subtle on Tuesday night as well. They provided one more shred of evidence that the Big Ten has, for now, surpassed both the ACC and the Big East as the home to the best basketball in the country.

“I definitely do believe that they deserve to be ranked where they are,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of the Hoosers. “I don’t think there’s a selfish bone in those kids’ bodies, and I think that’s probably the part that I admire most. They really do just want to look up at that scoreboard and see that Indiana’s winning.”

It’s not just Indiana that’s winning, but the entire Big Ten. Just look at Tuesday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge games. The Hoosiers mauled UNC. (“It’s a huge statement,” Hoosiers forward Will Sheehey said. “You saw the score.”) Meanwhile, third-ranked Michigan beat 18th-ranked North Carolina State. The suddenly hot 21st-ranked Minnesota Gophers topped Florida State.

Big Ten teams went 4-2 against their Atlantic Coast Conference rivals on Tuesday, although that’s a bit of a mirage, because one of the ACC’s victories was Maryland over Northwestern, and Maryland soon will be joining the Big Ten.

Perhaps this power shift in college basketball isn’t all that unexpected. When this ACC/Big Ten Challenge series was first concocted in 1999, the ACC was by far the better conference, winning the first 10 ACC/Big Ten Challenges. But the Big Ten has won the past three and is on the way to a fourth.

The Big Ten has made huge strides the past few years, starting with the Hoosiers’ amazing turnaround under Crean — from 28 wins in his first three years combined and missing the NCAA Tournament each year, to 27 wins last year alone and making the Sweet 16.

As Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois have remained stable national powers for the Big Ten over the past decade, Michigan has added itself to mix the under head coach John Beilein, and Tubby Smith’s 7-1 Gophers suddenly appear ascendant. As of this week the Big Ten has six teams in the top 25.

Meanwhile, the ACC has fallen off. The ACC always will have Tobacco Road, and the guaranteed greatness that comes with having UNC and Duke. The conference still has sent 11 teams to the Final Four over the past 13 years (same as the Big Ten). But the ACC has become top-heavy. UNC and Duke account for four of the ACC’s five national championships since 1999, and only one other ACC team is currently ranked in the top 25 — and that’s 18th-ranked NC State, which will drop in the rankings after losing at Michigan.

The programs that used to give the ACC the depth that the Big Ten now boasts all have fallen off: Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Wake Forest.

Yes, it’s only November. It’s a bad idea to read too much into November. On Tuesday, UNC was without one of the pistons that make their offensive motor run, sophomore shooting guard P.J. Hairston, who sprained his knee in practice over the weekend. And UNC has a first-world problem on its hands in that it recruits players who are simply too good for college ball. Four players from last year’s Elite Eight team were taken in the first 17 picks in the NBA draft, and three of them were underclassmen.

Remember this, too: The ACC might be a shallow league now, but next year will be a different story when two perennial top-25 teams, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, join the conference from the Big East. Louisville, currently ranked No. 5, is expected to move into the ACC a year later.

But Indiana’s performance on Tuesday night was as electric as the Assembly Hall fans who came to only the third matchup this season between teams ranked in the top 15. And like Sheehey said, it was a statement, about both the state of Indiana basketball and Big Ten basketball.

Cody Zeller scored 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting, added eight rebounds and four blocks, and at times ran the floor like a 7-foot point guard. Victor Oladipo and Sheehey each scored 19 points. Scrappy 6-footer Jordan Hulls had eight assists with zero turnovers. (Hulls has a remarkable 31 assists to only five turnovers on the season.)

“You guys know just as well as I know that this program over the past couple years has really been struggling,” Oladipo said. “We were trying to get it back to where we want, and that’s on top. And for us to get a win like that, it’s a humbling experience, not only for us but for this program as well.”

He was talking about Indiana basketball. But he might as well have been talking about Big Ten basketball, the conference that’s No. 1 in the nation.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.