Unpredictability reigns in Big Ten basketball

Unpredictability reigns in Big Ten basketball

Published Jan. 20, 2012 9:20 a.m. ET

There are two ways to look at this Big Ten basketball season: It's either totally unpredictable, or predictably unpredictable.

Consider that during a 10-day period from Jan. 10-19, unranked conference teams knocked off ranked conference teams six times.

It started with four last week: Illinois' shocker over No. 5 Ohio State, followed by Minnesota over No. 7 Indiana, Iowa over No. 13 Michigan and Northwestern over No. 6 Michigan State.

And already this week, there have been two more: Nebraska over No. 11 Indiana and Penn State over No. 22 Illinois, which had sole possession of first place in the Big Ten entering the game.

This weekend's upset alerts go out to No. 9 Michigan State (Saturday vs. Purdue), No. 6 Ohio State (Saturday at Nebraska), Indiana again (Sunday vs. Penn State) and Illinois again (Sunday vs. Wisconsin).

Don't even try comparing scores to predict the future in this league. In an eight-day span, Michigan State beat Iowa by 34, Iowa beat Michigan by 16 and then Michigan beat Michigan State by one.

If X is greater than Y, and Y is greater than Z, then X has to be greater than Z, right? Not in the Big Ten. Not this year.

It's left quite a logjam at the top of the standings one-third of the way through the 18-game conference schedule. Michigan (5-2) is technically in first place because it has played one more game than its nearest competitors, but there are four others right there tied in the loss column (Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan State and Purdue, all at 4-2).

Illinois coach Bruce Weber and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo have what might seem to be opposite perspectives on the madness.

"It's just so hard to predict," Weber said.

To which Izzo countered, "I haven't seen any real unpredictability. I've almost seen everything pretty predictable."

Call it semantics because, in the end, Weber and Izzo are saying the same thing in their own way -- the Big Ten race is as wide open as ever.

Izzo apparently just expected it this way a little more than Weber from the start.

Right now, a loss is making teams tougher in their next game while a victory, especially a big one, can make them more vulnerable.

"It's just crazy," Weber said. "It's not who you're playing but I think more when you play and who has that extra motivation, who just came off a loss, who just came off a big win. It's such a fine line. Who's got that extra little mental edge, that seems to be the team that jumps up. You just have to go one game at a time, see what happens and hope you can hang in there."

Said Izzo: "The league is the best it's been in years and years and years if you ask me, especially top to bottom. It's very hard to win on the road. The margin for error between two teams is very slim. You better bring it every day no matter who you play in our league or you're in trouble."

While Izzo believes more parity is a reality throughout college basketball, certainly not just in the Big Ten, there's one other key factor involved in this up-and-down trend.

"More kids have trouble focusing in on a task at hand so there's bigger swings," he said. "I don't know exactly why it is."

Because the Big Ten did so well during the non-conference season -- Indiana gave Kentucky its only loss, Ohio State beat Duke, the conference won eight of its 12 match-ups in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, etc. -- it's now perceived as having great quality from top to bottom.

Teams such as Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana proved themselves early. When they lose to lower-tier teams in the Big Ten, it makes the whole conference look stronger.

If the Big Ten hadn't fared as well in the non-conference, the reaction to these upsets in conference play would be totally different. Instead of the bottom teams getting upgraded, as is happening now, the top teams would have gotten downgraded.

A lot of it comes down to perception. This year, the Big Ten is riding high, widely considered the strongest conference in the nation.

Things can -- and probably will -- change quickly in this race over the final six weeks. Indiana, once 15-1, is suddenly reeling with three straight losses. Michigan State, which recently won 15 in a row, has to be careful that back-to-back losses don't turn into a season-damaging skid. It can all turn so rapidly when a conference starts eating its own.

On the other hand, some teams that were struggling have made a bid to save their seasons of late. Wisconsin bounced back impressively from three straight losses, including a dreadful performance at Michigan when many were writing off the Badgers. Minnesota lost its first four conference games before popping up to surprise Indiana on the road. Even Penn State, considered the worst team in the Big Ten, has rebounded from several slapstick showings to become dangerous, at least at home.

"That term 'beating up on each other' really has meaning this year, I think," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "This is just the beginning. I don't know what the next two-thirds of the season or so will bring in the Big Ten, but if this is any indication, hold on to your hats."

The Big Ten is ranked No. 1 in this week's RPI conference ratings. Nine Big Ten schools are in the RPI's top-50 team rankings.

Five are also ranked in the latest Associated Press poll - No. 6 Ohio State, No. 9 Michigan State, No. 11 Indiana, No. 20 Michigan and No. 22 Illinois.

CollegeRPI.com's latest NCAA Tournament projections list nine -- the five ranked teams plus Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota -- in the 68-team field as of now.

Izzo said he will be "shocked" if the regular-season champ doesn't lose at least four games.

"It could be more," he added. "I said at the beginning of the year, I think four or five."

Despite losing two of its first five conference games, Ohio State, at times, still looks like a potential powerhouse.

It's quite possible that all this early craziness ultimately is going to lead us on a long road to what we thought from the start.

That the Buckeyes are clearly the best team in the Big Ten.

In the meantime, there are a lot of others making things very interesting these days.