That success has carried over into the new season, highlighted by Thursday night's battle between the two Final Four teams from a year ago. However, the rapidly developing story in the Big Ten is the conference's parity. While Illinois and Michigan State are both excellent teams, they will rarely get a night off in a conference that still features 8 potential NCAA tournament teams. Highlighting that depth, both the Illini and the Spartans fell over the weekend.
The common theme? Michigan State started out with two nearly impossible road wins, and Illinois went into Carver Hawkeye Arena on Saturday and got a taste of their own medicine. Home court advantage is huge no matter what school you play at, but nowhere is it bigger than during Big Ten play. Over the first week of the season, Big Ten home teams are 9-1.
Not only do Big Ten road teams have to deal with travel in poor weather conditions, hostile arenas, and shooting on baskets that they aren't used to, but also must find a way to overcome a significant disadvantage from the men in stripes. In the ten Big Ten games thus far, the home team has averaged nearly 20 free throw attempts per game. The road team has gotten to the stripe just 12 times per game. If the home team can do its job with the freebies, they are being handed a 6 point advantage. That doesn't even take into account the intangible disadvantages of a team being more likely to get into foul trouble.
This phenomenon was blatantly obvious in both Illinois and Michigan State's weekend losses. The Iowa had a 32-15 free throw attempt advantage over the Illini, while Michigan State's disadvantage was 30-15.
The message here: Big Ten contenders beware. This league is full of parity, and the officials aren't going to do you any favors on the road.
This early season stretch should be crucial, as nearly every top team in the conference plays one other in the month of January. Here is how I see things shaking out come March.
Michigan State (12-4, 0-2) – Call me gutsy, or maybe I'm just stupid. The Spartans took it on the chin this weekend, and schedule doesn't get any easier for the next several weeks, but this team will be fine. It seems that Michigan State has always played its best basketball in March, and this squad is as talented as you would expect a Tom Izzo club to be.
If Dee Brown doesn't get a couple of prayers answered in the first half, it would have been a different game against Illinois, and Izzo will get the kinks worked out before too long. The thing I am most worried about here is fatigue, as Drew Neiztel, Shannon Brown, and Ager will be lucky to get a breather most games. That spells trouble when you are trying to push the tempo.
Peering Ahead: Talk about running the gauntlet. Already at Illinois and Wisconsin. Indiana. At Ohio State. While you're at it, could you head down to Auburn Hills and take on the Pistons? This schedule could spell trouble...
Illinois (15-1, 1-1) – The Illini have played great defense under Bruce Weber in the past, but Thursday night brought new meaning to the term. Considering Illinois is playing an entirely new brand of basketball and how many newcomers are in the regular rotation, this team's early success is nothing short of miraculous. The young talent is contributing, and should be enough to carry the program to future success when Dee Brown and James Augustine are gone. As Saturday showed, there are still plenty of issues here that could keep the Illini from winning the conference. Brown remains a streaky offensive player, and Illinois needs to find somebody else to step up. Nonetheless, Thursday saw an outstanding effort from a team that has now earned a spot amongst the contenders. Iowa won't beat Illinois in Champaign.
Peering Ahead: Illinois will get it more chances to solidify their stop in the national rankings with a visit from Michigan and a road trip to Indiana.
Indiana (10-2, 2-0) – Mike Davis appears to have life in Bloomington, as the addition of Marco Killingsworth has vaulted Indiana into this top group. Everybody knew the burly big man could score, but I don't think anybody outside of the heaviest Hoosier faithful thought he would be this good. The return of DJ White makes this team downright scary in terms of physicality, athleticism, and overall talent. White missed time early with an injury, but may still be the best big man in the conference. Indiana hasn't exactly proven itself yet, as wins over Kentucky and Michigan may or may not look nice on the resume come March. Watch Davis' guard play, which has been catastrophically poor over the last two seasons. The Hoosier guards tore up the twine in the second half against Ohio State, and Indiana needed every shot to secure the win. Peering Ahead: Home dates against Ohio State and Illinois surround a trip to East Lansing. It doesn't get much tougher than that. Davis only needs one or two wins over this stretch to keep the fanbase from getting antsy.
Ohio State (11-1, 1-1) – Thad Matta is on a roll. Beyond picking up the top recruiting class the Big Ten has seen since the Fab Five, his current Buckeye squad is went undefeated in the non-con and are the owners of two near miraculous come-from-behind wins. The first took place at Iowa State, where the Cyclones almost never lose. The second came against LSU, where the Buckeyes overcame a late second half double-digit deficit with a barrage of 3-pointers. The Buckeyes are winning by keeping the mistakes to a minimum, hitting clutch shots, and utilizing some pretty impressive perimeter depth. This team might not stand up to a top three team's best effort, as certainly was the case against Indiana, but Ohio State will beat you if given the slightest opportunity. If you are looking for a freakish stat, consider this: Senior wing Je'Kel Foster is shooting 64% from the floor.
Peering Ahead: The Buckeyes have it no easier than the other top Big Ten teams, with games against Michigan State and Wisconsin over the next two weeks.
Wisconsin (12-2, 2-0) – Wisconsin is a young, inexperienced team, but has still found success early in the season. The Badgers have quality wins over Old Dominion, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette, and recently beating Iowa and Michigan State to open the Big Ten. The two losses are understandable, as this green group fell at Wake Forest and at Pitt. Where Ryan usually relies on trusted leaders and defensive excellence, this year the Badgers are led largely by youth and feature one of the most efficient offensive attacks in the nation. The emphasis slow pace does remain, however. If Wisconsin is to truly contend, they will need to find a way to win on the road. We all know that the Badgers can win at the Kohl Center, but what happens when the tables are turned.
Peering Ahead: The Badgers appear to be sitting pretty at 2-0, but will now must take the show on the road against
Iowa (12-4, 1-1) – Steve Alford's team may have turned a corner late last season, but the Hawkeyes ran into trouble whe Jeff Horner went down with a knee injury in mid-December. Horner is now back, but this team still has plenty of offensive issues. Horner is currently shooting well below 40% from the floor, and Adam Haluska hasn't given that junior year bump in production. Fortunately, Alford's veteran-laden lineup can lock teams up on the defensive end. The Hawkeyes gave Illinois a taste of their own medicine on Saturday, and will win their fair share of games until somebody figures out how to bust their halfcourt D.
Peering Ahead: Games against Michigan State, Indiana, and Ohio State in January alone mean it could get ugly pretty quickly for Steve Alford.
Michigan (11-2, 1-1) – Tommy Ammaker finally has a full roster, but hasn't reeled in that first big win of the season. A road victory against Notre Dame is nice, but the Wolverines came up short against UCLA and were denied in a close one versus Indiana in their conference opener. The Wolverines did get a win against Purdue on Saturday, but it was close the entire way. That isn't a good sign. This team is as physically formidable as they come, with NBA-level athleticism at nearly every position. Daniel Horton has played like a senior for the most part, but reverted to his old ways against the Bruins. Courtney Sims is good, but only in games where the Wolverines don't need him to win. The key here is finding mental consistency and at least a bit of cohesion on the offensive end.
Peering Ahead: Mark your calendar for the week of January 22nd, Wolverine fans. Michigan will host Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Minnesota (9-3, 0-1) – The Golden Gophers got off to a rough start due to the injury troubles of Vincent Grier and Mo Hargrow, but a light schedule has worked in their favor. The Gophers are still capable of matching last season's surprising run, but performances like Saturday's egg against Northwestern aren't encouraging. Vincent Grier is one of the top handful of players in the conference, and has put the injured finger and a one game suspension behind him. This team has little inside presence, and is not at the same level defensively as it was last year. It still isn't clear what will happen with Minnesota this year, but the early signs aren't good.
Peering Ahead: There is hardly an off night in the Big Ten this year, and the Gophers have a late Jan / early Feb stretch of at Iowa, Michigan, at Illinois, Indiana, and at Ohio State. We probably learn what these Gophers are made of at that time.
The Cellar Dwellars
Northwestern (8-4, 1-0) – Bill Carmody basketball isn't very pretty, and this year it doesn't appear to be very good. With this type of pace, you aren't going to need that dose of NyQuill to put you to sleep. The Wildcats won their season opener against Purdue, but don't figure to move much higher than 9th overall. Northwestern has nothing to surround Big Ten leading scorer Vedran Vukusic with, now that center Michael Thompson has left the squad. Vukusic did get a bit of help on Saturday against Minnesota, but the Wildcat supporting cast will have to show up against a good Big Ten team before I put any stock in them. It should be another ho-hum season in Evanston.
Peering Ahead: Northwestern has one more winnable game this week against Penn State. Then it will get ugly.
Penn State (8-4, 0-1) – There isn't much to talk about when it comes to the Nittany Lions, because they really haven't played anybody. Blowout losses to Pittsburgh and Ohio State don't bode well, however. Geary Claxton is a productive young player, but it has been a while since this program was even close to competitive in the Big Ten.
Peering Ahead: If Penn State wants to win a couple of games in the Big Ten this year, they had better do it early. They are at Northwestern on January 11, and host Purdue a week later.
Purdue (6-7, 0-2) – I am a big Matt Painter fan, but this was likely a bottom 3 or 4 Big Ten team even before a horrifc (for the Boilermaker faithful) rash of injuries and roster attrition. Touted junior college point guard Tarrance Crump blew his chance before the season even began, David Teague tore his ACL, and then Carl Landry decided to take a redshirt to further rehab his knee. The hits just keep on coming, as freshman Nate Minnoy blew out his knee this week. Give this team credit for sticking with Michigan on Saturday, but Painter will have enough trouble finding five warm bodies to put on the floor, let alone win games. Freshman guards Chris Lutz and Korey Spates will be thrown to the dogs early and often, and Connecticut transfer Marcus White looked much better when he was simply a complement to Landry.
Peering Ahead: Circle home dates against Northwestern (1/25) and Penn State (2/18), if you are curious as to when Purdue might actually come away with a win.
Pre-Conference Big Ten Awards
Big Ten MVP G Dee Brown
All-Big Ten Team G Mo Ager G Vincent Grier F Alando Tucker F Marco Killingsworth C Paul Davis
Big Ten Newcomer of the Year (Freshmen and JC Transfers) G Sylvester Mayes, Ohio State
Defensive Player of the Year DJ White, Indiana
Coach of the Year Bruce Weber, Illinois
This weekend's action:
1/7 – (12:05) Purdue at Michigan
1/7 – (2:00) Northwestern at Minnesota
1/7 – (2:05) Illinois at Iowa
1/7 (4:00) Ohio State at Indiana
1/8 (1:30) Michigan State at Wisconsin
Jonathan Watters was born and raised in the Midwest, and has followed Big Ten Hoops since childhood. He is the Director of NCAA Scouting over at Draftexpress.com (www.draftexpress.com), and regularly updates his FoxSports.com (blogs.foxsports.com/jwatters) blog.