Anyone wondering how tough the Big Ten will be this season should take a look at Iowa’s plight.
The Hawkeyes (11-2) are flying high, having won six straight for their best start in eight years. They’ve got a pair of emerging stars in Aaron White and Devyn Marble and their league opener is already sold out. And yet the Hawkeyes will probably be underdogs in each of their first three Big Ten games.
Iowa kicks off play in by far the nation’s toughest league by hosting fifth-ranked Indiana (11-1) on New Year’s Eve. The Hawkeyes then travel to second-ranked Michigan (12-0) before a relative breather — No. 19 Michigan State in Iowa City.
“I think everybody in the preseason knew what this league was going to be, and that’s what it’s been,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after the Hawkeyes beat Coppin State on Dec. 22.
What it’s likely to be this winter is a blast for fans — and brutal for members.
The Big Ten is first in overall RPI nationally as non-conference play winds down this weekend. Five league teams are ranked in the top 12 of the latest AP poll and at least eight of them have a good shot at reaching the NCAA tournament.
For now, the favorites to win the Big Ten are about the same as they were in October. The Hoosiers, Wolverines and ninth-ranked Buckeyes (9-2) currently look like the three teams most capable of winning the regular-season title.
Indiana was No. 1 for most of this season before an overtime loss to 18th-ranked Butler knocked the Hoosiers down a few pegs. Still, Indiana leads the country in scoring (89.1) and in point differential by outscoring teams by nearly 30 points a game.
Michigan can finish unbeaten in non-conference play for the first time in 27 years with a win over Central Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines join top-ranked Duke, No. 3 Arizona and surprising Wyoming as the only undefeated teams left.
Ohio State has a pair of losses, though falling to Duke and Kansas is nothing to be ashamed of. The Buckeyes have depth beyond star Deshaun Thomas, who is averaging 20 points a game, and that should come in handy in the league.
“The Big Ten defensively is as good as there is in the country. Just having different guys out there that can knock shots down is something that is going to be advantageous for us throughout the season,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
What makes the Big Ten so tough this season is that it isn’t just top heavy. The middle is pretty rough too.
No. 11 Minnesota (12-1) has wins over Memphis, Stanford, Florida State and USC, and is arguably the best team Tubby Smith has had in six seasons coaching the Gophers. Minnesota opens Big Ten play on Monday when it hosts Michigan State (11-2).
“I think we’re in good position, but I know we have to play better,” Smith said.
No. 12 Illinois has been the surprise of the league with its 12-1 start while the Spartans have wins over Kansas and Texas.
“It was a physical war and there were bodies everywhere. That’s the way it is going to be in our league so we might as well get used to it,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the win over the Longhorns.
Northwestern (9-4) suffered a major blow when it lost star Drew Crawford for the year with a shoulder injury, but the Wildcats nearly beat Stanford without him. Wisconsin is just 8-4, though its losses were against quality opponents like 14th-ranked Florida and 16th-ranked Creighton.
Nebraska (8-4) is still finding its way with new coach Tim Miles, and Purdue (5-6) is in rebuilding mode after losing Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson. Penn State suffered a massive blow when its best player, guard Tim Frazier, ruptured his left Achilles tendon and was lost for the year.
The true wild card in the Big Ten could wind up being those Hawkeyes. Iowa hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since winning the Big Ten tournament and earning a No. 3 seed way back in 2006. The Hawkeyes have wins over Iowa State and Northern Iowa, and their losses came against Wichita State and at Virginia Tech.
Iowa can play 10 guys comfortably for the first time in recent memory. McCaffery is going to need all of them for what promises to be as tough of a league schedule of anyone in the country.
“We have a better team. We’re deeper. You have to be deep,” McCaffery said.
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