Every year the debate rages on about which conference is producing the best basketball in the country. Well, every year but the last few as the Big Ten has taken that mantel and run with it. It has had great experience, some of the best young players and a depth that was unquestionable.
However, as we enter mid-December the mantel of best basketball conference appears to be slipping away from the Big Ten.
Some may think that strange considering the conference won the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the 4th time in the last six years (the other two were ties). That surly indicates the conference is strong, right?
Except that 8-6 win comes with a few caveats and also ignores what has happened around the challenge.
In the challenge last week, the Big Ten lost all four matchups between ranked opponents. No. 2 Wisconsin lost at home to No. 4 Duke (80-70), No. 21 Maryland lost at home to No. 7 Virginia, No. 14 Ohio State lost on the road to No. 5 Louisville and No. 24 Illinois lost to No. 15 Miami on the road.
Sure, the Big Ten got wins from No. 17 Michigan (over Syracuse) and No. 19 Michigan State (over Notre Dame) but those were wins over two teams that are far removed from being national powers.
Iowa getting a win over North Carolina only furthered the suspicion that this Tar Heels team isn’t very good and I guess the good news is Big Ten bottom feeder Rutgers was able to beat Clemson on the road.
That said, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about in the matchups. Besides, it was just one game amongst many for the Big Ten.
A look at the opening to the season for the conference suggests a league that has won a ton against decent teams, but owns few major wins. There isn’t a single Big Ten team with an undefeated record and only four teams have just one loss on the season (Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin).
Perhaps the biggest indicator of just how far the Big Ten has fallen has come from the Michigan Wolverines. They’ve already lost three games in the non-conference season, starting off with a loss to No. 12 Villanova. Normally, that’s nothing to get too worried about, but what has happened in the last two games should be plenty worrisome.
Last Saturday the Wolverines were looking to build off a nice 68-65 win over Syracuse, and it appeared time for momentum to swing their way. Except no one told NJIT, who went in and produced the most shocking upset of the non-conference season in college basketball. The Highlanders beat Michigan 72-70, and the embarrassment wasn’t over yet.
On Tuesday night, Michigan took on Eastern Michigan and laid its second-straight egg in the form of a 45-42 loss. That means the once promising Wolverines have now dropped three of their last five games and aren’t helping the case for the Big Ten to claim the “best conference in America” title.
In fact, outside of Iowa’s win against an overrated North Carolina squad, there really isn’t a lot for the conference to hang its hat on as we speak.
Wisconsin won the Battle 4 Atlantis title, a tournament featuring ranked teams UNC, Florida and UCLA. Only the Badgers never faced any of the other ranked teams coming in and won the tournament over a nice, but not great Oklahoma team.
Maryland owns a good win over then No. 13 Iowa State, but overall the conference has struck out more than its won against the tougher non-conference opponents on the schedule. As a whole, the conference owns just two wins in 10 tries against Top 25 teams (outside the ACC/Big Ten Challenge) — and even some of those wins are over teams I suspect we aren’t going to see ranked come the end of the season.
Perhaps the most impressive stretch of wins belongs to Purdue of all teams, as they’ve got back-to-back-to-back wins over Missouri, BYU and N.C. State on their resume. That’s three quality basketball programs, but not exactly the elite of the elite this season.
That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the Big Ten is the best basketball conference in the country anymore.
For now, the Big Ten has a lot of work to do if it wants to be that league come March.