College Basketball: The Big Ten Isn't Very Good This Year
The Big Ten Conference is traditionally one of the better conferences in college basketball.
That's not the case this season.
With perennial powerhouses like Michigan State and Wisconsin, the conference is used to having at least one national title contender, usually more. But as a whole, this collective group is down when compared to the standard set in previous years, and it's definitely not as stacked as it seemed just a few months ago.
How bad is it? Let's take a look using Ken Pomeroy's team efficiency ratings.
Weak at the Top
A lot of time, fair or unfair, a conference is judged by how its teams do as far as national titles.
A conference may lack depth, but if a league member wins it all, it casts a positive light on the league. This is part of what's happened with the SEC in college football as their incredible seven-year run of national titles from 2006 to 2012 is a big reason it's viewed so highly.
Well, it's still somewhat early, but the Big Ten is a little weak at the top, at least compared to the league's recent history.
Using the ratings at KenPom.com, which are based on offensive and defensive efficiency, we can see just that. The Big Ten's highest-rated team, Wisconsin, sits 10th. You have to go all the way back to the 2009-10 season to find the last time the Big Ten's top-ranked team sat outside the top five.
|Season||Top-Ranked Team||Second-Ranked Team|
Furthermore, the league's second-best team, per the ratings, is Purdue, which sits 14th. The average ranking of the conference's second-best team over the last seven years is eighth, and the Big Ten's second-ranked team has fallen inside KenPom's top 10 in six of the last seven seasons.
For reference, the ACC has four teams in the top 11, and the Big 12 has three squads in the top eight. Even the 10-team Big East -- with four teams in the top 25, including three squads in the top 15 -- rates out as better this year than the Big Ten.
Middling Middle Tier
While the top of the conference still contains two very good teams, it gets ugly after Purdue and Wisconsin.
In recent history, the Big Ten peaked with a truly incredible year in 2012-13, when five teams ended the year ranked in KenPom's top 12. That kind of depth -- having the league's fifth-best team be the 12th-ranked team in the nation -- is rare for any league, but the Big Ten has been on a steady decline since then, bottoming out this season.
Indiana (27th), Northwestern (33rd) and Minnesota (38th) are up next, but none of those teams fall inside the top 25. Over the past six seasons, on average, the Big Ten's third-ranked team has checked in 11th in KenPom's ratings, while the fifth-best team has ranked an average of 24th.
|Season||Third-Ranked Team||Fourth-Ranked Team||Fifth-Ranked Team|
However, when it comes to getting teams into the big dance, the Big Ten is still in good shape.
Over the past six seasons, on average, the Big Ten has put 6.67 teams into the NCAA Tourney. Per our bracketology, the conference currently has seven teams in, but the Hoosiers, who we have as an 11 seed, are on the bubble.
Who's to Blame?
A lot of teams shoulder some blame here, especially when considering the conference is lacking quality depth despite Northwestern and Minnesota doing a lot better than most people expected.
First and foremost, Michigan State is one of the bigger culprits. Traditionally one of the best teams in the country, the Spartans sit 47th in KenPom's ratings. Amazingly, Tom Izzo's team has finished outside the top 10 in the nation, per KenPom, just once in the past five years, and that lone exception was a still-pretty-good 15th-place ranking in 2014-15.
The Hoosiers have had a down year, as well. Actually, they've had a crazy year.
Indiana has beaten Kansas and North Carolina, two of the country's six best squads, per our rankings, but they've also lost to Fort Wayne and Nebraska, both of whom are outside of the top 75. Expected to contend for a conference championship, a crown they've won twice in the previous four years, Indiana has a fight on their hands to make the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa has fallen off, too. The Hawkeyes have been remarkably consistent over the past four years, ending each of those seasons ranked between 22nd and 29th, according to KenPom's ratings. This year, though, Fran McCaffrey's bunch sits 86th.
On the Bright Side
As we mentioned, Minnesota and Northwestern have been feel-good stories for the Big Ten, at least through the early portion of conference play.
Under Chris Collins, the Wildcats have been steadily improving, and this may be their year to make the dance for the first time in school history. It is a year for snapping streaks in the Chicago area, after all. The Wildcats are currently a 9 seed, per our models, and they're fresh off a 35-point drubbing of Iowa.
The Gophers have been dancing just once (2013) since 2010, but our bracketology has them firmly in the tourney as a 5 seed. They ranked 192nd in KenPom's ratings a year ago, but they've climbed a cool 154 spots this season.