Is the Big Ten back?

Is the Big Ten back?

Is the Big Ten back?
By Joe Nelson

Although year ten of the ACC–Big Ten Challenge will go in the books as another win for the ACC, moving to 10-0 in the history of the event, there are some promising signs for the Big Ten Conference. After being considered significantly down last year the Big Ten could be surprisingly solid overall this season, although the conference may lack an elite team to lead the way.

In the past two years the ACC has dominated with a 16-6 record in the Challenge and the six wins by the Big Ten all came on home courts. This season the Big Ten gave the ACC a great run, losing 6-5 with Iowa and Illinois suffering two-point losses that could have swung the title to the Big Ten for the first time. In fairness, the ACC lost two games by just two-points as well so one could argue that the results could have just as easily been a familiar 8-3 result.
   
Even with another loss in the Challenge the Big Ten made a statement with three wins in ACC arenas. Ohio State won at Miami, Wisconsin won at Virginia Tech, and Penn State won at Georgia Tech while the ACC only won two games in Big Ten arenas. Most projections have Miami and Virginia Tech rated as the next two teams in line in the ACC behind North Carolina and Duke so getting wins in those buildings is impressive. With wins from Penn State, Northwestern, and Minnesota, programs that have struggled in recent years, the Big Ten showed that there is much better depth and that is could be a much stronger overall conference this season. The Big Ten also only played four true home games in this year’s challenge making the 5-6 mark even more respectable.

The 2005 Challenge was the last time the Big Ten came close with a 5-6 result. That season six Big Ten teams made the NCAA tournament field so it could be a promising sign after the conference hit a low-point in last year’s tournament with only four teams making the field and no team getting past the Sweet Sixteen. ACC fans do not like hearing this, but the Big Ten has had more tournament teams than the ACC in the past four tournaments with 21 versus just 20 for the ACC. The ACC has a slightly better tournament record but the Big Ten has produced more Final Four teams in that span.

North Carolina and Duke delivered dominant victories to set themselves apart from the rest of the field in either conference. Duke completely dominated a Purdue squad with everyone back in West Lafayette while North Carolina cruised to a blowout at a spacious Ford Field, site of the Final Four this season. No Big Ten team appears to be on pace with either of those teams at this point in the season. However the ACC appears to lack depth after those top teams and the conference may have a hard time getting a lot of teams in the tournament. The overall conference strength may not be that strong as several teams appear to be stuck in cycles of mediocrity with teams in the middle of the conference beating up on each other.

The most storied program in the Big Ten, Indiana, appears to be in the worst shape this season as many of the typical basement teams should be pretty competitive. Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament but the Wildcats feature three of the top ten returning scorers in the conference. Penn State is off to a 7-1 start and has three wins away from home already, after winning just three times in road or neutral games all last season. Minnesota had a nice turnaround season last year, finishing 20-14 and making the NIT. Under Coach Smith the Gophers are already 7-0 and the win against Virginia was incredibly impressive on the defensive side of the ball.

Iowa may be a team still in transition but the second year under a new staff and system should make some progress and a couple of newcomers could make an impact. Michigan struggled last season but also in the second year under a new coach. The Wolverines could see serious improvement with four starters back and an early season win over UCLA is a great stamp on the resume. Illinois lacks size but could again be a solid team once some adjustments are made.

At the top of the conference it may be another year where it is tough to figure out which team is best as the Big Ten lacks a true frontrunner. Purdue has all five starters back after going 25-9 last season and making the second round of the tournament. Michigan State played last week without a key starter and features enough talent to be a postseason force. Wisconsin continues to put together solid teams and the Badgers have won 30 games in each of the past two seasons. Ohio State may be the forgotten team after so much player turnover in the last two years but the Buckeyes have a great freshmen class and were the NIT champions last season, currently riding the nation’s longest win streak at nine games dating back to last season.

The Big Ten should have four solid NCAA tournament teams and another one or two teams could emerge in conference play. In many ways it could be a typical Big Ten season as the conference may be underrated with the lack of a marquee team towards to the top of the polls but several teams will dangerous teams in the postseason that could make deep runs even if they are not championship contenders.

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