staff, November 21, 2011

We?ve heard it all offseason. With the departures of the likes of Jon Leuer, Talor Battle, Kalin Lucas, Darius Morris, Demetri McCamey, E?Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson, and Ohio State?s recently-departed class, most concluded that the Big Ten would be down this season. And there?s no reason to disagree with that.

The teams that brought back a ton of minutes from last season tended to be those at the bottom of the standings, while the teams that did well last year lost critical pieces. So it?s no surprise that the Big Ten is just not as good as it was last season, when it was the best conference in the country. Now, it?s only the best conference in the country.

Don?t believe me? As of this writing, the Big Ten is 39-5 against all other conferences, with the only losses coming against Duke, UNC, Alabama, Creighton, and Kentucky. No other conference can sport such a sparkling record. Sure, there?s still a lot of basketball to be played, and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge could certainly damage the Big Ten?s standing. But I?d be surprised to see the conference fall very far–if at all–in the efficiency standings.

While it?s certainly important to recognize the large pieces the Big Ten lost, it?s just as important to look at the broader landscape. Kemba Walker?s gone, Notre Dame lost most of the team, annual Big 12 Champ Kansas is definitely a notch below its usual strength, and adding two teams didn?t leave the Pac 12 any better. Really, what?s driving the Big Ten?s numbers is a lack of truly terrible teams. While Penn State figures to have a rough season, every other member of the conference is not only a quality team, but one that absolutely should be aiming for a postseason tournament. Whether all of those teams actually reach that goal remains to be seen.

Here?s what stood out in the weekend action:

  • Penn State was drilled by Kentucky in a 38-point loss and then followed that up with a 53-49 win over South Florida. The recipe for the Nittany Lions on offense seems to be Tim Frazier + Somebody, but that Somebody has been different every game. Finding a consistent second scorer will be the key to PSU?s season.
  • Purdue followed up an impressive win over Temple with a 65-56 loss to Alabama. The loss isn't too concerning, as Anthony Grant's squad figures to be one of the best in the SEC. That said, while the results have been respectable, there still should be some concern here. Over five games, four teams have scored at least a point per possession against the Boilers. That happened under 40 percent of the time in the regular season last year, and exactly twice in the non-conference slate. Purdue?s been winning with some fantastic offense (until they ran into the Crimson Tide, that is), but this isn?t a roster built on lighting up the scoreboard.
  • Iowa was hammered by Creighton 82-59. Though the Blue Jays are one of the better mid-major teams you?ll find (featuring possibly the nation?s best mid-major player in Doug McDermott), the severity and manner of the loss is concerning. For 40 minutes on Sunday, Fran McCaffrey?s team transported to two years ago, hoisting lots of three-pointers. I don?t think this was a sudden change in style, but rather evidence that Creighton was largely able to shut down Iowa?s interior scoring. The Hawkeyes managed to shoot just 38 percent inside the arc, and that?s a bad omen. For better or worse, Iowa?s offense is built on interior play. If Creighton can shut down Iowa?s post play, then how much trouble will the rest of the Big Ten have doing the same?

Everyone else took care of business as we enter Feast Week, which usually gives us the best non-conference matchups, but it?s kind of dry this season. Michigan?s matchup against Memphis in Maui tomorrow (and further matchups in the tournament) stands out of the marquee game of the week, but no other game comes close. So Big Ten fans can enjoy their turkey without the usual stress this season. But next week brings us the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, so you won?t have to wait too long to start pacing around the living room.