January 4, 2009

Big Ten basketball is on the rise

MADISON, Wis. -Over his time on campus, Wisconsin senior Joe Krabbenhoft has heard about the Big Ten conference being down, that top to bottom, it does not have elite status among the power conferences. The Badger senior has also been around long enough to know better.

"I don't know, I'm not a TV analyst or one of those guys that comment on that," Krabbenhoft, whose Wisconsin team is among one of only two undefeated teams left in Big Ten play, said. "But the Big Ten's good every year, trust me."

The stigma surrounding the Big Ten in recent years has been its consistently lower echelon programs such as Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan lowering where the conference is regarded. The top of the line programs such as Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and, up until recently Indiana, was capable of playing with anyone. But the depth of the conference was continually knocked.

"They've (pundits) been doing that for how long?," UW head coach Bo Ryan, who has never finished lower than fourth in league play with the Badgers, recently said. "Then the ACC had a down cycle for a while, the Pac 10 here….So it's just conversation."

But this season, it seems it has developed into something more substantial than just talk around the water cooler. With the first week of league play in the books, the conference has an overall record of 116-35 and has only one team (Indiana) with a losing record. Other than the Hoosiers, the only other team yet to reach double-digit wins is 8-4 Northwestern.

"I think we've got a great league," Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis, whose team is enjoying a 12-3 record to this point, said. "I think we've got an exceptional league. I think the league is as strong as its ever been. I don't think there's a bad team in the league.

"You better bring your 'A' game every night if you're going to win some games in this league."

Comparing the conference with the other 'BCS' leagues, only the ACC, Big East and Big 12, who all have more teams than the Big Ten, have more total wins. If one were to take those average wins, though, and compare it to the Big Ten's (10.5) to this point, the numbers are relatively staggering.

ACC teams are averaging 10.75 wins across the board and Big 12 teams are at 10.58. Otherwise, the Big Ten is better than the SEC (10.25), Big East (10.25) and Pac 10 (9.3) at this point in the season.

"The Big Ten is good," UW senior Marcus Landry said prior to the start of the conference slate. "We got a lot of great teams in the Big Ten and as you've been seeing, they've been playing well. Every team has been playing pretty good."

During the non-conference portion of the schedule, Big Ten teams faired well against some of the nation's best programs. Michigan beat both UCLA and Duke, Michigan State beat Texas in Texas, Wisconsin won at Virginia Tech, Minnesota upended Louisville, Illinois beat Missouri and Purdue blasted Davidson and Stephen Curry.

So following the opening week of conference play, it should not be surprising that only two teams remain undefeated because this league is much better than it has been in years past. The winner of the league will be battle tested and highly prepared for a deep run in March's NCAA tournament.

"(It's) tough," Krabbenhoft said. "The team who's most mentally tough, most mentally prepared going into every game is usually the team that comes out on top. If they don't come out on top that specific game, by the end of the Big Ten season, they're going to be right up at the top.

"Mentally you've got to be ready and physically you've got to bring it every night because you know the other teams are going to."

That has already been established in the early stages of the conference schedule. Unranked Wisconsin went into No. 24 Michigan and handled the Wolverines. Unranked Illinois went into No. 11 Purdue and stole an overtime win. Penn State took care of Northwestern and nearly upset the Badgers in the Kohl Center and Michigan State has started league play with two-straight conference road wins.

"Whether it's (the conference) up or down or in the middle, I don't know," Krabbenhoft said. "That's for somebody else to sit there and say. No one really knows, but in my mind, the Big Ten in one of the top conferences every year."

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