A Look Around the Big Ten

A lot has been said about the Big Ten being down this year. Sure, the teams have not fared that well against opponents from major conferences, but now it's time to get down to business against familiar conference foes. On any given night, any team can win in the Big Ten. This story takes a look at what conference members have done so far and what's expected of them from here on out.

Everyone from Digger Phelps to the bartender at your favorite tavern have talked about how the Big Ten is not playing up to its' normal standards. It's been a rough couple of months for a few of the teams, but as any long time Big Ten fan knows, teams from a soft conference do not want to meet up with a squad that has survived the rigors of a Big Ten campaign.

Let's take a look at all 11 members of the Big Ten and see their key non-conference wins and losses and get an idea of what to expect from them in January, February and March.

NEXT FOUR ILLINI GAMES
Jan. 7 - vs. Ohio State
Jan. 10 - vs. (24) Purdue
Jan. 14 - @ Northwestern
Jan. 17 - vs. Iowa
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (9-2)
Key Wins: Memphis, Mizzou (@ St. Louis)
Key Loss: Providence (@ New York City)

Bruce Weber has been through a lot during his first 8 months on the job in Champaign-Urbana. He's had to deal with players taking their time buying into his system, horrible decision making by a few of his players off the court, a tough schedule, a near mutiny from fans after a blowout loss to Providence and an injury to his best player. After going through all of this, the Illini are still sitting pretty at the top of the league. Hopefully, the Illini have their heads on straight after a scare against ISU. Deron Williams hasn't missed a beat and the Illini start out with a favorable schedule in conference play. If things go as planned, Bruce Almighty could have the conference in the palm of his hand.

NEXT FOUR WOLVERINE GAMES
Jan. 7 - vs. Northwestern
Jan. 11 - vs. Indiana
Jan. 17 - @ Michigan State
Jan. 21 - @ (21) Wisconsin
MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (9-2)
Key Wins: UCLA, N.C State
Key Loss: Boston University

After a good season with nothing to play for last year, Wolverines coach Tommy Amaker has regained the biggest motivating factor in college hoops. Michigan is once again eligible for the NCAA tournament. The maize and blue should make it, as long as they win the games they are supposed to win, and steal a couple wins against the conference elite. What they cannot do is drop games against Penn State and Northwestern. Amaker should have no problem reminding his team that a squad with lesser talent can win in Crisler Arena. All he has to do is pop in the game film of the Wolverines home loss to Boston University. That should be enough to scare his team into taking every opponent seriously.

NEXT FOUR BADGER GAMES
Jan. 6 - vs. Indiana
Jan. 10 - vs. Michigan State
Jan. 14 - @ (24) Purdue
Jan. 21 - vs. Michigan
WISCONSIN BADGERS (9-2)
Key Win: Marquette
Key Loss: @ Alabama

The Badgers have not had any terrible losses, but if they want to be a Top 15 program, they need to learn to win in places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Bo Ryan's team never plays the prettiest game, but they play the game they want to play. Wisconsin is going to need a big man to step up and contribute since they are likely to be outmanned by Illinois and Purdue in that department. Do not ever count out the Badgers, because Ryan can always get his guys up to play.

NEXT FOUR BOILERMAKER GAMES
Jan. 7 - vs. (24) Purdue
Jan. 10 - vs. Northwestern
Jan. 13 - @ Minnesota
Jan. 17 - @ (19) Illinois
PURDUE BOILERMAKERS (10-3)
Key Win: Duke (Great Alaska Shootout)
Key Loss: SMU

As usual, Purdue is a team that is capable of mayhem, as evidenced by their win over Duke in Alaska. But, they are also a team that is capable of a letdown, like their loss at home to Southern Methodist. This rough and tumble team can make their opponents play a game as ugly as Gene Keady's comb over. A game against Purdue can drain the life out of their opponents, but these hard fought games can hurt the Boilermakers in the long run. Look for Purdue to start fast, but burn out in the long run.

NEXT FOUR HAWKEYE GAMES
Jan. 7 - vs. Ohio State
Jan. 10 - vs. (24) Purdue
Jan. 14 - @ Northwestern
Jan. 17 - vs. Iowa
IOWA HAWKEYES (7-3)
Key Win: Louisville (Indianapolis)
Key Loss: @ Northern Iowa

A Big Ten season has not been kind to Steve Alford since he was playing for the Indiana Hoosiers. Alford's teams in Iowa City have made some non-conference noise in the past, but then slowed down considerably in conference play. If Alford has many more seasons like that, the Hawkeye fans who want him gone might get their way. Things are not going to be easy when the Hawks hit the road in the Big Ten. Groups like the Orange Krush and the Gene Pool are going to be all over sophomore Pierre Pierce, who sat out last season following a sexual-assault charge. Plus, Alford hasn't endeared himself to many people in the Big Ten, so he shouldn't look for any sympathy.

NEXT FOUR GOPHER GAMES
Jan. 7 - @ Penn State
Jan. 10 - vs. Princeton
Jan. 13 - vs. Iowa
Jan. 17 - @ Ohio State
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS (7-4)
Key Win: None that jump out at you
Key Loss: Nebraska

Golden Gophers head coach Dan Monson left Gonzaga for a shot at the big time of the Big Ten. Monson hasn't exactly prospered in Minnesota's version of the Twin Cities and his new program has been surpassed by his old one. Their non-conference schedule looked a lot like their football non-conference schedule, with not a quality win to be found. They have had some troubles with the Big 12 in losing to Texas Tech and at home to Nebraska. Monson might want to head to the university physics department and see if he can find a professor who could make 4 clones of freshman Kris Humphries. The Gophers were able to lure Humphries after he signed with Duke and the Land of 10,000 Lakes native leads the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding. Minnesota could stun the conference and win the title, but don't bet on that happening.

NEXT FOUR BUCKEYE GAMES
Jan. 7 - @ (19) Illinois
Jan. 10 - @ Penn State
Jan. 17 - vs. Minnesota
Jan. 20 - vs. Indiana
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES (8-5)
Key Win: Villanova
Key Loss: San Francisco

Going into the season, Jim O'Brien's team was picked as the conference sleeper. Things went wrong somewhere on the way to the Maui Invitational. Due to an off-season surgery, O'Brien hasn't been able to raise his voice and isn't as effective as a coach. Plus, in a tune-up for their trip to the islands, San Francisco knocked off the Buckeyes. OSU has not been able to mesh their transfers, freshmen and players returning from injury into a cohesive unit. If they can get that done and O'Brien can talk loud enough to get after his players, it is not unthinkable that the road to the conference championship will go through Columbus.

NEXT FOUR NITTANY LION GAMES
Jan. 7 - vs. Minnesota
Jan. 10 - vs. Ohio State
Jan. 14 - @ Michigan State
Jan. 21 - @ (19) Illinois
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (6-5)
Key Win: No big upsets
Key Loss: No big upsets

Under first-year head coach Ed DeChellis, the Nittany Lions have stayed out of the headlines. No awe-inspiring victories, no program crushing losses and not much else. While Penn State is 0-0 in the Big Ten, they are 0-3 in the Big East after losing to Georgetown, Pitt and Rutgers. All this team needs is time, experience and players. DeChellis should prove to be a good hire for the program, but don't expect him to work a miracle anytime soon. The Lions should bring up the rear in the conference.

NEXT FOUR HOOSIER GAMES
Jan. 6 - @ Wisconsin
Jan. 11 - @ Michigan
Jan. 17 - vs. Northwestern
Jan. 20 - @ Ohio State
INDIANA HOOSIERS (6-5)
Key Win: @ Notre Dame
Key Loss: Temple, collapse against Mizzou

While the Assembly Hall in Champaign is still a place that many fear heading to, the Assembly Hall in Bloomington, IN is being owned by people other than the Hoosiers. Indiana blew a big lead against Mizzou and lost to a mediocre Temple team in the Hoosier house. They have not played well on the road in losses at Vanderbilt and Wake Forest. Plus, they got smoked by Kentucky in a neutral site game at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Patrick Ewing Jr. might want to see if his old man can send Yao Ming or Steve Francis to come help out.

NEXT FOUR SPARTAN GAMES
Jan. 10 - @ (21) Wisconsin
Jan. 14 - vs. Penn State
Jan. 17 - vs. Michigan
Jan. 21 - @ Northwestern
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (5-6)
Key Win: DePaul
Key Loss: 6 tough losses, but they should win a dome full of Spartans against Kentucky

The Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo went all over the country in non-conference play and took on any and all comers. Izzo wanted to toughen up his team for a long tournament run. The plan backfired as Michigan State lost games at Kansas, UCLA and Syracuse. Wait, there's more. The Spartans lost at home to Duke, at Auburn Hills to Oklahoma and in the Basket Bowl at Ford Field to Kentucky. MSU played everybody but the 1986 Celtics, the 1988 Lakers and the 1997 Bulls. Negotiations with those teams must have broken down. Izzo might have toughened up his team, but their sub par record could keep them out of the tournament. The preseason Final Four candidate needs to run roughshod on the league to be strongly considered for a high seed by the selection committee. The Spartans have enough talent to do just that.

NEXT FOUR WILDCAT GAMES
Jan. 7 - @ Michigan
Jan. 10 - @ Iowa
Jan. 14 - vs. (19) Illinois
Jan. 17 - @ Indiana
NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (5-6)
Key Win: Arizona State
Key Loss: Mississippi Valley State

It has never been easy for the Wildcats to compete in the Big Ten. But, Bill Carmody knew that when he took the reigns of the Northwestern program. Depth has always been a big problem for the Wildcats and this year is no different. Guards T.J. Parker and Jitim Young are the beginning and the end for Northwestern. The Wildcats have proven they can win games they are not supposed to (Arizona State) and they can lose games they should not lose (Mississippi Valley State). If the guards get hot, the Cats can pick up an upset or two. However, they just don't have enough bodies to make it through the physical play of the Big Ten.

No matter how poorly outsiders and talking heads view the Big Ten, true fans know that every game is tough due to the incredible athletes and the physical play. This is no different in 2004. Who ever comes out on top will consistently need solid play and strong leadership. A little luck doesn't hurt, either.

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