Big Ten basketball standing tall this season
DEC 10, 2012 4:52p ET
But talk (and predictions), as the old adage goes, is cheap. Only results on the court could dictate the Big Ten's excellence. Now with the middle of December here and nonconference play winding down, the sample sizes are large enough to return a verdict.
So, has the Big Ten lived up to its lofty expectations?
"I think it's been exceeding it," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Monday on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. "This league definitely has to be the best in my era."
For a guy considered the dean of the Big Ten in his 18th year with the Spartans, that's saying something.
Izzo's Spartans, at 8-2, are one of eight Big Ten teams with two or fewer losses. Indiana (9-0) remains the top team in the nation ahead of Duke, and the emergence of Illinois (10-0) and Minnesota (10-1) has given the conference a significant lift.
The Big Ten is the only conference with three undefeated teams — Indiana, Michigan and Illinois — and six programs in the AP Top 25. The Big East is second with five ranked teams.
"I was afraid (commissioner Jim) Delany was going to add all top 25 teams in the poll to the Big Ten," said Nebraska coach Tim Miles, whose team is 6-2. "That's what it feels like doesn't it? It's an amazing deal.
"The league is so good and so tough. You try not to get overwhelmed. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."
Here's a look at how the Big Ten's record stacks up with the other BCS conferences through the early portion of the season:
Big East: 104-27 (.793 winning percentage)
Big Ten: 88-24 (.785)
ACC: 74-28 (.725)
Big 12: 59-23 (.719)
Pac-12: 72-31 (.699)
SEC: 69-38 (.644)
Obviously, the Big East has a rightful place in the discussion for which conference is best in the land. But the Big Ten certainly hasn't disappointed thus far.
Indiana has tarred and feathered every team it has played and looked every bit like the No. 1 team in the nation. The Hoosiers lead the country in points per game (89.1) and have five players averaging in double figures in scoring.
No. 3 Michigan (9-0) is led by sensational guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. And the addition of freshmen Nik Stauskus and Glenn Robinson III make the Wolverines a legitimate Final Four candidate.
No. 7 Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas (20.6 points per game) has developed into the go-to scoring threat without Jared Sullinger, and Aaron Craft may be the best all-around point guard in the nation.
And we haven't even begun to talk about Michigan State, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.
Last year's Minnesota team came on strong at the end of the season and made a run to the NIT championship game. The return of forward Trevor Mbakwe from an ACL injury, coupled with the improved play of guard Andre Hollins and forward Rodney Williams, has the Gophers playing like one of the top teams in the Big Ten.
"To be truthful, I'm not surprised at all," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "I think when you look at Minnesota in particular, the development of their perimeter players throughout the course of last year, you could just see it coming."
Illinois, meanwhile, has emerged as the most pleasant surprise in the conference under first-year coach John Groce. One year after the team finished 17-15 and essentially quit on coach Bruce Weber, who was fired after the season, the Illini look poised to earn a high NCAA Tournament seed.
"We haven't arrived," Groce said. "When you're dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds, sometimes that can be difficult, that humility piece. That's our challenge."
The Illini looked especially dangerous on Saturday during an 85-74 victory at No. 10 Gonzaga, when guard Brandon Paul scored 35 points.
"They might have as much speed as any team in the country right now," McCaffery said. "That's a scary thought."
McCaffery's Iowa team could make its first NCAA Tournament since 2006 behind the play of Aaron White and Roy Devyn Marble. The Hawkeyes' two losses this season have come to teams that are a combined 16-1 in Wichita State and Virginia Tech.
Wisconsin (6-4) has never finished worse than fourth in the conference since Bo Ryan took over as coach 12 years ago. But given the Big Ten's talent and Wisconsin's point guard issues without the injured Josh Gasser, the Badgers could struggle just to finish in the upper half of the league.
It's that kind of year in the Big Ten.
"Just by scores and clips that I've seen, and knowing what's coming back from the league last year, it's going to be a monster," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "There's no doubt about it."
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