The best men’s basketball team in the Big Ten Conference over the past quarter century is in the throes of its worst year since the first season of its esteemed coach, so you could be forgiven for assuming that the rest of the conference might also struggle. Instead, the Big Ten hasn’t missed a beat.
As Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo put it last season, during which it looked like the Big Ten was going to set a record for most bids from a single conference, “Our league is the worst because our league is the best.” For an encore, the conference currently has four teams inside the Associated Press top 10 — before this season, it hadn’t done that since 1987 — including three of the top five teams. After Tuesday’s games, it is projected to land two No. 1 seeds1 and two No. 2 seeds2 in the NCAA Tournament. All told, the Big Ten looks like it’s in terrific shape to end its national championship drought of 20-plus years.
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A conference accounting for at least two No. 1 seeds in the tournament bracket isn’t as rare as it once was — it has happened 13 times since 1985, when the field expanded to 64 teams,3 but three times in the past four tournaments. What sets the Big Ten apart, though, isn’t just its teams at top: It’s also the deepest conference in the country.
Most of those teams have little difficulty scoring. Through Tuesday’s games, the Big Ten boasted four of the 10 best offenses in the country5 and 10 of the top 50, according to Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency ratings. All but three of those teams6 are projected to earn tournament berths. With the exception of terrible, terrible Nebraska, every team in the Big Ten has an offensive rating exceeding 103, according to CBB Analytics. Eight teams have an effective field-goal percentage north of 50, and seven teams are shooting better than 35 percent from beyond the arc.
On the other end of the floor, the Big Ten features 12 of the top 60 defenses according to KenPom’s ratings, including four that limit opponents to an effective field-goal percentage under 48 percent. Four teams hold opponents under 1 point per possession, and teams like Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois have effectively run opponents off the 3-point line — each surrenders a 3-point attempt rate among the 80 lowest in Division I.
Even after losing big names like Jalen Smith and Xavier Tillman to the NBA, the Big Ten has no shortage of star power. Six of the 10 players on KenPom’s player of the year standings are from the conference, including three of the top four. The Hawkeyes’ Luka Garza is the bettor’s favorite to win both the Naismith and Wooden player of the year awards.
As far as potential tournament-qualifying teams are concerned, the Big Ten has two neatly defined tiers.
In their second year under coach Juwan Howard, the Wolverines (+375 to win the national title, according to Vegas oddsmakers) are off to their second-best season in program history behind a top-six offense and defense — and in Hunter Dickinson, they boast the best freshman not named Cade Cunningham.
As my colleague Jake Lourim recently noted, Iowa (+1300) has gone all-in on the offensive end and will go as far as Garza takes them. Illinois (+2000) is having one of its best seasons in school history, thanks to perhaps the country’s best inside-outside duo in Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu — though they were without the latter in Tuesday night’s shellacking of the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Under Chris Holtmann, Ohio State (+1500) is having its best season since the heyday of Thad Matta, with an efficient offense that takes care of the ball better than any Buckeyes team in the KenPom era.8 Wisconsin (+4000) and Purdue (+4000) have gotten by with plodding offenses and stifling defenses.
In the second tier is Maryland (No. 26), Rutgers (No. 32) and Indiana (No. 39).
Balance has once again found a home in Mark Turgeon’s Terrapins, who have top-30 marks on both ends of the floor. Steve Pikiell has the Scarlet Knights playing tenacious defense again, making the team a threat to topple anyone, which was proven earlier this season when Rutgers downed Illinois — though they’re also prone to slips like their 21-point Monday night loss to the woeful Huskers. Archie Miller has been on the hot seat seemingly since his arrival in Bloomington, and Tuesday’s discouraging loss to Michigan State can’t help, but the Hoosiers might slip into the dance behind a top-50 offense and defense.
According to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, a team from the Big Ten is 16.52 points better than the average opponent this season. That’s the second-highest SRS in the 72 conference seasons for which data is available. Among the major conferences in college basketball,9 this single-season conference SRS would rank sixth all time.
Head over to KenPom.com, and the results aren’t much different. The Big Ten’s plus-20.37 rating in adjusted efficiency margin, through Tuesday’s games, is 3 points clear of any other conference’s rating this season. It’s also the highest mark produced by a conference in KenPom’s database, which goes back to 2001-02.
That the success has manifested without Michigan State coming along for the ride feels strange. Michigan State has been the conference’s measuring stick since Izzo arrived in East Lansing and is the last team from the Big Ten to win a national title, all the way back in 2000. There’s still hope for the Spartans to extend their Big Ten record of 22 consecutive tournament appearances, but they’ll need more of the play they found in knocking off two top-five opponents in three days.
And if Michigan State falls short, other Big Ten programs have stepped up in its place. Even without its mainstay on the court, fans of the conference can have realistic expectations to experience their one shining moment in March.