Watching the amazing feat of both the #1 and #2 ranked college basketball teams go down on Saturday really got me to thinking about where the Big Ten stands in the sport as we enter the final few weeks of non-conference play.
Despite the loss by Ohio State this weekend it's my contention that there isn't a better basketball conference in the country from top to bottom. Sure we have some weaker teams like Penn State and Iowa, but they were expected to be weak this season. What's really stood out is the play of teams like Minnesota, Northwestern, and especially Indiana. All teams that were supposed to be back of the pack this year and haven't exactly been powerhouses as of the last few years.
Right now the Big Ten has six teams ranked in the Top 25, tied for the most in the country. Ohio State sits at #2, Wisconsin is #14/15, then a run of B1G teams with #18/20 Indiana, #19 Illinois, #20/18 Michigan and #21/23 Michigan State. Additionally, 9 of the 12 teams in the B1G have 2 losses or fewer and if those teams stay competitive through the conference season we could be looking at nine, yep I said NINE teams with a legit shot at the NCAA tournament. Name another conference that that could happen in?
Some people may look at the Big East and their six teams in the Top 25 as just that challenger. The Big East is highlighted by #1 Syracuse and features three undefeated teams in Syracuse, Louisville, and Marquette. However, I'd argue that this league is about as top heavy as they've ever been and the bottom of the conference isn't good at all.
Currently 5 teams have 4 losses or more on the season already including South Florida who has a loss to Penn State on it's record. If you're a top tier conference you shouldn't have that many teams with those records this early in the season. Sorry, you're not playing that many other difficult schools. The bottom two teams are Rutgers and St. John's, both with losing records (4-5). Rutgers' big win? Dartmouth. Not exactly a blow you away win. The Scarlet Knights haven't really inspired much confidence for their fans as they've lost to two teams they had no business losing to in Illinois State and Princeton. St. John's is a bit of a different story because of their head coach going through cancer as well as being left shorthanded by incoming freshman that weren't academically eligible. Nonetheless they are below .500 and have losses to mid-major programs in Detroit and Northeastern. Sure Detroit is up there in terms of mid-major programs this season, but again, you're a Big East school and if you want to claim to be the best conference in the country a loss like that shouldn't be on your record.
O.k., so the Big East could be a bit top heavy at the moment, what about the Big Ten?
The worst of the Big Ten are Penn State and Iowa, but both are at .500 (Iowa) or a game above .500 (Penn State). I fully expect both to be far below .500 when the season ends as Iowa can't beat a turly competitive team and Penn State is just way too young to pull off games against the top tier teams in the Big Ten. All 5 of Iowa's losses are to very good programs in Creighton, Campbell, Clemson, Northern Iowa, and Iowa State. Not exactly terrible teams to be losing to. As for Penn State, well they own wins against South Florida and Boston College, so at least they can say they've taken down a team from a fellow top rated conference or two, including one from the Big East.
Additionally, our pick for 11th in the conference, Nebraska, is sitting with a nice 6-3 record with all three of their losses coming against fellow BCS conference schools or top 25 rated schools in Oregon, Wake Forest, and Creighton. Realistically only the loss to Wake Forest is bad, there's no shame in losing to the best mid-major program in the country in Creighton or to a vastly improving Oregon squad.
Of course you can't forget about the vastly improved Hoosiers who just knocked off perviously #1 ranked Kentucky this past weekend. We had them placing 9th in conference to start the season. If our 9th best team is able to beat the #1 team in the country I'd say that goes a long way to proving your depth as a conference. Not that I think they'll end up 9th now, but that just means someone like Michigan, Purdue, or Northwestern (all picked ahead of them) will slide down and they are all very good teams as well.
In the end it's clear that the Big Ten is easily the deepest it's been in my 30 years on this earth and it very well could be the best conference in college basketball at the moment. Agree? Disagree? Let's hear your arguements and let the debate begin!