Better days ahead for Big Ten
The idea was that the Big Ten was going to be back. A conference that had been panned for most of the past two seasons was expected to vault back into the elite of the elite.
Maybe the Big Ten wasn't going to be quite as good as the Big 12. But with teams like Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin at the top, and good depth through Bloomington, Iowa City, Ann Arbor and Columbus, there were certainly signs that the conference was on the upswing.
But as the first month of the college basketball season comes to a close, the Big Ten has been largely disappointing. While Purdue -- the league's lone remaining undefeated team until Tuesday's loss at Oklahoma -- was impressive in winning the Great Alaska Shootout and Iowa had a nice victory over Louisville, the losses have outweighed the victories.
The Big Ten was routed 7-2 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Michigan State, the preseason league favorite, has played an outrageously difficult schedule, but enters Saturday's game against Kentucky with a 3-3 record. Illinois has dropped consecutive games and some of the players said they quit in the second half of Tuesday's loss to Providence. Ohio State was a popular preseason pick to join the title chase, but the Buckeyes are still trying to blend a group of new faces.
The most disconcerting thing, however, is that the league enters Saturday's games with a 9-18 record against major conference competition.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo doesn't regret the schedule he's put his team through. The Spartans have already lost to Kansas, Duke and Oklahoma and they still have upcoming games with Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse. If there's anything Izzo would change, it would be the order in which he scheduled the games.
Izzo has been surprised with the reaction in East Lansing of the three consecutive losses and how that has impacted his team and its confidence. After the blowout loss to Duke, Izzo liked how his team responded despite losing to Oklahoma.
"We had one bad stretch," Izzo said. "We rebounded (from the loss) pretty good."
Now, with a week of practice leading into Saturday's BasketBowl game against Kentucky -- a game at Detroit's Ford Field that will attract close to 75,000 spectators -- Izzo hopes he'll see improvement. The Michigan State coaches have worked on ball-handling and relieving pressure. He hopes better ball-handling will allow the Spartans to get into their offense better.
"We've had a week to lick our wounds and get back on track," Izzo said. "We have to take care of the basketball better or we can't get into anything."
Izzo certainly isn't the only Big Ten coach trying to get more out of his team.
Ohio State's Jim O'Brien is honest when asked about how his team -- one that features four new faces playing significant roles -- is coming together.
"Slowly," O'Brien said. "We have too many guys who did not play last year. We're all over the place.
"We're not guarding like we need to, we're turning the ball over and we're not shooting well from the free throw line. That's a formula for disaster."
The Buckeyes, who opened the season with losses to San Francisco and San Diego State, have been inconsistent all season. They led Villanova by 15 points at halftime, but won by one. They were up 16 on Virginia Tech over the weekend, but needed to hold on at the end.
For the Buckeyes to be as good as many think they can, O'Brien said two things have to happen. First, Ohio State has to get inside players Velimir Radinovic and Terence Dials more involved. Second, transfers Tony Stockman (Clemson) and J.J. Sullinger (Arkansas) have to become more disciplined.
"Their games, they way they play, is not 100 percent of the way I think they need to play for us." O'Brien said.
"From my perspective they have bad habits. I'm trying to get them more disciplined rather than run up and down the floor, devil may care."
Prior to the victory over the Hokies, the Buckeyes received little production from their inside duo. Some of that has had to do with foul trouble, but it's also been a result of the two not getting enough touches. In Ohio State's first five games, Radinovic, who averaged nearly 10 points per game last season, only had 10 field goal attempts.
As the 16th-ranked Boilermakers left Norman, Okla., on the heels of a 47-45 loss to the No. 11 Sooners, this early season doesn't seem that different than recent non-conference seasons for the Big 12 -- a conference that has produced four Final Four teams in the past two seasons.
"It's business as usual for the Big 12," Nebraska coach Barry Collier said.
What does that mean? It means the top of the league is among the nation's best and the middle is as competitive as ever. While everybody knows about Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, the next tier of Big 12 teams has been solid.
|Games to Watch|
Kansas vs. Stanford, Saturday
A candidate to become the nation's new No. 1, Kansas has an interesting game against the Cardinal. While Kansas has more talent, Stanford is more experienced and fundamentally sound.
Purdue at Oklahoma, Thursday (ESPN2)
The Sooners nearly let Michigan State off the hook in overtime last week, and now welcome Big Ten surprise Purdue to Norman, where OU hasn't lost a non-conferecne game since 1999 (28 straight wins). Purdue (6-0) is off to its best start since opening the 1993-94 season with 14 straight victories.
Memphis at Illinois, Saturday
Did the Illini quit in Madison Square Garden? The Illini figure to see plenty of zone defenses after looking confused for much of the loss to Providence. John Calipari's club will be looking for a marquee win after playing much of the season under the radar.
Texas Tech reached the Final Four of the Preseason NIT and won at New Mexico. The only blemish on the Oklahoma State record is a five-point loss against BYU in Salt Lake City. Colorado has home victories over California and Oregon State. Kansas State, which beat a dangerous Wichita State squad Wednesday, appears to be much improved with an infusion of talent. The Wildcats have also defeated a solid Wyoming team, with their only loss coming in triple overtime at Oregon State.
And, while Nebraska lost at Creighton on Wednesday night, the Cornhuskers have victories over Arizona State and South Florida.
Even an Iowa State team picked to finish near the bottom of the league started fast and won four consecutive games to open the season.
Will any of this mean anything once Big 12 play begins? That's difficult to tell, but it does indicate that road games will be even more difficult to win this season in the conference.
At the top of the conference -- where four teams began this week ranked in the nation's top 11 -- several coaches questioned just how good they really are. Two of the more outspoken were Kansas coach Bill Self and Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson.
Self warned that his team certainly wasn't the best in the country, something that was quickly proven when the Jayhawks lost to Stanford. Sampson said that while the polls are interesting for the fans, it's far too early in the season to really know who is any good.
"We don't know who's good or not," Sampson said. "There are teams that aren't ranked who should be ranked. There are teams that are ranked who won't be. All I know is that there are a lot of teams better than us."
Self said the loss to the Cardinal might help.
"I hate to say this, but I think this team needed this," Self told the Lawrence Journal-World. "Although you hate to lose and, trust me, nobody hates it worse than the head coach, this team needed a wake-up call. We have not practiced well. We have not been consistent with our effort."
Tucker was clearly missed a week ago when the Badgers lost in overtime at Maryland. On Wednesday, Tucker saw his first game action, scoring five points in 12 minutes of action in Wisconsin's victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay.
The Bluejays are quietly continuing their winning ways even though Missouri Valley player of the year Kyle Korver is toiling for the Philadelphia 76ers. Dana Altman's team is being led by forward Brody Deren and guard Nate Funk. The Jays are continuing to play very good defense as its first five opponents averaged only 51.6 points per game.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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