In terms of games played, it’s a little beyond that for most everybody but in terms of the calendar, it’s about exactly right. I’ve been banging on for awhile about the terrible start the league got off to other than at the very top, but the Big Ten/ACC Challenge has both an outsize impact on perception *and* also did in fact give the conference some opportunities to get wins over other Power 5 teams and the league did well, taking 8 of the 14 games. That plus some other solid results since then (Wisconsin over Temple yesterday was a sneaky nice win for them and for the league, for example, as was Purdue over New Mexico) has me lightening up a little in terms of where the conference sits. The league has fewer opportunities for marquee victories between now and the start of conference play at the end of this month, but there are some still out there to grab. The league is 23-26 by my count against Power 5 + 3 teams…certainly not world beating but better than things looked even a week ago, with a chance to get better still from here. A quick look at how each team is faring in the early going, relative to expectations.
Michigan State – BETTER
I think most people thought MSU was somewhere in the mix of Final Four contenders entering the season. Personally, I was comfortable with where they started, in the low to mid teens by most people. They’ll be #1 tomorrow, with 4 Power 5 +3 wins, another good win over a Boise team I think will contend in the Mountain West, and blowouts over the teams they should have dusted. Can’t conclude anything other than they’ve been even better than anticipated.
Purdue – BETTER
Not by as much as MSU IMO, but that’s only because Purdue hasn’t had opportunities against anyone the quality of Kansas or Louisville. However, don’t forget, winning at Pitt is VERY tough to do and PU pulled it off. They’ve beaten every opponent so far by double digits, so you also have to give them credit for margin of victory. The Boilers have a couple of tricky ones coming up, though, in a neutral court game against Butler and a game at Mackey against a ranked Vandy team coaching by Purdue alum Kevin Stallings. Win those games and it’s tough to dispute much of anything Purdue’s done in the non conference.
Maryland – NEUTRAL
You could certainly argue that a team touted as a national title contender losing even one game thus far relegates them to “worse” status and I won’t fight anybody who believes that. However, I actually think Maryland helped their perception in that loss at UNC. Look, almost no one goes into that building and comes out with a victory, so a loss doesn’t mean much. The fact is that despite still looking out of sync in some important ways, the Terps hung in there, shot the lights out, and were in the game until late. They’ve got a big game at MSG on Tuesday against UConn…win that one and I think you can judge this at least a decent start to the season for Maryland. They’ve still got a lot to sort out but the good news is that no one disputes that they have pieces to work with. I will say this, though…having seen both of them play now, I’m happy the Terps got Sulaimon as opposed to Damion Lee, who ended up at Louisville after many thought he was headed to TerpTown. Sulaimon is a fine shooter and a good player but Lee would have given the Terps more of what I think they’re lacking currently.
Northwestern – BETTER
Losing Vic Law to a season ending injury had some souring a bit on NU’s chances to break the 0 for Forever NCAA string, but I think Chris Collins’ bunch has looked really good so far. The one loss is an 11 point neutral court defeat to UNC, and I think NU played pretty well in that game. They have two Power 5 wins (granted, not great teams in Mizzou and VaTech but they still count). They shouldn’t be tested again until conference play begins. You can say their likely 12-1 record will be hollow but honestly, the Cats have impressed. They’ve been blowing out the bad teams, beat the “peer” teams they’ve played and were competitive in the one they should have lost (and did). Their SOS isn’t going to be great but…they’ll get helped by UNC being great. The fact that the league looks a little bit better overall than it did is HUGE for them, maybe more important than anyone else if they can take care of business in the Big Ten and finish .500. I’m not saying they’re making the field but IMO they have done exactly what they needed to do with what was in front of them, at least to date. I also see no reason why they shouldn’t believe they can win 9 or 10 league games. Doesn’t mean they will, but the potential is there, particularly if they remember than they actually have a 7 foot low post threat on the court and remember to GET HIM THE BALL once in awhile.
Iowa – NEUTRAL
Tough one for me. I wasn’t ultra bullish on the Hawks entering the season but thought they’d be decent and probably somewhere in the mix for a Tourney bid. Looking at them now, that’s about the same thought I have. Two losses to Dayton and Notre Dame hurt a bit but not too much…they were competitive and those certainly aren’t resume killers. They’re 2-2 against Power 5s and also have a win over a depleted WIchita State team (and I have no idea how that one will be considered come March…I suspect you have to disregard it, given what WSU was missing). They’ve got a big one on Thursday at Iowa State. Not a killer if they lose it, but a great opportunity to get a true marquee victory, which they don’t have yet.
Michigan – NEUTRAL to SLIGHTLY WORSE
Would have been “worse” for sure but getting wins over Texas at Atlantis and then a road win over NC State have them back to even, more or less. The losses against Xavier and UConn were ugly, no question, and the injury issues at point guard are cause for serious concern. Yet, they’re hardly in a spot where a Tournament bid is at risk just yet. Game at SMU on Tuesday is a big-ish one, though, as the ‘Stangs are ranked and would represent a resume builder if M can get it.
Penn State – NEUTRAL
In the sense that I didn’t expect much and they haven’t shown much. A road win against BC was nice but they got handled by Duquesne and Radford, both double digit losses. They’ve got a home court game against Colorado left and a win there would be nice but realistically, this isn’t a Tournament team.
Indiana – WORSE
No question, worse. Hell, I had them second in the conference heading into the season, so I’m in there right alongside the rest of the clowns who badly overrated this team. Look, IU has talent….loads and loads of offensive talent. According to KenPom, they have the #3 offense in the nation so far in terms of efficiency (we’re #6 as a point of comparison)…but their defense is at #114, which is an even more extreme disparity than last year. I thought IU couldn’t possibly be worse than they were last season on D, now that they actually have some real size and another year of experience for some of their perimeter players. Wrong. IU took terrible losses in Maui to Wake and UNLV but to me, the nail in the coffin in terms of their perception (for now, at least) was in Durham. I didn’t expect them to beat Duke there… no one did. The thing is, their offense was actually reasonably good in that game. Maybe even better than that suggests…and yet they lost by TWENTY. That’s how bad they are defensively. They have Notre Dame left as one marquee opponent before the league starts up and that’ll be a classic matchup of two teams which play almost exactly the same game at both ends. I would suspect that IU’s offense is good enough to still probably make them a Tourney team but unless things change MASSIVELY on D, they’re not going anywhere deep in March.
Nebraska – NEUTRAL
As with PSU, didn’t have expectations for them and they haven’t exceeded anything. Played well against Miami but still lost. Played well against Cincy but lost. Got the doors blown off by Nova. Have a chance for two Power 5 + 3 wins against Creighton and Rhode Island but as with Penn State, this team isn’t going anywhere.
Wisconsin – SLIGHTLY WORSE
Would have been a solid, unequivical “worse” but for an improbable win at Syracuse last week. Followed it up with a decent home court win over Temple. Now, that doesn’t erase the loss to Western Illinois, the double digit defeat to Georgetown or the undressing by Oklahoma, but it’s a start. They’ve got a home game left against Marquette which should be a win. Get that one, avoid slip ups in the gimmie games and it’ll come down to Big Ten play for them. They’re not out of anything yet in terms of a Tourney bid…just a bit further behind than expected. The Syracuse win helps a lot, even if the Orange are only a middling ACC team, because they got it at the Carrier Dome.
Minnesota – WORSE
I didn’t expect much from the Gophers but it’s hard to say they’ve been anything other than worse even than what was anticipated. The homecourt win over Clemson was OK but losing to South Dakota this weekend was just awful. They have a neutral court game left against Oklahoma State, which would be a decent win if they could get it, but this is a team which needs to worry about more fundamental things than a Tournament resume at this point. Too young and just not good enough yet for that.
Illinos – MUCH, MUCH WORSE
Not all their fault, of course, but this was a team I thought was NCAA good coming into the season and they’re already at a point where minus a huge conference season, they’re done. 4-5 and nothing much left (a bad Mizzou team later in the month) and their big man Mike Thorne done for the year. Injuries riddled the backcourt early and when they finally got those guys back, they lose their post player. They would probably need an 11 or 12 win conference season to have any shot, and that’s not happening. Groce’s job may be saved by the injury excuse and athletic department chaos but he is on the clock one way or the other.
Ohio State – WORSE
I thought they’d likely be a bubble type team coming into the season, but right now, even that would seem to be a pipe dream. The kids show some potential but this is not a 2010 or 2006 type freshman class…not even close. They’re having a terrible time running offense and they’re way too young to defend their way to competitiveness. The Bucks have four losses already and they have a road game at UConn and a date in Brooklyn with Kentucky left on the slate this month. An NIT bid would be a nice accomplishment for this team.
Rutgers – NEUTRAL to SLIGHTLY WORSE
Only this “decent” because I thought they were probably the worst Power 5 team in the nation coming in and they’ve more or less played that way. Instate rival Seton Hall beat them by 29 yesterday. Have a road game left at George Washington. They’re 3-5 at the moment and even with some lower level non conference opponents left, reaching double digit victories overall on the season is no done deal. In fact, I’m tempted to say it’s a long shot.