Thursday, January 29, 2009
Big Ten Race - One for the ages.
The 2008-09 edition of the Big Ten race is shaping up as one of the most entertaining in recent memory. Out of the 11 teams, 10 of them are legitimate contenders for a chance to hoist the trophy on Selection Sunday as the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament (sorry, Indiana). Now, why did I single out the Hoosiers? Frankly, they are just not that good this season, Yes, they have come close to winning some game within the conference, but close just doesn't cut it in this league this season, and as of Wednesday, was 0-7 in Big Ten play. There have been some major surprises this year as well, namely the Fighting Illini. Last season, Illinois had one of their worst seasons in the last decade, and with all of the off-season drama that went on, wasn't expected to do much better this season. But, with a senior nucleus of Chester Frazier, Trent Mecaham, and Calvin Brock a year older and wiser to boot, they have rallied some of the younger players and have stormed out to a 5-2 mark in conference play as the mid-point of the race draws ever so closer. We all knew that Michigan State would be the cream of the crop again this year, and they have not disappointed, leading the Illini by a game. But what else has transpired within the conference has made many a sportswriter or casual fan just shake their heads. Wisconsin losing 5 Big Ten games in a row? Unthinkable! Northwestern defeating Michigan State at the Breslin Center? Preposturous! Michigan looking like world-beaters early on by defeating both Duke and UCLA, and now coming down to earth once they get into conference play? More common. It's been that kind of a year in the Big Ten, and it doesn't seem to be letting up any. Ohio State came in looking to be one of the front runners, but a couple of injuuries and a transfer has relegated the Buckeyes to middle-of-the-road status. Iowa, who have sat near the bottom of the conference the last few seasons, have improved a bit with their new coach Todd Lickliter, but still have a ways to go. Penn State, a scary team the past couple of years, may have turned the corner and looks poised to challenge for one of the top 5 seeds in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. Purdue is as talented as anyone in the conference, but a couple of key injuries to star players allowed the Illini to go into West Lafayette at the beginning of the conference season and steal a road victory. Minnesota, under Tubby Smith, is challenging for one of those spots as well, and they are the next opponent for the Illini (8:00 pm Thursday, Big Ten Network). What is unique about this series is that the Illini have won the last 20 meetings between the two schools, dating back to the 1999-2000 season. So, the last 4 coaches for the Golden Gophers have not been able to defeat the Illini. Not Dan Monson. Not Clem Haskins. Not Jim Molinari. And so far, Tubby Smith falls into this category. But, this is a different Minnesota team that we are dealing with these days, and it won't be easy. Nothing comes easy in the Big Ten these days. And yes, I believe that even Indiana will get a victory that they shouldn't. Teams need to be prepared to play night in and night out, because if they are not, then a loss is almost certain. Back to Northwestern and Michigan State for a moment. The Spartans have been almost unbeatable at the Breslin Center, and in the 300th game played there, they took on the feisty Wildcats, who had a wickedly successful shooting night. No game is a gimme anymore, and they all need to be earned. As Weber's philosophy states, take care of business at home and hope to steal one or two on the road, and you are in line for a conference title. Which is where the Illini find themselves right now. A win over Minnesota will allow them to keep pace with Michigan State, and will make the game between the Illini and the Spartans all the more important in Champaign when they play at the end of Februrary. The games have all been very enjoyable to watch thus far, and if this is any indication of how the Big Ten Tournament will be, then fans are in for a huge treat when all 11 teams converge on Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in early March. The race is on!