Rugged Big 10 A Headache For Everyone

Winning a championship in a tough conference like the Big 10 is never easy, especially this year. All teams want the crown; it is their primary reason for working so hard throughout the year. Nearly all Big 10 schools established their credentials during the nonconference season, and now they must face each other twice in most cases. It is a physical and mental drain on every participant.

P>Illinois has a sparkling 17-3 overall record and 5-2 in the Big 10 Conference. But the team cannot rest on its laurels. Four of the Illini's wins have been at home, while both of their league losses have been on the road. To achieve their dream of a championship, the Illini need to win all their home games and snatch a few more victories on the road.

But that is easier said than done. Every team that lost to the Illini in the Assembly Hall, even lowly Indiana, wants payback at their place. And given the topsy-turvy nature of the conference this year, anything is possible. It is far too early to guess the ultimate winner. Too many upsets lie ahead.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber described the dilemma all Big 10 coaches face this year at a recent teleconference.

"Every game is important. If you can win at their place, obviously it gives you an advantage. Now you've got to come back and beat them at your place. We beat Purdue there, and now we've got to come back and beat them at our place. Michigan State just went through the Northwestern deal. They got one up on Northwestern, but then they couldn't finish the job at home. So it's important.

"Purdue and Michigan State have both won at Minnesota. If we're gonna stay in that elite group at the top, this (upcoming game at Minnesota) is important. So many things can happen as we saw last week. There's too many games to say 'these guys are in control. Or, this team's slipping.' A lot of things can change very quickly.

"It had to be one of Northwestern's low moments when they lost to Purdue the way they did, and then they came back and beat two quality teams, two top 20 teams."

Because road victories are difficult to obtain, Weber has created a method of evaluating the league to this point. He gives 1 plus for each road victory and 1 minus for each home loss. The schedule is not yet half over, so some teams have played more home games than away ones, and vice versa. The + and - rankings can be compared as the rest of the games play out.

Weber says Michigan State has an early advantage as it already has 4 road wins to its credit.

"Michigan State is +3 because they've won four road games and lost one home game. Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota are +1, and then Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State are at zero. Then some guys are at -1, and Indiana is at -3. Michigan State's done a great job of winning road games, and that's what it comes down to. If we want to keep up with those guys, we're gonna have to do it."

With so many teams having talent and confidence, it is rare to find a breather on the schedule. And if you take a team lightly, it is capable of rising up and winning. Weber reminds how many road victories have occurred already this season.

"Michigan State has won, we won at Purdue, obviously the Northwestern game (at MSU), Ohio State winning at Michigan. There's some pretty nice wins. I believe we're the only team in the league that hasn't lost a home game.

"So that's pretty quick. Usually, you have 2 or 3 teams who are undefeated or almost undefeated at home for most of the year. So I think it shows you there's such great balance in the league. You have to be ready. You can't have a slip up."

Another reason why so many teams are capable of winning on a given night is the quality of coaching in the Big Ten. There isn't a slouch in the bunch. They all have different styles and philosophies, so it can be tough preparing on short notice for approaches you don't see frequently.

"The different styles is a big factor in preparation," Weber explains. "You might only have a day or two of preparation after coming back from a tough game. And you've got to give them a day off somewhere. Those things become a factor in getting ready for the next opponent."

Another reason for the unpredictability of conference games is the luck factor. All coaches like to say they make their own luck, but some things are hard to explain by conventional means. For instance, last year Illinois was last in the league in free throw shooting defense. Of course, there is no defense for free throws, but opponents had a higher shooting percentage against Illinois last year than any other team in the league.

This year, Illinois leads the nation in free throw shooting defense. Weber tries vainly to explain it.

"You hope somewhere you break people's spirit, I guess. Playing at home, the Orange Krush have some nice antics. But I think you just get fortunate that team isn't shooting quite as well. I'm just happy we're shooting a better percentage than we have in the past."

One pundit actually did a study suggesting the Illini were the unluckiest team last year and the luckiest this year. Weber ponders that possibility.

"Last game, you get Chester banking one in, and Chester with the flipper-doodle off the glass with reverse spin and it goes in. If you're winning and have a good attitude and confidence, things maybe go your way."

Illini guard Trent Meacham is experienced enough to understand the necessity of focusing only on the next game on the schedule.

"Every game is huge, home and away. It's gonna be another dogfight in the Big Ten. That's what is great about college basketball. On any given night, anybody can win. You know it's gonna be tough. That's why we love to play."

Michigan State may lead the conference right now, but anything is still possible. Standings and national rankings mean little right now according to Illini center Mike Tisdale.

"You can't pay attention to rankings, especially in the Big 10 this year. It's a tough place to play, and everybody is good. So the rankings don't mean much right now."

Illini guard and team leader Chester Frazier reminds how tough a long season can be on an athlete physically and emotionally. If you cannot maintain concentration for several months in a row, unexpected losses can result.

"It takes a toll on your body. Waking up for class at 8:00am, coming in to practice, in the evening having to study, it's a long day. You've just got to get used to it and keep grinding it out.

"It's just a tough schedule for everybody. You can't take any games lightly. You really have to earn it. You have to be ready to play every night."

After some tough seasons, Frazier and his teammates are benefitting from their early success and are not yet burned out from the length or difficulty of the schedule.

"I'm happy where we are right now. I think we could have stolen a few more games on the road. Right now, we're fighting for the Big 10 championship."

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