The Big Ten race is starting to firm up—at least a little bit. Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin look like they may be the best teams in the league. But it’s too early to count out Indiana and Illinois. It’s gonna be a fun title chase to watch unfold.
From time to time, I like to catch up with media members who cover the Big Ten to get their thoughts on the conference. I talked to former Flyin’ Illini great and ESPN analyst Stephen Bardo to get his thoughts on this wild Big Ten race.
Q: What team has surprised you the most?
A: Earlier, I would have said Indiana definitely was a surprise. I saw them in the preseason and I thought they were gonna be pretty good, but I didn’t know they would do as well as they did early (beating No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State). They have fallen recently and did a good job of building confidence early, but conference play has a way of bringing you back down to earth.
Q: Any disappointments in your mind?
A: That’s hard to say because the conference is so balanced. But if I had to pick one, I would say Northwestern. They got that big win at home vs. Michigan State, but for a while they were three points away from having just one loss in the Big Ten. They lost at Michigan in overtime, they lost to Illinois by one at home. They have had their opportunities, but they haven’t gotten over the hump. I don’t know if there are any upsets in the Big Ten, it’s just a rugged, rugged conference.
Q: Who is your player of the year right now?
A: Mine is gonna surprise some people. I’m a big Trey Burke fan, actually. He is making some people say “Darius Who?” If Darius Morris had come back, I think Michigan would have been right there with Ohio State as a preseason conference favorite. But Trey Burke is a better fit for Michigan than Darius Morris ever was. He gives them an element of quickness and an ability to score consistently from the point without taking away from the other guys. Zack Novak, Tim Hardaway Jr., I think they thrive with Burke at the point moreso than when Morris ran it. So, right now, the player who has surprised me the most, and the Big Ten Player of the Year right now, I have to say is Trey Burke.
Q: Some people think the Big Ten could get nine teams in the tourney. Do you think that’s reasonable?
A: I think people are looking at the weakness of the Pac-12, maybe the top-heavy nature of the SEC, and some people think there will be some other “power six” conferences that won’t get as many teams in as they normally do. Nine is a stretch. Eight is a stretch for me, even. Possibly seven with Minnesota starting to surge a little bit. But it would be a hard stretch for me to see more than seven out of the Big Ten right now.
Q: Who is your coach of the year?
A: I have to say Bo Ryan. A lot of people had Wisconsin left for dead after it lost two at home, which it never does. But they have righted the ship. And going in to Illinois and winning that game the way they did, that just goes to show that this guy, Bo Ryan, his teams are always gonna be right there. But now they look even a little more dangerous than just being a good team. They look like a dangerous team right now. Given how their team started the Big Ten and where they are right now, I have to say Bo Ryan.
Q: When it’s all said and done, who’s gonna win the Big Ten?
A: Ohio State. They stubbed their toe a little bit early and they’ll drop maybe one or two more games in conference play, but I think the loss at Illinois woke them up a little bit because they have been stellar since. They had a defensive lapse there when they let Brandon Paul go crazy (43 points). But ever since then, they seem to be stout on the defensive end and back to sharing the basketball a bit more. And Deshaun Thomas and Lenzelle Smith Jr., those guys really give them a lot of depth and variety in the way they can attack you.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Read more one on one interviews like this one, find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.