FOGG: Big Ten basketball mirror image of football

Earlier this week I wrote a column about how the Big Ten surprised everyone with its depth in football this season. Now that conference play has begun in basketball the opposite appears to be true.

The Big Ten is painfully under-performing in basketball.

In football the teams went 7-1 in bowl games, but for everything that went right during the fall season, the opposite is happening early in the winter basketball season.

You may look at the top of the league with Michigan State being ranked first in the country, and Purdue catching steam at 13th, and think that the league is just fine. The problem is that after the top two teams the quality of play drops off dramatically. Looking forward the Spartans are betting favorites to cut down the nets in March, but with the lack of league depth and a favorable schedule, seeing if Tom Izzo can win out is a legitimate question.

It’s almost as if we’re living in the Twilight Zone, where the Big Ten is better than the SEC in football, and the SEC is better in basketball. Also, just like the SEC in football, the Big Ten has two top teams and a whole lot of nothing after that.

At the current rate the league may only get four or five teams into the tournament, with some of the usual regulars being sent to the NIT or even worse, nothing at all. So far that second group of teams in the league looks to be made up of Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State and Maryland, but each of those teams have had scares in non conference play. Although, Michigan has settled down of late with wins over UCLA and Texas, and Minnesota looked sharp on Thursday night against Illinois. Maryland is fighting a couple of injuries that look to be serious and could drop early in league play.

The bottom of the league is rough to watch on some nights. Wisconsin, usually the model of consistency, already has seven losses, and Indiana has been blown out by Indiana State and Fort Wayne.

At this rate Hickory High could at least stay within 15 points of the Hoosiers.

The bad losses don’t stop there for the Big Ten. Normally a couple of upsets happen, but this year is unique in just how many we’ve seen. Iowa lost to Louisiana-Lafayette and South Dakota State, Rutgers lost to Stony Brook and Hartford, Illinois lost to New Mexico State, Penn State lost to Rider, and Maryland lost to St. Bonaventure. Part of this may have to do with the gap between major and mid-major programs closing, but not this much.

Michigan State and Purdue have gone a combined 8-2 against power conference (plus Gonzaga) teams this season, with each one going 4-1. The rest of the league is as abysmal 13-30 against power conference (plus Gonzaga) teams so, and 8-17 against teams in  the AP top 25.

The league is just beginning the long stretch of conference games (each team did play two conference games in December), and it’s now time to watch many of the teams beat up on each other.

Maybe the only positive about this is that each game will be competitive in a NIT-semifinal kind of way. There will likely be quite of few games down the stretch between two teams on the bubble, which will at least make it interesting. At least a team or two will distance itself from the middle of the pack by much, or at least I hope that’s the case.

I don’t expect this to be a long-term problem for the conference, there are too many good coaches and the Midwest is generally fertile in recruiting, but this season is going to be rough at times.

For now, all you can do is sit back and enjoy announcers referring to bad basketball as gritty Big Ten basketball, and be content with reading between the lines.

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Posted by Brian Fogg

Brian is the sports writer for the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach him at (231) 398-3110 or bfogg@pioneergroup.com.

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