By Andrew Kahn
The Big Ten was the best conference in college basketball last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. And the year before that. Not since the 2010 season wrapped up has the league not finished first in the KenPom.com ratings. This year, the Big Ten ranks fourth behind the Big 12, Big East, and ACC, because several of the top teams haven’t met expectations.
Michigan’s woes have been well documented. Ranked in the preseason poll, the Wolverines lost three sophomores to the NBA draft, fell to NJIT and Eastern Michigan in December, and just lost their best player for the rest of the season. Michigan State had two players drafted in the lottery last year and failed to win any of its marquee nonconference games this season. The Spartans, ranked No. 18 in the preseason, are 3-2 in the Big Ten, but don’t expect the typical late-season surge we’ve seen from Tom Izzo’s teams in the past. Ohio State and Nebraska were also ranked at the start of the year but haven’t impressed.
Maryland is perhaps the only Big Ten team to exceed expectations. Ranked No. 13 in the AP poll and 16 by KenPom, the Terps have established themselves as the clear No. 2 in the league, behind Wisconsin. The problem for the Big Ten is that the other top conferences have several teams as good as Maryland. The Big 12 has five teams in KenPom’s top 17. The ACC has five in the top 18. Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa are decent, but they haven’t looked as good as, say, Oklahoma, Kansas, Duke, or Louisville.
“The top teams can carry your conference,” Izzo said yesterday. “This year, there’s no question that it’s been Wisconsin and the rest. Maryland is now proving to be in that class. But the strength at the top isn’t as good as last year or some of the other conferences.” Michigan State stumbled at times last season but proved its No. 2 preseason ranking was no mistake when it finished strong, losing in the Elite Eight to eventual champion UConn. Michigan was a two seed in the NCAA Tournament and also reached the regional final. Wisconsin made the Final Four as a two seed.
Izzo was right when he said that media and fans typically judge a conference by its top teams. He said coaches look at depth. “Preparing for a team that is last in your league, you’re probably chalking it up as a win. But I don’t think there’s a Big Ten coach doing that this season. The quality of our depth is incredible.” That’s harder to measure; for starters, where do you draw the line for the “bottom” of a league, especially when conference sizes are unequal? For what it’s worth, the Big Ten’s bottom half does appear to rate slightly better than the ACC’s, but not the Big 12’s or Big East’s. Averaging the rating for a league’s two worst teams—in the Big Ten’s case, Northwestern and Rutgers—and the Big Ten is on par with the Big 12, ahead of the ACC, and behind the Big East. Wisconsin did lose to Rutgers, but does that prove the Big Ten is “deep” or that even its better teams are overrated? Conference play is a zero-sum game.
Wisconsin has matched its lofty preseason expectations and Maryland has impressed in its inaugural Big Ten campaign. There’s still hope for the likes of Iowa and Indiana to help improve the league’s image—and a strong Tournament showing would certainly change the narrative—but the Big Ten has been blemished by the same teams that made it the premiere conference these past few seasons.
*If you’re wondering why I’m using KenPom instead of RPI, compare the two and tell me I’m wrong. Obviously these are numbers-based systems, but at some level you have to use the “eye test” as a sanity check. The Mountain West was not the best conference two years ago and VCU is not the fourth-best team in the country right now.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.