If the first three weeks of the season are any indication, Big Ten basketball should be a heck of a ride right through to the end of March.
Fresh off splitting the ACC/Big Ten Challenge by winning seven games, the Big Ten is set to begin conference play on Friday and is riding a wave of momentum after some big-time victories over the last few days, highlighted by Michigan dismantling North Carolina on Wednesday night.
“It’s been awesome,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “The conference has been awesome.”
It’s hard to argue with that assessment, considering how well the Big Ten has fared to this point. Michigan has been the most impressive, even after losing three key pieces from a team last season that reached the national championship game. The Wolverines trounced then-No. 8 Villanova on the road before rolling over No. 11 North Carolina on their way to a perfect 7-0 start.
But that’s just the beginning.
Michigan State opened the season by coming up just short against then-No. 1 Kansas, but bounced back to win the Las Vegas Invitational with victories over UCLA and Texas while unbeaten Iowa took down Oregon and Connecticut to win the 2K Classic. A talented Nebraska team went on the road to beat Clemson this week, Wisconsin is finally healthy and played Virginia tough while Minnesota won its first five games.
Add in a young but talented Indiana team and the fact Purdue has guard Carsen Edwards, arguably the top player in the Big Ten, and the list of strong starts is long.
“The league is going to be a monster if anybody has been watching it,” Michigan coach John Beilein said earlier in the week on his radio show. “It's going to be a monster.”
For the second straight season, the Big Ten is playing two games for each team around the start of December. The first set of games features some good ones as No. 14 Iowa hosts No. 22 Wisconsin on Friday night while No. 19 Purdue travels to No. 7 Michigan on Saturday.
Monday features No. 14 Iowa at No. 9 Michigan State while No. 24 Maryland heads to No. 19 Purdue on Thursday. Penn State at Maryland on Saturday will be interesting, as will Indiana’s trip to Penn State on Tuesday and Minnesota hosting Nebraska on Wednesday.
And that’s just a taste of what should pick back up in January as there will likely be very few easy nights in the Big Ten.
“I would think the balances will play out especially within the Big Ten just due to the fact that it looks to me like the Big Ten may be the deepest league, if not one of them, throughout the course of the regular season,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “But I think our league is really on the up and up right now in terms of our depth, the teams that are doing well. I think everything should balance after December. January and February is going to be a real grind.”
There seems little doubt of that as the Big Ten goes to 20 conference games this season. Whichever team comes out on top at the end of that will certainly be one of the best teams in the nation, though it already appears the conference might have one or two of those teams already.
Michigan State and Michigan were the popular picks to win the Big Ten before the season began and that hasn’t changed, with the Wolverines likely getting the edge to this point.
What’s also clear, though, is the drop-off after the Wolverines and Spartans is minor, at best. Nearly every team outside of Illinois has started out well, and even the Fighting Illini pushed No. 1 Gonzaga to the limit at the Maui Invitational.
It means the Big Ten almost certainly will improve on last season’s four NCAA Tournament bids, and the overall strength of the conference should mean playing 20 games will help get more bids.
“I just hope it helps us in the end,” Izzo said. “They always talk about strength of schedule helps you, but there could be a lot more losses, and then all of a sudden everyone is questioning that.
“The conference is really good and I said the middle I think is great. The bottom is decent and the top is decent, but the middle is great, I think. So, I think it is better conference than we’ve had. … It’s been exciting to see what the conference has done out of conference.”
The rankings, as bizarre as they can be early in the season, seem to back up the feeling that the Big Ten is rolling. Put aside Ohio State being No. 1 in the NET rankings this week and look at some other metrics. At KenPom.com, 12 of the 14 teams are ranked in the top 50 with Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin all in the top 15.
Those rankings will get sorted out and there will likely be plenty of swings throughout the season. And though the depth of the conference might lead to a few more losses than usual, it should only speak to the conference’s talent from top to bottom.
“It is going to be a difficult schedule,” Beilein said. “I think this year somebody might win it — like a 12-8 (record) or something could win the league. It's going to be that competitive.”
And it all starts on Friday.