Big Ten: average or great? We soon will find out

It seems every radio show I am on, I’m asked this question: Is the Big Ten the best league in America? Or, it is an average league with a lot of good teams?

It’s a good question, and one that we soon will find out.

The conference doesn’t appear to have an elite team. Michigan State was the closest thing to that template when the season dawned, but injuries have proven ruinous for the Spartans.

Wisconsin has the fewest overall losses of any team with just five. But all five defeats have come in Big Ten play. Even worse, the losses came during a horrid 1-5 stretch earlier this winter that saw the Badgers’ 16-0 start implode amid a cloud of doubt. Since then, however, Wisconsin seemingly has regained its form with seven wins in a row and a No. 9 national ranking that is tops among Big Ten teams.

Yes, Michigan just wrapped up the outright Big Ten championship last night, but are the Badgers the league’s best team?

[ MORE: Our top 5 moments on the way to Michigan B1G crown ]

It’s an interesting debate. But this isn’t debatable: No other Big Ten team stands as tall as Wisconsin and Michigan, who appear to be the league’s best hope for a deep March run. However, potential fatal flaws exist for all the contenders.

Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa can score but won’t soon be termed “ferocious” defensive teams. Michigan State has been riddled by injury and an apparent lack of leadership and indifference. Ohio State can defend, but the Buckeyes struggle in the half court. Nebraska can defend, too, but it has issues at the point and in the pivot.

The good news for the Big Ten: There doesn’t appear to be any “great” team out there. All the top contenders for the national championship have shown vulnerabilities—and lost some dubious games.

Arizona has lost to Arizona State and Cal.

Florida has lost to UConn.

Syracuse has fallen to Boston College and Georgia Tech.

Kansas has lost to Oklahoma State, Colorado and Texas, among others.

Villanova has gotten hammered twice by Creighton.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

You get the picture: Lots of very good teams—maybe no great ones. Sounds like the Big Ten.

The hyper-analysis of the modern era often leads to harsh critiques of teams. We seem to know too much about every squad, aware of every flaw and imperfection. And we often focus on the negative of each squad, picking it apart to the nth degree.

And pressure is added by the incessant speculation via mock brackets that begin coming out before the season has even broken a sweat, often times feeding and fueling unrealistic expectations.

[ MORE: View Stephen Bardo's latest Big Ten Power Rankings ]

“We get that question in December now (about seed),” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We get it in November. I don’t care right now. How can we beat Michigan State (on Thursday)? How can we keep getting better? When the time comes, we’ll deal with that. It drives me crazy. You watch ESPN, that’s all they talk about. Who is going to make a run? Who is the No. 1 seed? Why are we talking about the No. 1 seed in February?”

Conference play often brings out the worst in teams. Why? Familiarity. All of these schools know each other inside and out. They know tendencies of each player … they know each team’s plays, strategies, go-to moves. … You name it, it’s on a scouting report that has been studied, studied some more and practiced ad nauseam. Bottom line: You aren’t gonna fool anybody or surprise anybody. Especially in a league that is as deep and balanced as the Big Ten is this season. Anyone can beat anyone on any given Wednesday night. We’ve seen it … every week.

Penn State over Ohio State—not once, but twice.

Northwestern over Wisconsin.

Nebraska over Michigan State.

Indiana over Michigan.

Illinois over Michigan State.

The only certainty all season has been the uncertainty.

But once teams get out of league play and into NCAA play, things will loosen up. Big Ten schools will begin to play foes who aren’t as familiar with all of those strengths and weakness. And, that could allow the league to show its true power–the type of power that had many touting the Big Ten as the nation’s No. 1 conference in the preseason.

[ MORE: Check out the latest Big Ten standings ]

When the season began, Michigan State was No. 2 in the AP poll. Michigan was No. 7; Ohio State No. 11; Wisconsin No. 20. Now, Wisconsin is No. 9; Michigan is No. 12; Michigan State No. 22; Iowa No. 24. So, not too much seemingly has changed.

As stated earlier, Wisconsin and Michigan look to be the best-equipped to make a deep runs in search of the league’s first national championship since Mateen Cleaves led Michigan State to the promised land in 1990-2000. The Badgers and Wolverines are copies of each other on many levels, dynamic offensive teams with good guard play who are well-coached.

So, wait, Big Ten fans. Be still. Be quiet. Be patient. The conference’s chance to shine will be here soon enough. And it will be fascinating to see how the league fares once it’s outside its own familiar family.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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