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COLUMN

Big Ten basketball dominance – does it matter now?

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For more on Big Ten athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

True relevance waits on conference action

Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - 2:41 am

So here is the Big Ten, running roughshod over college basketball. Six conference teams are ranked, and four are in the top 10, led by No. 1 Indiana. Three teams are unbeaten, topped by No. 10 Illinois (11-0). Third-ranked Michigan is 10-0. IU is 9-0.

Conference squads score more than anybody else (a 73.1 average, with Indiana leading at 89.1), and out-score opponents by the largest margin in the country (13.2 points, IU again leading at 31.7). The RPI ratings put the Big Ten as the nation's best conference. Overall the conference has a 91-24 record.

Does all this winning have Big Ten relevance?

Let's take a look.

Everybody knows scoring will drop along with margin of victory once conference play begins. Today's race-horse basketball –- few teams push the pace as well as Indiana, Illinois (“They might have as much speed as any team in the country, which is a scary thought,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said about the Illini), Michigan, Iowa and Michigan State -– will morph into the half-court Big Ten battles we've grown to appreciate.

“What's going on now doesn't prove what will happen in January, February and March,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “Teams always look faster in November and December. I've been in this league 12 years and I don't think this is anything new. Trying to judge the Big Ten by the non-conference isn't a good comparison.”

Even the toughest non-conference schedules are loaded with home patsies. For financial reasons, every team has to have a certain number of home games -– in other words, guaranteed money games. You pay, say, Coppin State or Central Connecticut State to come to Assembly Hall and get waxed.

“We're usually playing teams we're probably deeper than,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “Right now everybody in the league is an up-tempo team. When you get into conference play, when everybody has all the goods on you and knows what to take away from you, it's different.”

Is there a surprise Big Ten team? You could make a case for Illinois under first-year coach John Groce or No. 13 Minnesota (11-1 with its only loss to No. 2 Duke) or even Nebraska, which is 8-2 with a win at Wake Forest as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn't buy the whole “surprise” thing.

“I expect Big Ten teams to win every (non-conference) game,” he said. “I can't say anybody has surprised me. I've seen teams with great wins and close games. It's part of the maturation of figuring everything out.”

Maturation is crucial give the looming Big Ten battles. Parity is everywhere you look, perhaps even more than last year, when Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan shared the Big Ten title with 13-5 records.

“When I look at the depth of our league,” Illinois's Groce said, “it's about as strong as I've ever seen it.”

The silver lining is if you do well in Big Ten play, you earn a high NCAA tourney seed. Do mediocre and you're still likely in the field. Do poorly and you're looking at the NIT, or worse.

Nobody understands that better than Purdue coach Matt Painter. His Boilers have the Big Ten's only losing record, at 4-5. Much of that comes from a rigorous non-conference schedule that has staggered a youthful squad.

Purdue played at Eastern Michigan and lost. It played two games in New York as part of the exempt 2K Sports Classic and lost, once in overtime. It lost at home to good Bucknell and Xavier teams. Painter blames team immaturity when he doesn't blame himself.

The losses have been close (all less than 10 points), but it doesn't matter. A six-year run of NCAA tourney appearances is in jeopardy.

Painter took a chance with the road trip to Eastern Michigan. Over the years he hasn't been afraid to play at mid-major teams in non-conference play. In recent years Purdue has also played at Indiana State, Evansville, Ball State, Valparaiso and Loyola.

“A lot of people won't do that,” he said. “We've proven we've done that in the past. We'll continue to do things of that nature, especially in the Midwest. I just wish we could play better.”

Painter said playing at mid-major schools has Big Ten benefits.

“It helps us. You have to get your guys out there and see how they react to being on the road, to not getting the calls.”

Indiana has crushed all comers, especially at Assembly Hall. It faces its last real non-conference challenge on Saturday against Butler (7-2) as part of the Crossroads Classic at Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

But the Hoosiers won't play a true road game until Big Ten action begins. Could that leave them vulnerable, especially early? Is non-conference strength of schedule important given the grind of Big Ten play?

“We don't spend a lot of time on the strength of schedule part of it as much as projecting where we think somebody's going to be inside of that year,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “You try to look at the statistics. You try to look at their past, who they have coming back. You try to put some of those factors in and say, 'OK, this team might have been this way last year, but they have these many guys coming back. This guy was injured.'

“Whatever the situation is, you just want to do as best as you can. As far as the higher end of it, we're trying to counterbalance the Big Ten/ACC Challenge with playing a home game, when we're going to be on the road and vice-versa, and then trying to find the best situation for us that year when it comes to the exempt tournament.”

IU rotates between Butler and Notre Dame as part of the Crossroads Classic. It has played Evansville and IUPU-Indianapolis under Crean.

“I think the other thing is trying to play more in-state schools,” he said. “We've been able to do that more and more.”

In the end, the goal is to be Big Ten ready, and time grows short. Conference action begins Dec. 31 when IU plays at Iowa (8-2) and No. 19 Michigan State (8-2) plays at Minnesota.

You can argue whose non-conference schedule was the best for Big Ten preparation, but this much is certain:

It's going to be brutal, bruising -- and hurt so good.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.