- Jeff Shelman
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It has become something of an autumn ritual.
The Big Ten men's basketball coaches sit around a hotel ballroom on Halloween weekend and talk about how much better the teams in the conference are going to be in the upcoming season. It's almost immediately followed by a nonconference season that includes bad losses to low- and mid-majors, a loss in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and a brutal record against the other BCS conferences.
Once conference play begins, the league's coaches spend much of January and February explaining that the Big Ten isn't down, that it's filled with difficult places to play and that the league deserves six or seven invitations to the NCAA Tournament.
Never mind the fact that from 2002 through 2005, the Big Ten finished sixth, fifth, sixth and sixth in the Ratings Percentage Index.
This fall's gathering in suburban Chicago was no different. The league was going to be better. No, the league hasn't been down. Blah, blah, blah.
Admittedly, there was more of a reason for optimism this season. Aside from Illinois, nearly every team in the conference returned several key players from last season. But, at the same time, the ACC has been consistently better top-to-bottom and there was tons of talk that the new Bigger East had the potential to be the deepest and best college basketball conference in the galaxy.
When the Challenge ended with the annual ACC victory, the Big Ten figured to be about what everyone thought. It was a good league, it was improved and there was good depth. But, at the same time, the Big Ten was probably the third-best league in college basketball.
And then something strange happened -- Big Ten schools stopped losing.
After going a combined 39-13 (.750) in November, the Big Ten has gone 66-11 (.857) against nonconference competition since.
The result? The often panned Big Ten entered conference play Tuesday night ranked first in the RPI.
How did that happen? It's a pretty simple equation: victories against major conference opposition and few bad losses.
After going a combined 83-125 against the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC over the past four seasons, Big Ten is 21-13 against its peer leagues this season. In addition, there haven't been many head-scratching losses, especially for the top eight teams in the league. The worst losses by the top teams? There was Michigan State's cramp-filled loss at Hawaii to start the season, Minnesota's loss to Atlantic Sun favorite Gardner-Webb (in large part because the Gophers were without three starters) and Indiana's loss at Indiana State.
The top eight teams -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin -- entered league play a combined 84-12. Of those losses, seven were to ranked opponents. And even each of the three have-nots -- Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue -- have a winning record.
What all of this means is that the Big Ten is as deep or nearly as deep as the Big East. All eight tournament contenders are currently ranked in the RPI's top 75, and it wouldn't be unreasonable if the league ends up with seven teams in the NCAAs.
Minnesota coach Dan Monson is the only Big Ten coach with a vote in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. For each of the past few weeks, he's had seven Big Ten teams on his ballot.
He's not the only one who is high on the league.
"I'm excited about the Big Ten. It's great to have our league being talked about," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team opens league play with a very difficult game at undefeated Illinois on Thursday. "I think every team in the league is making some strides, and I still think there are eight teams in the league that could win the Big Ten championship."
So if there's all this depth, who is going to end up winning the conference title? The way things look so far, it doesn't seem likely that anybody will get through league play with fewer than three losses. This might be a season in which there will be several teams at 12-4.
"It's wide open," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, whose Buckeyes join Illinois as one of the six undefeated teams remaining nationally. "All of the teams have done very well in their nonconference schedule and I think you're getting ready to brace yourself for a two-month war."
The biggest surprise so far this season in the Big Ten has been Illinois. Despite losing Deron Williams, Luther Head and Roger Powell Jr. -- three guys who accounted for more than half of Illinois' offense during the Illini's run to the national championship game -- Illinois again is undefeated.
"Everybody thought they'd be a very, very good team, but it's kind of hard to duplicate what they did a year ago," Iowa coach Steve Alford said. "And yet, here they are going into conference play undefeated again."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber will admit he didn't know whether a team with three new starters could be this impressive this quickly.
"You always think you can be successful, but to be where we're at, it's surprised myself and our staff," Weber said. "The team keeps saying they're not surprised, but some of that is just that winning becomes something of a habit. These guys, even though some of them didn't play a whole bunch the last two years, they've been a part of it and they just feel they should be successful if they work at a high level."
That said, Illinois isn't the offensive freak show it was a year ago. The Illini don't score at will and zip the ball around the court. This Illinois team fits a Big Ten stereotype: They'll guard you into submission.
"They lost so much and they've almost changed their identity," Monson said. "They've gone almost full circle and now we're showing our team some of the things they're doing defensively."
No team has scored more than 65 points against Illinois this season, and 10 of their 14 opponents haven't gotten to the 60-point mark.
Iowa's defense might even be better than Illinois'. The Hawkeyes are giving up only 55.1 points per game and allowing opponents to shoot only 35.9 percent. And if you think the pace at which Iowa plays is a factor, think again -- the Hawkeyes lead the nation in points allowed per 100 possessions (a staggeringly-low 76.6).
Another popular pick to win the league is Indiana, which opened Big Ten play with a victory over Michigan on Tuesday night. The Hoosiers have an amazing frontcourt now that forward D.J. White is healthy enough to join Marco Killingsworth on the lineup. Throw in guards Robert Vaden and A.J. Ratliff and this is easily Mike Davis' most talented team.
In the end, however, the league's unbalanced schedule might play a significant role in determining the champion.
Undefeated Ohio State has a favorable schedule. The Buckeyes are the only team that plays each of the three bottom-feeders twice. That should be six victories -- and not playing at Illinois doesn't hurt either.
The toughest schedule? That easily belongs to Michigan State. Izzo's team has a brutal beginning of the season. Thursday night's game at Illinois is just the beginning. The Spartans follow that up with games at Wisconsin, vs. Indiana, at Ohio State, vs. Iowa and at Michigan. Those six schools are currently a combined 64-9.
"It might be the toughest six-game start in any conference anywhere," Izzo said.
What does he expect? The Big Ten is good. Just like the coaches predicted.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Finally, the teams are performing at the level Big Ten insiders expect annually.