The numbers don't lie. The Big Ten is as good as it's ever been in basketball, better if you believe Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“It's been good before, but not as good as this year,” he said. “This takes it at a whole other level. I guess we're talking about the SEC in football. We have a number of teams beating each other up at an incredible rate. I think it's great for our conference.”
Six Big Ten teams are ranked, and that doesn't count Wisconsin, the best team right now with a 4-0 league record.
How do you explain such excellence?
Izzo points to the coaches.
“When I first came into this league, I thought we had an incredible group of coaches with Bob Knight, Clem Haskins, Gene Keady, Tom Davis, Lou Henson. It was an unbelievable cast who had been at it 15 years or more. Then it broke up a little bit.
“Now I think it's one of the greatest coaching conferences in the country. You look at our bottom teams, and some of those have our best coaches. You look around and some unbelievable guys have joined the ranks, and the ones who have been here have been pretty solid.”
Izzo is the Big Ten veteran. He's in his 18th season and won his 200th conference game Wednesday night at Penn State. He's won 427 games overall.
Wisconsin's Bo Ryan has the best Big Ten winning percentage in history at 71.5 percent (136-54). That's better than No. 2 Thad Matta (71.1 percent) and No. 3 Bob Knight (70.0).
Ryan has also won 663 games overall.
Michigan's John Beilein has won 658 games. Minnesota's Tubby Smith has won 505 with a national title while at Kentucky. Purdue's Matt Painter has won three conference coach of the year awards in his eight seasons. He has 194 career wins in nine overall seasons.
Ryan also points to the fan interest -- “basketball is revered in the Midwest. It means something on each campus” -- and strong recruiting.
“There are a lot of good players in the Midwest,” he said, adding that today's Big Ten strugglers could soon turn it around.
“If you look at it, if you're not getting it done now, the future looks bright,” Ryan added.
The immediate future could include a strong postseason showing. Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota all are or have been in the top 10, and have the potential to make a Final Four run. A grueling Big Ten season, even if it results in more losses than normal, is excellent postseason preparation.
“You've got to face a lot of different looks,” Ryan said. “That helps in the postseason.”
Added Izzo: “I don't think there's any question that the better competition you play, the better prepared you are. Especially in this league -- people are playing zone, man, pressing. You get a wide variety of different offenses and defenses. That's been good.
“It gives you the best chance in March because you've faced the toughest crowds in the country and faced some of the best coaches and the best players in the country.”
Badgers on to next challenge
Bad mouth Wisconsin (13-4) all you want. Say its fast Big Ten start came from an easy -- by Big Ten standards -- schedule. Say it's lucky.
While you're saying that, the Badgers are 4-0 in the conference and looking to stay there for a while.
You win at Assembly Hall, which has become as difficult a place for visiting teams to play as there is in the country, and you're set up for a long wave of success.
“If you're going to beat a team like this,” Ryan said after the IU victory, “you have to have a lot of things go well. I thought we took pretty good care of the ball considering their pressure and as athletic as Indiana is.
“The thing in this league is, let's enjoy it for 24 hours and then we know we've got to get ready for Iowa at Iowa.
“But I really liked how hard our guys played and the adjustments that the guys made on the court.”
IU threw all kinds of defensive pressure at Wisconsin, with minimal success. The Badgers only had eight turnovers compared to 12 assists. They held the Hoosiers to just three fast-break points, none in the second half.
“We know that if they got into transition,” Ryan said, “they can score in bunches. All you have to do is look at their game films. Our goal was to not let that happen, but saying it and doing it, have it as a plan, are different things. It just so happened to work (Tuesday night).”
Izzo gets national award.
Izzo will receive the Wayman Tisdale Humanitarian Award. The award goes to an individual involved in college basketball who has made a significant positive impact on society. ESPN announcer Dick Vitale and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski won previously.
Izzo has coached the Spartans to one national championship and six Final Fours. His record is 426-172 in 18 years. More than 80 percent of his players graduate. He's an active volunteer in the community and is involved in fund raising for Coaches Vs. Cancer, Volunteers of America, Sparrow Hospital and the V Foundation for Cancer Research.
Tisdale is a former standout college and NBA player who died in 2009 after a two-year battle with cancer.
"Few coaches in collegiate athletics have endured and excelled like Tom Izzo," said David Gillikin, 2012 chairman of the Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year Award Advisory Board, in a release. "His record of achieving the highest levels of success on the court together with his focus and success in graduating his players and positively impacting the community make him the ideal selection and adds another very significant name to the growing list of Tisdale Humanitarian honorees."