Big Ten Competition Will Exceed ExpectationsPosted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 10th, 2014
Trey Burke is now running the pick-and-roll for the Utah Jazz. Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller are currently trying to improve the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats, a year removed from dominating college basketball. About a week ago, one of the biggest questions about the Big Ten was about the lack of star power in the league this season. The aforementioned trio of players dominated headlines last year and this season’s biggest returning star, Mitch McGary, will not be around for most of the season due to an injury. Still, after the first week of the conference schedule, it is safe to say that despite the lack of star power, the level of competition between teams in the league will not be any different than it has been. There might not be several NBA lottery picks on these 12 squads, but teams shouldn’t take any conference match-up for granted. A handful of key games over the last week-plus have shown everyone just how competitive this league will be over the next 10 weeks.
If you turned off the Michigan State – Ohio State game Tuesday night because the Buckeyes were down by 17 late in the second half, you made a big mistake. Sure, the Buckeyes’ offense isn’t pretty in the least, but there is something to be said about the way they muscled their way back into the game. And yes, part of the comeback was allowed by the Spartans’ lackadaisical attitude during the final six minutes, but it was still impressive to see Thad Matta’s team storm back without their main offensive weapons on the court. Both LaQuinton Ross (13.7 PPG) and Lenzelle Smith Jr. (12.7 PPG) were on the bench with just 12 points combined while Aaron Craft and Sam Thompson tied the game by scoring in transition and playing tough defense. During last season’s game in East Lansing, Shannon Scott put up a horrible shot during the final possession of an incredible game. Ironically, he almost won the game this time with a steal and transition layup during the final five seconds of regulation. The star power for Ohio State may not be there right now, but players such as Mark Loving are growing up right in front of our eyes during these games and could end up as household names by the end of March.
Speaking of players who could make the all-conference team but were not on the radar two months ago, Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice has averaged 21.0 PPG and 8.0 RPG over his first three games. With his ability to get to the basket off the dribble, the Illini may be better than expected in competing for a spot near the top of the second tier of the league standings. Even if they don’t make the NCAA Tournament this season, expect them to challenge the top teams in Champaign, bringing back a stellar homecourt advantage that had weakened over the past few seasons. Look no further than the overtime thriller on New Year’s Eve between the Illini and Indiana to see how competitive the middle of the conference could be this year. Without McGary in the lineup, Michigan can’t take any game for granted, which will make most of their games very competitive and exciting to watch as well — the Wolverines’ close win on the road at Minnesota shows that they will have to earn every one of their wins.
Home court advantage doesn’t mean much when the top four teams – Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa – play each other. In addition to the Tuesday night barnburner in East Lansing, Big Ten fans were also rewarded with an excellent game on Sunday night between Wisconsin and Iowa. Once again, it was tough to top last year’s game in Madison between these squads, when Sam Dekker nailed a three to lead the Badgers to victory in a double-overtime thriller. But Sunday night’s game featured an 11-point halftime deficit that the Badgers had to overcome to pull off a close win against a very hungry Hawkeyes team. And if you don’t think the coaches’ feel the intensity of these games, check out Fran McCaffery’s outburst again. Extrapolating the first week of action may be a bit premature, but we’ve seen four games and eight teams that will compete for something every night – whether it may be the conference title, a postseason bid, or just competing at home against ranked teams. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that conference competition will be just as exciting this year; heck, it could be even better.