Big Ten battle cry this season all about ‘We’re No. 2!’
On Monday night, I watched a close, sometimes sloppy, extremely hard-fought battle between two Big Ten teams who aren’t Final Four-caliber Wisconsin but are definitely very good basketball teams.
I’m sorry — do I need to be more specific?
I do. Because in the Big Ten, there’s a giant glut of teams right after clear favorite Wisconsin, and in early January we have no idea how things will shake out.
The teams I was watching on a snowy night in Iowa City were the Iowa Hawkeyes — who have started 2-0 in conference play after a non-conference season with no bad losses and one great win, over North Carolina — and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who’ve had a rough, injury-riddled go of it so far in this season of high expectations, but who are still a tough defensive team with plenty of talent; the type of team that, once healthy, wouldn’t surprise me if it made a late-season surge toward the top of the league.
The truth of the Big Ten this season is this: There’s Wisconsin, and there’s everyone else. But everyone else really could be anyone else.
Who will be the second-best team in the Big Ten? The easy pick right now is an upstart Maryland team, who has been one of the most surprising teams in the nation with a 14-1 start, a No. 11 ranking, and one of the most exciting and mature freshmen in the nation in point guard Romelo Trimble. I didn’t see this young, reinvented Terrapins squad coming heading into this season, and I’d wager that you didn’t, either.
But there’s still two long months of winter in Big Ten country, and by my count, there are at least seven other teams that could challenge Maryland for the title of best non-Wisconsin team in the conference.
You could pick Iowa, who was the first team in the country to get road wins over two ranked teams this season (UNC and Ohio State). Senior Aaron White has continued his remarkable rise from overlooked recruit to possible NBA prospect, a speedy 6-foot-9 kid who gets to the rim, gets fouled and makes foul shots as well as anyone in the country. (White ranks 21st in the nation in free-throw rate.) And center Gabe Olaseni might be one of the most underrated players in college basketball; a dynamic athlete who can rebound, defend in the post and score with great efficiency.
You could pick Michigan State. Sure, this is Tom Izzo’s least-talented team in a while, but the Spartans are actually the second-highest Big Ten team in the KenPom.com rankings after obliterating Indiana on Tuesday night. The Spartans do two things really well — defend and shoot the three — and that might be enough to grab that second spot in a Big Ten with tons of good teams but only one great one.
You could pick Ohio State, too, even though so far this might be the most unproven team in the Big Ten’s second tier. It’s true that the Buckeyes haven’t beaten anyone ranked higher than 56th in the KenPom.com rankings (Illinois) and have lost every tough game so far (Louisville, North Carolina, Iowa). But it’s also true that freshman shooting guard D’Angelo Russell has been phenomenal, senior point guard Shannon Scott has ably filled the Aaron Craft void (13th in the nation in assist rate, 18th in the nation in steal percentage) and sophomore power forward Marc Loving is shooting threes at a ridiculous 56-percent clip.
You could pick Minnesota, a team that’s transformed its identity in short order under second-year coach Richard Pitino. Minnesota’s pressing defense is turning over its opponents at a higher rate than every team in the nation except two — a better rate than even Pitino’s Hall of Fame father has this season at Louisville.
Hell, I wouldn’t call you crazy if you picked the Big Ten’s two small-ball teams, Indiana and Illinois, to make a surprising surge all the way to second during conference play.
That’s eight teams that could finish second behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten. And that doesn’t include a few other good-but-not-great teams that’ll get some wins in league play: A surprising Purdue, which has won its first two Big Ten games (over Minnesota and Michigan), and two teams in Michigan and Nebraska who were favored to finish near the top of the league leading into the season but disappointed with some bad losses in nonconference play. If you want to get really crazy, perennial bottom-feeder Penn State has the league’s top scorer (D.J. Newbill) and might win some games that’ll surprise you.
“You gotta love to compete, and if you’re in this league, you gotta love the grind, and you gotta want to go out every night,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said after his team lost 70-59 to Iowa. “We battled on the glass tonight. It was one of those low-scoring brawls. Right now that’s how we have to play to compete in the Big Ten.”
I’m not going to sit here and argue the Big Ten is the nation’s best conference. It’s clearly not. I’d give that label to the insanely deep Big 12, which might send as many as eight of its 10 teams to the tournament. The surprising depth of the Big East and the immense power at the top of the ACC likely put those conferences ahead of the Big Ten, too. Last year the Big Ten was one of the two best conferences in the country, with the sort of depth that saw lots of teams winning road games. I don’t expect conference season will make anyone think the Big Ten is a better conference than the Big 12, but I do expect to see plenty of road upsets this season, a season where 11 Big Ten wins could vault you into second place.
But I am going to sit here and argue that that huge bottleneck after Wisconsin in the Big Ten is going to make for a really fun next couple months in Big Ten play, with a conference season where every game can go either way, where nearly every finish will be close, and where every win really matters.
I asked Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who on Monday took Iowa to its first 2-0 start in Big Ten play in 12 seasons, what he expects in conference play. Sure, his answer sounds like conference boosterism, the same you’ll hear from any coach. In this case, though, it’s true.
“Every win in this league is so hard, especially this year,” McCaffery told me. “You look at every game. There’s just not even going to be one that’s easy. Every game. Whether it’s a grind-it-out game or a more wide-open game, more threes or less threes, more free throws or less free throws, the unsung heroes.”
He paused and took a breath.
“It’s going to be that kind of season,” he said.