The Big 10 is the best conference in college basketball. Or maybe it’s the worst. Who really
BY MATTHEW COWLES
The story of the Big Ten so far has been one of parity. Home teams are 67-24 through the first
13 games of conference play, and there have been several instances of teams blowing out
opponents on their home courts, and then promptly being blown out when they travel (Maryland
losing by 18 to Iowa on the road and then winning by 10 at home comes to mind). The Big Ten
is by far the strongest conference at home of the major conferences, and this parity raises
questions about the viability of the conference come March, when all games are played on a
neutral floor against opponents that many of the teams have never seen before. So let’s take a
look at the current top 5 of the Big Ten, and see if any of them might have what it takes to win
the NCAA title.
MARYLAND (AP #9, NET #8)
Why they will win the NCAA Tourney: Jalen Smith and Anthony Cowan Jr.
I realize it’s cheating to pick two players in a segment about one reason Maryland will win the
Big Ten, but it is impossible to separate the impact that these two players have on Maryland.
Both are among the 20 finalists for the Wooden Award, given to the best player in college
basketball. Smith is the anchor of a ferocious Maryland defense (allowing 62 points per game),
averaging 2.5 blocks per game. He has found his rhythm offensively as well, leading the Big
Ten in three point shooting at 47% in conference play on his way to posting 7 straight double
doubles, averaging 18.7 points and 12.3 rebounds over that stretch. Cowan is Maryland’s
distributor, posting 4.3 assists per game to go along with his team leading 16.7 points per game.
If Maryland is going to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, it will be because of the play
of their dynamic duo.
Why they won’t: The shooting (or lack thereof)
Maryland is by far one of the worst shooting teams in the Big Ten, at 41%. Couple that with a
three point percentage well below league average at 31%, and you have a recipe for disaster
come tournament time if the shots aren’t falling. The two main culprits for the poor shooting are
sophomores Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins. Both shot over 40% from the three as freshmen and
have regressed to shooting below even the 30% cutoff. Ayala has recently shown signs of
returning to form, shooting 40% from distance over his last 5, and Maryland will need that to
continue to make a deep run in March.
PENN STATE (#13 AP, #18 NET)
Why they will win the NCAA Tourney: Consistency
Penn State does not have the typical profile of a top tournament team. While Lamar Stevens is
the focal point of their offense (17.5 points per game), he does not have quite the star power of
the typical tournament winner (or even some of the other players in this article). What Penn
State does have is an above average offense (77.5 points scored per game) and a good, but
not great, defense. This adds up to a team with the third best point differential in the Big Ten,
and a gaudy 19-5 record that has Penn State in fantastic position to claim at least a 4 seed in
the NCAA Tournament, and from there, consistency is key. Penn State has it in droves.
Why they won’t: Lack of Experience
This is the first time Penn State is in position to make the NCAA tournament in years, and all of
the current crop of players weren’t even alive last time Penn State was ranked in the AP Top 25.
That obviously sparks concerns about if this team will be able to handle the increased pressure
that the win or go home tournament environment provides. All signs thus far point to yes for this
historic team, but you can never know in March.
MICHIGAN STATE (Unranked, #10 NET)
Why they will win the NCAA Tourney: Pure Talent
Michigan State is by far the most deep, talented team the Big Ten has to offer, and may even be
the most talented team in the country. Led by senior guard Cassius Winston, the reigning Big
Ten Player of the Year, and forward Xavier Tillman, who is thriving in an increased role after his
Big Ten 6th Man of the Year award last season, the Spartans have put together an impressive
season by the numbers, with a league leading +10.8 scoring margin on the year. The metrics
love the Spartans, and it remains to be seen if they’ll meet those expectations.
Why they won’t: Baffling Inconsistency
Michigan State should have a better record than it does, which is impressive for a team sitting at
17-8. Some of the losses are understandable; dropping games against Duke and Kentucky is
expected of nearly everyone except the best. But losing by 30 against 14-11 Purdue, or
dropping a home game against a Virginia Tech team that sits 10th in a very weak ACC makes
much less sense. The Spartans have yet to prove they can win anywhere except in East
Lansing, sporting an ugly 2-4 record away from home in conference play. Unless Michigan State
can iron out the consistency issues, it’s easy to see them heading home early.
IOWA (#21 AP, #26 NET)
Why they will win the NCAA Tourney: Luka Garza
Iowa might just have the best player in college basketball on their team. Luka Garza, the
Hawkeyes’ junior center, is averaging 23.1 points and 10 rebounds a game, while shooting 55%
from the floor and 38% from the three. That is a 5 point difference between him and the next
closest player (Daniel Oturu, Minnesota). He is the engine behind Iowa’s league leading 79.1
points per game. Those are the kind of numbers that can drag your team to a title.
Why they won’t: That Defense
Calling what Iowa does when the opposing team has the ball “defense” is a bit generous. They
give up 72 points per game, second worst in the Big Ten after cellar dweller Nebraska.
Opponents shoot 43% from the floor and nearly 35% from the three, which sounds good. But
those numbers both rank near the bottom of the Big Ten. Iowa doesn’t force turnovers, they give
up too many offensive rebounds, and they don't block nearly as many shots as a team with a 6’11 monster at center should. Teams that win titles don’t usually have this obvious of a
weakness, especially on the defensive end.
ILLINOIS (#22 AP, #37 NET)
Why they will win the NCAA Tourney: Rebounding
Illinois is one of the best rebounding teams in the country. Led by 7 foot freshman Kofi
Cockburn and guard Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois gobbles up nearly 40 rebounds per game, while
allowing opponents second chances on only 25% of their offensive possessions. Illinois also
grabs 13 boards on the offensive end per game, on nearly 37% of their possessions. This wide
margin means that opposing teams have to tire themselves out on the defensive end, and
Illinois has been taking advantage, with a 16-8 record.
Why they won’t: They can’t beat the best
Illinois has played 6 games against ranked opponents. They have won one of those games, and
the team they beat (Michigan), is no longer ranked. This does not bode well for a Final Four run.
Illinois projected for a seed in the 6-9 range come tournament time, and that would put them in
line to play a 1 or a 2 seed in the Round of 32. From what we’ve seen from Illinois so far, they
have no hope of winning that game.
In short, all of these teams have their glaring weaknesses that could prevent them from heading
home with a title. And of course, there are other Big Ten teams that are nearly as strong as the
teams mentioned above (Ohio State, Michigan, and weirdly, Rutgers come to mind), and there
are still 4 weeks until Selection Sunday for things to be clarified (or made more confusing).