When Illinois led second-ranked Baylor early in the second half of Wednesday’s Jimmy V Classic game, there were no shock waves rippling across the college basketball scene. It was expected.
After all, the Illini’s No. 5 ranking was the highest since they finished as national runner-up in 2005. They had a couple of All-America candidates on their roster in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn.
Baylor flexed its defensive muscles and pulled away, staking its claim as legitimate national title contender. The Big Ten, though, still left with its reputation intact as the best conference in the sport.
Three of the top five teams in the country are Big Ten teams, and six teams overall dot the Associated Press poll, more than any other conference. Behind Gonzaga and Baylor are the Big Ten’s top two teams in No. 3 Iowa and No. 4 Wisconsin, gunning for that No. 1 spot as college basketball’s best team.
“The six ranked teams in the Top 25 doesn’t do justice to how deep this league is,” Big Ten Network analyst and former Purdue star Robbie Hummel said. “Considering who this league lost. You lose Cassius Winston, you lose Xavier Tillman, you lose Daniel Oturu, you lose Jalen Smith. It’s still totally loaded. We still had so many guys come back to school. There are so many good teams. It’s going to be a heck of a year for the Big Ten.”
Historic year, even.
It’s the first time since 1987 that the Big Ten has four top-10 teams in the AP poll at one time. Arguably the fourth-best team, No. 8 Michigan State, pulled off the Big Ten’s best win so far, at No. 6 Duke on Tuesday.
“The Big Ten is going to be backyard brawl after backyard brawl,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said on the Illinois-Baylor broadcast. “And we didn’t even mention some of the others.”
Outside of that clear-cut foursome of Final Four contenders, Rutgers, Ohio State and Michigan are flirting with cracking into the upper echelon. And the third tier of Indiana, Purdue, Maryland and Minnesota have been listed as bubble teams in early NCAA tournament projections.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino nearly broke Twitter when he told CBS Sports analyst Jon Rothstein last month that “12 or 13” Big Ten teams could make the 2021 NCAA tournament. The running joke was that he was slyly referring to his own squad fighting for one of those last spots.
A dozen tournament teams is not as far-fetched as it sounds, though.
There likely would’ve been a Big Ten-record 10 teams in the Big Dance last season if not for the pandemic shutdown. The Gophers were among teams that fell out of postseason contention late last season, but they’ve reloaded with arguably a better and deeper team. So have Big Ten bottom feeders Northwestern and Nebraska.
“I really believe that there are 12 [Big Ten] teams that could make the NCAA tournament and I wouldn’t be surprised,” Hummel said. “And that might even be too low of a number.”
Gophers junior point guard Marcus Carr, who is averaging nearly 30 points per game, wasn’t the only marquee Big Ten talent to declare for the NBA draft and return to college this season. At the top of the list of Big Ten returnees was Iowa All-America center Luka Garza, the reigning college player of the year. Illinois was the media’s preseason favorite to win the Big Ten because of Dosunmu and Cockburn coming back.
The Gophers and Carr face Garza, Dosunmu and Cockburn to open Big Ten play this month (Dec. 15 at Illinois, and Christmas Day vs. Iowa at Williams Arena). Pitino’s team surely will find out where it stands playing Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin in the U’s first four league games before the end of the calendar year.
Carr looks forward to the challenge.
“I think we’re going to [be playing] in the best conference in college basketball,” Carr said. “A lot of returning guys. A lot of special teams. It’s definitely exciting.”
Like the Gophers, most of the Big Ten’s top teams haven’t been tested much yet. The Big Ten’s ranked teams opened the season with a combined 19-0 record before the Illini’s loss to Baylor and Wisconsin’s loss to Marquette. Only one of those wins, though, was against another ranked opponent, with Michigan State winning at Duke for the first time.
With the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this week, the Big Ten will have more opportunities to show whether it is the best conference in college hoops. So far, it’s not much of a debate.