No denying Big Ten's down

Originally Published: January 7, 2004
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

Duped. We were duped.

We actually believed that, after two seasons of mediocrity, the Big Ten was going to be better. We thought that the conference had a chance to be among the nation's elite.

After all, Michigan State entered this season fresh off of a run to the Elite Eight. Ohio State had four talented new players that were going to make the Buckeyes contenders. The league was supposed to have great teams at the top and many good, top 25-type teams throughout.

And this wasn't one of those crazy media creations. The Big Ten coaches were in on it as well. When the league held it's media day in October, conference coaches were very open with their optimism.

"This is the best I've seen since I've been here," Purdue coach Gene Keady said in October.

Said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo: "This is as good as I've seen the league top-to-bottom. There are five or more teams that can win it. I really believe that. There are some incredible teams."

All of that seems rather silly now, doesn't it?

Mike Wilkinson
Even Mike Wilkinson and the Badgers have taken their lumps on the road, but remain the team to beat the Big Ten.

Because as league play begins this week, the Big Ten looks average at best. The ACC routed the Big Ten 7-2 in their annual challenge. In addition, the Southeastern, Big East and Big 12 conferences all appear to be better than the Big Ten both in terms of quality of teams at the top and depth throughout the conference.

Remember when the Big Ten had two Final Four teams in both 1999 and 2000? It seems so long ago, doesn't it?

In the latest Associated Press poll, the ACC's four ranked teams are all in the top 12; No. 1 Connecticut leads four Big East teams; the SEC has four ranked teams and the Big 12 has three teams ranked higher than any of the three Big Ten teams. And just think where the Big Ten would be if the Pac-10 was more than just a "two-team" league.

The Big Ten has dropped to fifth in collegerpi.com's rating of leagues. The Sagarin ratings place the Big Ten sixth, while the Mountain West is fifth.

As a league, the Big Ten is 81-43 (.653) in non-conference games. Last season, it won 68 percent of its games outside the confines of the Big Ten. However, in 1998-99 and 2000-01, 11 conference teams combined to win more than 100 non-conference games.

Entering conference play, more than half of the league's teams have at least four losses, something that hasn't happened often.

Measuring the Big Ten against its peers paints an even nastier picture. The league is a combined 2-7 against the ACC, 2-10 against the Big 12, and 1-5 against the SEC. That's much of the reason why the conference is 13-30 against teams from the other five major conferences. If that didn't make the shortcomings clear enough, Big Ten teams are 4-14 against ranked opponents.

"I've never rooted for (Big Ten) teams as hard as I have this year in the preseason because this was a year we were going to make a statement across the country," Minnesota coach Dan Monson said. "The Gophers, along with a lot of teams, did not live up to that. We did not represent the Big Ten as well as we wanted."

Michigan State -- which began play as one of the nation's top five teams -- has been the biggest disappointment. Before the season, many people questioned coach Tom Izzo's decision to play a schedule that included games against Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse. After going 0-6 in those games and entering Big Ten play with a losing record, Izzo acknowledges he overscheduled.

"It's been disappointing and we've led in the disappointment," Izzo said. "The conference schools should be mad at us."

When asked about the Big Ten's less-than-stellar start, Keady had the most interesting reaction. He said the league's academic standards are an issue.

"You might be able to get some great players in other leagues that you can't get in the Big Ten," Keady said. "That's the way it is. If you don't like that, you shouldn't have come in this league. We like it because we think academics is first.

"I just want people to understand it's not necessarily a level playing field."

Funny, coaches don't ever bring up academics when the league is winning games.

What does all of this mean? Will the Big Ten's poor out-of-conference play matter come March? That's hard to tell at this point.

The Big Ten has received at least five bids to the NCAA Tournament every year since it expanded to 64 teams and it has received seven invitations twice since 1990. Will this be the season in which the Big Ten receives four? While it's a possibility, the league coaches are either optimistic or they don't remember the consecutive seasons in which the ACC received only three berths.

"I would be shocked (if the Big Ten doesn't get five teams) again this year," said Iowa coach Steve Alford.

"I think some of the mid-majors to low-majors that have been on some of our schedules have been a little bit better than maybe anybody anticipated when we went to schedule them. Obviously the Big Ten has gotten off to a slow start, but I don't think it's going to affect our league."

Timing hasn't exactly helped out the league either. Both of the conference's top victories -- Purdue's win over Duke in the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout and Iowa's victory over Louisville -- both came in November. Since the beginning of December, the league has had little to cheer about other than Wisconsin's win over Marquette and Illinois defeating Missouri.

The Badgers, Illini and Boilermakers have certainly emerged as Big Ten's leading contenders as conference play begins. The Illini looked to be just another mediocre Big Ten team when they lost by 19 to Providence. But Bruce Weber's team has won five in a row since then, including games vs. Memphis and Missouri.

The Badgers (a.k.a.: two-time defending league champs) showed in Tuesday's 79-45 victory over Indiana that they have a chance to three-peat. Bo Ryan's team is extremely well-coached and Devin Harris is one of the nation's best guards. If forward Alando Tucker (day-to-day because of a foot injury) gets healthy, Wisconsin will be even better.

The Boilermakers looked for real (and still might be) while opening the season with eight victories in nine games. But then Keady's team lost at home to Southern Methodist and suffered a fluke loss at Colorado State.

After these three, however, every team has holes on their roster or bad losses on their résumé.

  • Michigan has decent victories over UCLA and N.C. State but lost to Boston University -- at home.
  • Iowa beat Louisville (a victory that is getting better and better) but lost to Northern Iowa.
  • Ohio State has talent but a loss at San Francisco and was routed at Seton Hall.

    The list goes on from there.

    "I don't know if it's misery loves company or what, but I think you can throw five or six teams into that same pot," Monson said. "As I told our players, a couple of those teams are going to come out and get better and jell and get themselves righted and end up in the NCAA Tournament.

    "And three or four of them are going to be disappointed in their season. We just have to work real hard to get ourselves to be one of those teams in this pool of teams that are still trying to play to the abilities that they think they're capable of."

    That's pretty familiar thinking in the Big Ten these days.

    Games to Watch
    Oklahoma at Connecticut, Sunday
    The Sooners already have victories over Michigan State and Purdue, but this will be Oklahoma's biggest test. It's also a measuring stick for a Huskies team that has defeated almost no one.
    Purdue at Illinois, Saturday
    Not only does this game feature two of the Big Ten's best teams, it also features Boilermakers coach Gene Keady facing former long-time assistant coach Bruce Weber. It's a game that neither coach is looking forward to.
    Creighton at Illinois State, Wednesday
    Creighton remains undefeated while the Redbirds took Illinois to overtime over the weekend before falling.
    Oklahoma State at Texas Tech, Saturday
    This is a battle between the two teams most likely to move into the Big 12's top four. The Cowboys looked impressive in a victory over SMU. Texas Tech looked good in its three-game sweep of the Big Ten, beating Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State.
    Around the Midwest

  • It's hard to not have at least a little sympathy for Baylor coach Scott Drew. Sure, the former Valparaiso coach knew he was signing up to clean up a mess when he took the job in the wake of Patrick Dennehy's death and Dave Bliss' dismissal. But who thought it was going to be this tough?

    The most recent challenge came when Terrance Thomas and R.T. Guinn -- two of the team's better scorers -- were ruled academically ineligible (they were averaging a combined 29.8 points per game). As a result, the Bears have been left with only five scholarship players.

    "We need to see no more injuries, illnesses, sickness or academic problems," Drew said.

    The lack of depth has reached the point where Robbie McKenzie, who joined the team after an open tryout in October, is playing on a regular basis. McKenzie, a junior, is a pre-med student who was his high school valedictorian.

  • Wichita State entered this season with sites on competing with Creighton and Southern Illinois for the Missouri Valley title. But after opening the season 8-2, Wichita has hit a rough patch. First was a loss to Oral Roberts. That was followed up with an 11-point home loss to Drake, a team expected to finish at or near the bottom of the Valley.

    Things don't exactly get easier for the Shockers either. First is a game Thursday against a dangerous Northern Iowa team. Then Wichita has consecutive road games at Southern Illinois and Bradley.

  • Who says Texas Tech coach Bob Knight doesn't have a sense of humor? After the Red Raiders defeated Minnesota on New Year's Day, Knight took the microphone at the United Spirit Arena and thanked the crowd for showing up. He then reminded them that there is still one more home game before students return to campus and to "make damn sure you're here."

    After about 15 seconds, Knight got back on the microphone.

    "I didn't mean to say, 'Make damn sure you're here,'" he said. "I'm trying to work on my language. So just make sure you're here."

  • Give Illinois guard Deron Williams credit for being tough. With his jaw still wired shut, Williams played 34 minutes in the Illini's overtime victory over Illinois State. Williams was expected to get the wires cut before Wednesday's league opener against Ohio State. But he was going to get his jaw wired shut after the game for a couple more days leading to Saturday's game against Purdue.

    Quote to Note

    "I struggled more than I ever have in my career. Going 2-for-15 is something that I'm not accustomed to and something I'm not proud of."
    -- Indiana guard Bracey Wright told the Indianapolis Star after scoring only seven points in the Hoosiers 79-45 loss at Wisconsin.

    Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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