Night Line: Big Ten Proving Superior to ACC and the RestPosted by EJacoby on November 30th, 2011
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist. You can find him @evanJacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
The major focus on day one of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge was the thrashing suffered by No. 5 Duke in Columbus at the hands of No. 2 Ohio State. But before the Buckeyes finished off their 85-63 beatdown of the Devils, fellow Big Ten schools Northwestern, Illinois, and Purdue had already completed at least nine-point victories of their own. The Big Ten now holds a 4-2 advantage over the ACC at the halfway point of the competition, and its teams are favored in five of the six remaining games on Wednesday. The Big Ten has only won this inter-conference challenge twice in its 12-year history, and never by more than a single win. We could be looking at the first-ever convincing Big Ten victory in the event, and it’s fitting given the strength and depth of the league this year.
With Ohio State’s domination of Duke, the Big Ten clearly outclassed the ACC in a battle of two of its top teams. The Buckeyes improved to 7-0 on the season, one of five undefeated teams in the conference, and that includes Illinois and Northwestern, both of whom won convincing road games on Tuesday over Maryland and Georgia Tech, respectively. Neither team has looked spectacular as of yet, but both the Illini and Wildcats are building solid non-conference resumes to boost the Big Ten’s early RPI ratings. Purdue’s win over Miami improved the Boilermakers to 7-1 on the year, with a loss only to a very good Alabama team, and Robbie Hummel is leading the push for Matt Painter’s team to return again to the NCAA Tournament.
Elsewhere, Indiana sits at 6-0 and looks like one of the most improved teams in the nation; they’ll get a chance at a big road win at NC State on Wednesday. Michigan State and Michigan (after Tuesday’s upset loss at Virginia) both have suffered two losses during grueling schedules, but both have also looked like tournament teams in the process. Wisconsin brings its undefeated record as heavy underdogs to the unfriendly confines of Chapel Hill on Wednesday, but the Badgers’ national-best defense has a chance to make a serious statement if they can hang with Carolina. All in all, that’s eight teams from this league who right now look worthy of joining in the Big Dance.
Looking at the challengers, not a single undefeated school remains in the ACC. Though North Carolina and Duke will be top teams all season, it’s unclear right now if there’s even a third surefire NCAA Tournament lock in the league. Virginia improved to 6-1 with its 80-68 upset win vs. Michigan, and Mike Scott is one of the top low-post scorers in the conference. But this team also has a bad loss to TCU on its resume, and will need to play a true road game before we can really judge them. Florida State certainly passes the eye test of a tournament team, but they already have two losses on their record, and it could be three when they head to East Lansing on Wednesday. Its other big non-conference game will come at Florida on December 22, and the Seminoles could be looking at a resume without any signature wins in the non-conference slate before they hit their relatively weak conference schedule.
Over in the Big East, the conference that sent a record 11 teams to the Big Dance last year has no chance to repeat that feat this time around. The league has already lost six games to teams ranked #101 or worse in the RPI. There are still some Final Four-caliber teams in this conference, but the depth is severely lacking in comparison to the Big Ten. The SEC and Big 12 have five and four teams ranked in this week’s AP Top 25 poll, respectively, and look to be the real challengers to the title of top conference. The SEC boosts the country’s most talented roster with Kentucky, a certain national title contender, while Florida and Alabama are both top-15 teams right now. Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are also ranked teams, but the league gets quite thin after that. We haven’t seen teams like Auburn, Mississippi, or Arkansas beat anyone of significance, while Georgia, Tennessee, LSU, and South Carolina have all suffered three or more losses. The Big 12 might not have any really bad teams, but they are lacking the firepower up top to match a team like Ohio State. Are there more than five NCAA Tournament teams in either of these leagues?
The debate over the best conference in the country is one that takes place every season, all year long. It’s not likely to be any different this time around. But the Big Ten has earned the right so far to be mentioned first in this debate, and its conference’s results are making it tough to argue for any other league. Both Ken Pomeroy at kenpom.com and the stats gurus at TeamRankings.com have the Big Ten as the highest rated conference, by a wide margin, in their respective power ratings. It’s only a matter of time before casual fans across the country start to recognize the impressive depth we are seeing from the 2011-’12 Big Ten. The only question is whether the league will be able to keep it up. Tomorrow night’s games will perhaps tell the tale.