Badger Nation's View from the Box

With teams like Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State and Penn State, teams picked to finish in the middle of the conference, registering impressive victories and giving the Big Ten the No.2 RPI and No.1 Strength of Schedule in the land, the teams are proving that the conference is back with a vengeance.

MADISON — Sick of other conferences calling the Big Ten a laughingstock? Help may be on the way.

And no, it's not on the gridiron. For the third consecutive year, the Big Ten somehow managed to con the BCS into letting two of its members past the velvet rope and into a party where they don't really belong. As a result, not only do Penn State and Ohio State have their hands quite full with USC and Texas; but the rest of the conference's teams must play one bowl up from where they should, which could mean another frightful bowl season for the Big Ten.

So while the rest of the country continues slaying the Big Ten on the field and in the message boards around New Year's Day when the league has won only two of its seven bowl games, perhaps it's time for Big Ten loyalists to shift their attention to the hardwood a little sooner than normal.

No, it's not like the Big Ten has been tearing up the hardwood lately. In the preseason polls this year, only Purdue and Michigan State were in the top 15; UW was the only other ranked team.

Last season, only four Big Ten teams made the tournament, and went a pedestrian 5-4 there.

The year before that, six teams made the field, and Ohio State went to the championship game – granted, with the help of a certain 7-foot diaper dandy – but the Buckeyes found themselves quite lonely in the Sweet 16. No other Big Ten team made the third round.

And in the 2005-06 bracket, there were six teams once again, but the Sweet 16 was completely devoid of Big Ten teams. Iowa, a 3 seed, was upended by Northwestern State, and Michigan State fell victim to eventual Cinderella team George Mason.

So, if you're a senior at UW, pretty much your Big Ten highlights have been Greg Oden, Greg Oden, and a brief UW stay at No. 1, which was quickly squashed by ... Greg Oden.

However, while the Badgers have struggled early this season – losing to UConn and at Marquette and looking very shaky against Idaho State on their home floor – this could easily be the most intriguing Big Ten of the past four or five years.

Having covered Big Ten basketball for the past two years, there's something strangely unique about this upcoming hoops season.

Once you get past Indiana, who clearly needs a miracle to not finish last (and then I'll go out on a limb and say Iowa will place tenth), there's a stunning sentiment I can't get out of my mind.

I have no idea who's going to finish first, no idea who will finish ninth, and absolutely no clue how they'll shake up in between.

Have you ever seen such parity? Coaches love dropping the whole, "every team in our league is difficult, anybody can beat anybody" line, but this year, it really makes sense, doesn't it?

Take the ACC-Big Ten Challenge from two weeks ago, for example. In its 10-year existence, the ACC has made the Big Ten its little whipping boy, never losing the inter-conference battle.

But while the Big Ten came up just short this season, it easily could have come away with its first victory if the ball had bounced a different direction once or twice.

Wisconsin and Ohio State both went into hostile environments, ending up in close games … and won. Minnesota, perhaps the big sleeper of the year, was solid against Virginia and is now 9-0 on the year.

Check out Northwestern and Penn State, the conference's two traditional pipsqueaks. Northwestern thrashed Florida State at home, and Penn State strolled down to the Peach State and knocked off Georgia Tech at home. Don't question the strength of the Seminoles and Yellow Jackets; those two teams are 13-0 this year when they don't have to face those Big Ten heavyweights.

The list goes on. We obviously know what the Boilermakers and Spartans can do, though both teams have had a couple rough starts like Wisconsin. Michigan fell to Maryland, but has already slain a couple of fourth-ranked teams this season in UCLA and Duke. Illinois should be better, and a two-point loss to Clemson (which could have won the Challenge for the Big Ten) has been the Illini's only loss in ten tries this year. Even Iowa went to Boston College and hung in there, losing by just two points.

Shoot, even Tom Crean has weaved magic already in Bloomington. For crying out loud, he and his junior high intramural squad have stumbled into a winning record thus far with a ten-point win last night over Texas Christian.

In other words, every one of the Big Ten's members has shown they could be a potential force this season. For the lesser programs, the trick is, of course, keeping up that solid play for an entire season. But there legitimately is no clear line between the upper tier and lower tier anymore.

It's just another sign that the Badgers have to wake up from this mini-slumber here to start playing the way they believe they can, or it could be a longer, more disappointing year than the one UW's football players just endured.

Of course, if that happens, there's always the women's basketball team to root for. Where the heck did they come from?

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