I’ve been very clear on my Big Ten basketball skepticism in the past. And I wasn’t sure how this season was going to shake out.
But after a few early results, I’m ready to get hyped for Big Ten hoops, now that conference play begins tonight.
The Big Ten went a solid 6-2 against the Big East in the annual Gavitt Games, which were contested the week before Thanksgiving. At the Feast Week tournaments, the conference held its own. And despite IU’s 90-69 loss at Duke, the B1G tied the ACC 7-7 in the annual challenge between the two conferences.
Going down the list of schools, there are things to like about pretty much every team so far.
Michigan clearly looks like the team to beat in the conference right now. Despite the loss of many top players to its NCAA runner-up season last year, the Wolverines are looking like a top-5 team nationally, on the strength of their top-ranked defense. Michigan went into Villanova and crushed the defending champs, and stifled UNC, on the back of 24 points from freshman Ignas Brazdeikis. They play Purdue tomorrow in what should be an entertaining contest in Ann Arbor.
Speaking of the Boilers, they don’t seem to have lost much ground despite the loss of most of their starting five from last year either. Carsen Edwards has been as good as advertised, and transfer Evan Boudreaux has fit right in. They’ve lost a couple close games to Virginia Tech and Florida State, but they’re also still getting all the pieces together. I think they’ll be dangerous especially once the new year rolls around.
Wisconsin’s officially back to being Wisconsin, it seems like. The Badgers can’t quite beat UVA at its own game, as was evident in their 53-46 loss to the Cavs in Atlantis, but they’ve banked some nice wins over Xavier and N.C. State. Ethan Happ has been his efficient self, and Brad Davison is a Peak Wisconsin player, down to the buzzcut. He’s going to be a hassle and take all the charges, and it’s going to be obnoxious, but we’ll probably just have to deal with it.
The Badgers play Iowa tonight, and the Hawkeyes are undefeated so far this year. Fran McCaffery needed a season like this one to regain fan confidence after a subpar 2017-18, and so far he’s delivering, thanks to a couple big wins in NYC over Oregon and UConn, and strong play from Tyler Cook. That being said, the team is mired in the weirdest controversy of the early season, as radio announcer Gary Dolphin has been suspended for criticizing the team on a hot mic during the win over Pitt.
Other teams look the part of contenders as well. IU suffered a bad loss to Duke and a close loss to Arkansas, and struggled against a couple mid-majors in Assembly Hall but hopefully once the team is back to full strength, they’ll be as good as they were in the Marquette victory. Michigan State lost in overtime at Louisville, but they also had a nice couple wins over Texas and UCLA out in Vegas. Maryland actually played good offense in a close loss to UVA, and have crushed their other foes so far. Ohio State has road wins over Cincinnati and Clemson. And Nebraska bounced back from an ugly loss to Texas Tech to beat Clemson on the road.
Already, those are nine teams in decent position to make the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the conference had four. There are seven B1G teams in the AP Top 25 right now. At the end of last year? Only four. Right now 11 Big Ten teams are in the Kenpom top-50 for efficiency (with Minnesota sitting right outside of it at #53). Last year that number was six!
Even the rest of the conference is acquitting itself nicely! Penn State did what Purdue couldn’t and beat Virginia Tech, despite a couple tough losses earlier in the season. Northwestern, IU’s opponent tomorrow, is 6-1 and still somehow Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are still playing there. Minnesota won a feast week tourney in British Columbia, of all places. Illinois has struggled under a brutal schedule but gave Gonzaga a game in Maui. And even Rutger had a big win over Miami earlier this week and held Eastern Michigan to 4 points at halftime of one game.
So rejoice, skeptics. As conference play starts tonight, Big Ten looks to be fun and entertaining again this year. Which is good, because we’re getting 20 conference games now instead of the 18 from previous years.