We're a handful of games into the season, and everyone in the Big Ten has played a quality team or two. Last night, everyone was idle, so it's as good a time as any to take a look at the state of the Big Ten right now. Now, it's too early to say that we know anything right now - but we can say that we think we know the following:
1) The top of the Big Ten is worse than it was last year
The top of the Big Ten last year, of course, being Wisconsin. I know it's tempting to look at the Badgers' shameful early exit against lowly Davidson, but don't get too caught up with one game. The Badgers had Final Four ability, but had a really bad game against a really good team. After all, this was the same team that went on the road and beat Texas, without Trevon Hughes.
This year, the top of the Big Ten figures to be MSU and Purdue, and I'm not sure we've seen anything that changes that projection. Both the Spartans and the Boilermakers have 2 losses, and at least one of those for each team has been a blowout loss. Now, this doesn't rule them out as real contenders this season (after all, Wisconsin lost by 24 at Duke last season), but it certainly isn't a ringing endorsement either. Purdue's losses aren't that different from Wisconsin's 2 non-conference losses last season (Marquette at home in addition to Duke), as both have come against quality opponents. We'll find out more as this season wears on (December 20th, against Davidson. Mark your calendars).
2) The bottom of the Big Ten is about the same as last year
Indiana's finally emerging from the aftermath of Kelvin Sampson, but every game this year will serve as a constant reminder. To his credit, Tom Crean is putting on a happy face through it all. He commends his players for working hard, and the fans for supporting their team. If he can keep that upbeat demeanor throughout the season, he's a stronger man than I. From where I sit, most probably overrated the Hoosiers coming into this season. And it wasn't just Hoosier fans, it was Illinois fans as well. I keep thinking back to St. John's between 2002-03 to 03-04. In 02-03, the Red Storm went 21-13, winning the NIT. Marcus Hatten led the team in scoring with over 20 points per game. The next season, the Red Storm went 6-21, including 1-15 in the Big East. The issue here for the dropoff wasn't necessarily talent - St. John's brought back 50% of the minutes from the previous season - but it was distraction. Mike Jarvis was fired in the midst of a season that saw allegations of drug use, sexual assault, and improper payments to a player.
At IU, the housecleaning Dakich performed ensured that there was little distraction. But there's still the issue of talent. IU lost 96% of the minutes from last season, and while the new guys that have been brought in can play, no one is going to confuse any of them with Michael Beasley. And really, no one short of Michael Beasley can carry a team to a winning record by himself. Take DePaul for example. Last year, they had two of the most gifted freshmen in the country playing for them, along with several key upperclassmen. But they finished 11-19. High major basketball is tough. It's not enough to put on a jersey with a lot of tradition behind it, and figure they'll get to .500 somehow.
Indiana is bad this season. No question about that. But Crean is doing all the right things to set them up for 2009 and beyond. There was little chance this team was going places even if they returned the likes of Armon Bassett, DeAndre Thomas, and JaMarcus Ellis. So Crean has a roster full of freshmen who will each have over 500 minutes of game experience after this season. That will serve dividends down the road.
3) The middle of the Big Ten is up
With the exception of Wisconsin, who still looks like a tournament team, it's hard not to conclude that every team we picked to finish 3rd through 10th looks better this season. Even Iowa, who lost a lot, defeated Kansas State and nearly took down Boston College on the road. There are very good wins everywhere in this group, and not a lot of bad losses. With that said, it's not clear whether this means the Big Ten will get more NCAA teams, or whether they'll just get higher NIT seeds. A lot of that depends on how the conference finishes out its non-conference schedule.
And with so much improvement in the middle, and less dominance at the top, one thing seems clear at this point: there will be no such thing as a sure win this season (except against Indiana). Expect lots of close games. Home court win steaks will fall. Buzzer beaters will be at an all-time high. It should be fun.
4) Freshmen are no longer the cool kids at OSU
William Buford and B. J. Mullens were top 15 recruits. Like all top 15 recruits, we expected big things from these two. It seemed likely that they would be amongst OSU's top 3 or 4 scorers, that Mullens would be the leading rebounder and shot blocker, and if anyone else was better than these two, that OSU would be pretty good this season.
Well, that doesn't look so smart now. Neither Buford nor Mullens are among OSU's top 5 scorers. Evan Turner actually leads the Buckeyes in rebounds and blocks (and points and assists - when was the last time that happened anywhere?). Now, this could be either good news (OSU's upperclassmen are great!), or terrible news (OSU's freshmen are really overrated). In part because the Buckeyes have only played 4 games thus far, I say it's too early. There are things here that will change (like Jeremie Simmons' 10:1 assist to turnover ratio, or the fact that Dallas Lauderdale is blocking 25% of opponents' 2 point FG attempts). But so far, so good. We will learn a lot more this Saturday when the Buckeyes visit Notre Dame.
5) This conference is still slow
Poss. per 40 minute game
I don't have much faith that this will pick up, either. In fact, if any team ends the year above 68 possessions a game, it would be more than a modest surprise.
Lots of good hoops action this weekend:
Bryant @ Iowa
Georgia @ Illinois (United Center)
Gonzaga @ Indiana (in Indianapolis, Hall of Fame Showcase)
Cornell @ Minnesota
DePaul @ Northwestern
Duke @ Michigan
OSU @ Notre Dame (in Indianapolis, Hall of Fame Showcase)
Temple @ Penn State
Arkansas-Pine Bluff @ Purdue
Wisconsin @ Marquette
Bradley @ MSU