Niyo: Parity turns Big Ten into a wild rollercoaster ride

John Niyo
The Detroit News

If it sounds like politicking, it usually is, especially in the middle of a campaign. That’s as true for college basketball coaches as it is for presidential candidates in an election year.

But even if truth-in-advertising laws don’t apply in either case, there is something to be said for what we’re hearing in the Big Ten this winter. Because it matches what we’re seeing.

In a word, it’s parity, the likes of which Michigan State’s Tom Izzo — the dean of Big Ten coaches — insists he hasn’t seen before. Not in a quarter-century as the Spartans’ head coach, or even the dozen years before that as an assistant under Jud Heathcote.

Tom Izzo says he's never seen this level of parity in the Big Ten before.

“I don’t know what team is a Final Four team this year,” Izzo said Monday, after another up-is-down weekend in college basketball. “I sure as hell wouldn’t bet anything on who would be there this year. There’s 25-30 teams I think could be there. I don’t think in my career I’ve ever thought that.

“And if you ask me who would win the Big Ten right now, I’d say we have as good a chance as anybody. But I’d say there’s 7-8 teams that could win the Big Ten right now.”

Maybe that’s a stretch, but after the top three teams in the Big Ten standings lost over the weekend, the regular-season title chase is undeniably muddled with a month to go. Michigan State and Illinois are tied at the top at 8-3, but seven teams are within two games. Weeks ago, Izzo predicted the champ would go 15-5 in league play, and said Monday, “I don’t feel a lot different right now, except maybe that it could be 14-6.”

“This league, I don’t know what it takes to win it,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood told reporters Sunday after his team lost a 72-65 slugfest at Iowa. “But look at the games (Saturday) — was there an upset? I don’t know. This league is the best league in the country.

“And if it doesn’t get 12 teams in, I’ll be shocked.”

‘This deep and this good’

Of course, no conference has ever had that many in the field of 64 — or 68, for that matter — so I’ll be surprised if it’s more than 10 in the end.

The first year the NCAA added those four play-in games was 2011, and that’s the year the Big East landed a record 11 teams (from a 16-team league) in the bracket, including five as a No. 4 seed or higher. But no conference has gotten more than nine since, and last year the Big Ten led the way with eight.

Still, it’s also hard to ignore the fact that nine of the top 32 teams in the NET ratings — a metric that weighs heavily in the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s decisions in March — are Big Ten teams. Scroll down a bit and you’ll find it runs even deeper than that, with 11 of top 44. (Indiana is ranked 52nd after dropping its last three games.)

Juwan Howard's team is near the bottom of the Big Ten standings -- and still in the NCAA Tournament picture.

It’s even harder to imagine Big Ten coaches are going to let anyone forget over the next month. Their collective voice might not hold much sway in what the committee ultimately decides, but that won’t stop them from making their case, anyway.

“I was saying this before the season, and everybody thinks, ‘Well, coaches are just saying that kind of stuff to pump up the conference,’ but I truly meant it,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey said. “Every team has really good players. Every team has a great home atmosphere.”

And every team understands the road doesn’t get any easier. Take Michigan and Ohio State, for example. They meet tonight in a game in Ann Arbor that could conceivably make or break either team’s season, which is something few would’ve predicted a month or two ago.

The Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the country at Christmas, and now “they’re down there with us,” as Michigan coach Juwan Howard noted Monday, with both teams sitting at 4-6 in league play, ahead of only Nebraska and Northwestern.

“But when you’re in the best league in the country, I think that’s gonna happen to you,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “I don’t think you make too much of it. … I’m not saying results don’t matter, because certainly they do. It’s just that when you’re in a league this deep and this good, it’s going to happen.

“No one’s taking away Michigan’s early season wins over Gonzaga and Creighton and North Carolina. … You play a whole season. It’s not just a snippet of two weeks or three weeks or four weeks.”

That’s the hope, at least. And a sentiment that’s shared from top to bottom in the league, amid fears all the in-fighting this winter will sow seeds of discontent in the spring.

‘One moment can cost you’

Michigan State is coming off a loss at Wisconsin — the Spartans are 3-3 in their last six — and will host a Penn State squad tonight at the Breslin Center that Izzo says “might be the hottest team in the league right now,” having won four in a row, including a pair of road games.

Granted, one of those two road wins came at Nebraska — the other in Ann Arbor — but that’s no small feat in the Big Ten, where home teams boast a .760 winning percentage (57-18) in league play thus far. (Michigan State is 6-0 at home thus far, winning by an average margin of nearly 17.7 points per game.)

“Man, we play in front of packed houses every single night — sellout crowds, hostile environments — in the most competitive league in the country,” Underwood said. “If you don’t bring it, one casual moment can cost you a game.”

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More: Ohio State, Michigan fight to maintain momentum after rough stretches

This isn’t strictly a Big Ten issue, mind you. The three top teams in the Big East — Butler, Villanova and Seton Hall — all lost at home Saturday to unranked teams.

Almost everywhere you look, it’s a parity party. The top eight teams in the Pac-12 standings all have three or four losses in league play. The one team to beat Baylor all season (Washington) sits in last place in the Pac-12, while the one team to beat Gonzaga this season (Michigan) is tied for 11th in the Big Ten.

Just what that’ll all mean come March is anybody’s guess. We’ll get our first real peek behind the curtain Saturday when the selection committee reveals its top 16 teams at this point in the season. Maybe that includes Maryland and Michigan State and perhaps Iowa. Maybe it’s just one or two from that group.

But there’s still a month of mayhem left before the real Madness begins, and the best advice might be the parting shot Underwood delivered after his team’s loss Sunday in Iowa, just before the caucusing began.

“If I’m the league office, I’m gonna start figuring out tiebreakers, from eight teams to two,” he said. “Who knows?”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo