There are nights when the boxscores read like they were generated randomly.
One Big Ten team wins, one Big Ten team loses, and the folks in Vegas shake their heads. How can anyone predict perhaps the nation’s most unpredictable conference? The first month of the league schedule has been so up and down, it’s hard to imagine how the final standings will shake out.
Yes, the Big Ten has sported some crazy victories, and by extension crazy collapses.
But resist the urge to wonder if maybe the Big Ten isn’t so strong this year.
In fact, wildness or not, the Big Ten still retains the distinction it claimed a year ago: that of the strongest conference in the country.
Through five weeks of play, the traditional powerhouse is ranked No. 1 among all Division I conferences in average adjusted defensive and offensive efficiencies, according to kenpom.com, on the strength of three of the top 10 offenses in the nation and five of the top 20 defenses.
Even so, there is little clarity at the top. Every team in the conference has at least two wins, and all but three teams have gotten a win over another ranked team in the league. Only three teams are actually above .500, and just two games separate spots 4 through 12 in the standings. And our vision of the elite has changed substantially since New Year’s. Ohio State — seemingly in contention for the Big Ten title after a perfect nonconference schedule in which it established its stout defense — has nose-dived in the league season, losing five of its past six, including getting edged out by Penn State at home on Wednesday. Wisconsin, once looking like one of the strongest teams in Division I, has looked very average in league play, mustering a 4-4 record and getting trumped by Northwestern — which despite a horrifically bad offense has won four games — at the Kohl Center on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Iowa, a team that looked on the verge of success, has taken the next step in a big way and Michigan has become the outlier, the undefeated squad among the chaos, but only after wobbling through a less-than-impressive nonconference schedule and losing preseason All-America Mitch McGary. Michigan State is perhaps the only team that the average fan could look at and nod, thinking, “Yep, that’s about right.”
Some might look at those results and say the Big Ten — which currently has five teams in the AP Top 25 — is weaker than we thought. I think it speaks to depth and great coaching. There are at least four Coach of the Year candidates in the Big Ten right now: Tom Izzo, for directing Michigan State through overwhelming injuries; John Beilein, for helping his young Michigan squad grow up quickly and impressively; Chris Collins, for overcoming the odds with a Northwestern team with mediocre talent in his first season as a head coach and manufacturing some surprises; Fran McCaffery, for building his Iowa program from the ground up, and seeing big results now.
Perhaps most meaningful, the Big Ten — which could still send seven-plus teams to the NCAA tournament — is exciting. There aren’t a ton of blowouts; upsets are a constant threat. With so much variety in pace and style, there is no shortage of intriguing matchups. Night in, and night out, one has to watch the games to know the result.
And that’s what we love about the game, right?
College basketball short takes
As college basketball heads into February, a stunning three teams remain unbeaten. To get a sense of how rare this is, three teams have never posted 20-0 records or better since Indiana, UNLV and Rutgers did it in 1976, according to ESPN Stats & Information (originally written by ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan).
Ken Pomeroy has now calculated that there is a 51 percent chance one team will go unbeaten for an entire season (which has not happened since the ’76 Hoosiers did it). It’s hard to believe the odds are now in favor of another such run.
• Contrary to what one might think, big success on a national scale doesn’t always mean financial gain for programs. According to forbes.com, Wichita State, which is undefeated and was one of the last four teams standing in the NCAA tournament a year ago, actually lost money in the wake of its Final Four run. Team expenses for Wichita State — which usually brings in about $1 million of revenue each year, Forbes reports — were up 16 percent because of travel costs and incentives for coach Gregg Marshall, and the prize money (lump sums aren’t handed over to programs; it’s a six-year rolling period instead) wasn’t enough to cover the deficits. Yikes.
• The men’s Final Four site finalists for 2017-2020 were announced Monday, and Minneapolis got a nod.
The other six finalists are Atlanta, Indianapolis, North Texas, San Antonio, Phoenix/Glendale and St. Louis.
• Virginia’s BPI (ESPN’s version of weighted rankings) hasn’t been anything special for most of the winter — falling to as low as No. 55. But after winning six of seven games against ACC teams in January, the Cavaliers had the best BPI for the month, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They’ve bumped all the way up to No. 20.
Big Ten power poll
1. Michigan: The last unbeaten team in Big Ten play isn’t who we expected it might be a month ago. The Wolverines have improved mighty quickly.
2. Michigan State: The victory over Iowa wasn’t pretty, but the Spartans possess a special ability to prevail amid all kinds of adversity.
3. Iowa: The Hawkeyes still struggle to challenge the very elite, but their fifth-ranked offense certainly makes them a threat.
4. Minnesota: The Gophers are only 4-4, but two wins over ranked teams look pretty good.
5. Northwestern: A team no one thought would do anything has sprung surprises — capped by a win at Wisconsin on Wednesday — by playing solid defense.
6. Wisconsin: Allowing 43 second-half points to the worst offensive team in the league (Northwestern) at one of the toughest places to play (Kohl Center) makes no sense. But then, nothing in the Big Ten makes sense this year.
7. Nebraska: We can officially say the Huskers are taking another step. It’s a small step, but they’re nothing close to a surefire basement dweller anymore.
8. Indiana: The Hoosiers, like so many young teams, don’t know how to handle success yet — falling at Nebraska after beating Illinois.
9. Purdue: The Boilermakers need A.J. Hammons to show up every night, not just from time to time.
10. Penn State: Count the Nittany Lions the latest to beat a ranked team after stunning Ohio State in Columbus.
11. Ohio State: Go ahead, argue with me. Right now, the Buckeyes don’t deserve to be any higher.
12. Illinois: Twelfth in the league is a bad place to be, but the league’s craziness means everything could change for the Illini in a week.