Three conference teams are ranked, including Ohio State.
Big Ten basketball is back — conference games start Tuesday night with Purdue at Iowa and Penn State at Minnesota — and that leads to the annual holiday season question:
How good is the Big Ten?
“I think our league has done a good job, but not a great one,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “There are some games a couple teams would like to have back. There were a couple of games we surprised some people. I think we’re in a good position.”
Three Big Ten teams are ranked — No. 4 Purdue (11-0), No. 9 Michigan State (9-3) and No. 17 Ohio State (10-2). The Buckeyes will become even more formidable when superstar guard Evan Turner returns from a back injury.
Purdue and Michigan State loom as the favorites, with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois as the biggest threats, Northwestern as the biggest surprise with its 10-1 record and nine-game winning streak.
“Purdue has veteran guys and they’re playing like that,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “Michigan State has some talented guys, but they’ve changed some roles, added some new guys and had a few ups and downs.
“It’s as competitive as we thought it would be.”
Competitive is fine, but is the Big Ten the best conference in America? The answer is complex.
“We’ve had a few setbacks early that maybe weren’t expected,” Weber said, “but we’re all growing up and trying to figure it out.”
The Big Ten figured it out enough to win the Big Ten-ACC Challenge for the first time, get seven league teams ranked and win well over 70 percent of its non-conference games.
Still, Big Ten bashing remains and Michigan State Tom Izzo has had enough. When the conference annually lost its ACC Challenge, he said, it was national news.
“This year we do win it and I haven’t heard about it.
“A lot of our teams have scheduled tougher and when you do that, you do lose some games. It’s almost like we’re not allowed to lose any. Winning on the road is not easy. Because we have scheduled tougher, there will be more losses.”
Perhaps, but some losses came like body blows. Illinois lost to Utah, Bradley, Georgia and Missouri. Michigan State lost to Florida, North Carolina and Texas. Ohio State lost to North Carolina and Butler.
The Big Ten is 2-3 against the Missouri Valley, 0-2 against the Mountain West, 1-5 against the Big 12, 2-5 against the SEC.
Izzo, whose team was ranked as high as No. 2 in preseason polls, has questioned his team’s ball-handling and defense. He said, after the Texas loss, that the Spartans were “not hungry enough.”
Still, the Big Ten has had big wins, with Purdue topping the list by beating then-No. 9 Tennessee and rallying from a 16-point second-half deficit to win at Alabama. Wisconsin upset No. 6 Duke and No. 18 Maryland. Ohio State beat No. 13 California and No. 21 Florida State. Minnesota beat No. 12 Butler. Illinois rallied from 23 down to win at No. 18 Clemson. Michigan State beat Gonzaga.
The Big Ten is 3-1 against the Big East, 3-0 against the Pac-10 and 7-7 against the ACC.
What does all this mean for the Big Ten season?
“To see Purdue win like that on the road is a great endorsement for where this league is at,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “And how many better comebacks will you see than what Illinois did at Clemson? There are so many things you can point to that will make this Big Ten season a good one.”