For the first three months of the season, I admired the Big Ten from afar.
Michigan’s Trey Burke was impressive on television. The environment at Indiana’s Assembly Hall seemed spectacular. The battles between schools such as Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois -- and, of course, the Wolverines and Hoosiers -- looked intense.
Embarrassed as I am to admit it, I don’t think I truly appreciated the Big Ten -- at least not as much as I should have.
Then came last week.
A three-game road trip through the heart of Big Ten country made me realize how special this conference is in 2012-13. The talent level is up, the fervor and emotion on the court and in the stands is unparalleled, and the parity is at an all-time high. Coaches every season say there are no easy games in conference play, but in this year’s Big Ten, it’s actually true.
In some ways I felt as if I was witnessing history as I watched games in Bloomington, Ann Arbor and East Lansing. As Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, the Big Ten has never been this good. And it may never be again.
Here are a few other thoughts that stuck during last week’s roadie:
1. I can’t imagine someone from a non-Big Ten school winning the Wooden Award. Burke, the outstanding Michigan point guard, and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo are the leading candidates, and it’s probably going to take a mammoth February for someone such as Creighton’s Doug McDermott or Duke’s Mason Plumlee to catapult into the top spot.
Burke is averaging 18.2 points and 7.1 assists per game, but it’s the command he has on the court and his play in big moments that impresses me the most. This is his team. I loved Burke’s resiliency during a back-and-forth battle with Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft. Moments after Craft stole the ball from Burke during the waning seconds of regulation, Burke sprinted down the court and stripped the ball from Craft just as he was attempting a layup that would have won the game. Then he came up with another big play when he blocked Craft’s midrange jumper with nine ticks remaining.
Oladipo might be the top perimeter defender in the country. It’s tough to truly appreciate his energy, effort and relentlessness until you see him in person. He never takes a play off, which is probably why he is averaging 5.8 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 2.5 assists to go along with his 14.3 points a game. The cherry on top of Oladipo’s statistic sundae is that he is shooting 64.5 percent from the field. I also love his temperament on the court. Never too high or too low.
2. The only problem with Burke’s great season is that it’s overshadowing an outstanding effort by Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. The son of the former NBA guard is averaging 16 points on the season and 19.7 points in his past three games. “We couldn’t dial up plays for him fast enough,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after Hardaway Jr. scored 23 points against Ohio State. Hardaway Jr. has made 10 of his last 17 3-point attempts, including one that would have given Michigan a win in Saturday’s game at Wisconsin if not for Ben Brust’s desperation heave at the buzzer that forced overtime.
3. The best coaches are never satisfied no matter what their record is or the outcome of a game. I was reminded of this about a half hour after Michigan State’s 61-50 win over a solid Minnesota squad in East Lansing on Wednesday, when Tom Izzo spent most of his postgame news conference lamenting all that is wrong with the Spartans, who had just improved to 19-4.
Branden Dawson isn’t playing with energy, the team lacks chemistry, guys are banged up. On and on Izzo went.
“I’ve been 19-4 three or four times in my career,” Izzo said. “I don’t mean for it to sound as down as it is. This is no doubt the toughest the Big Ten has ever been.
“Tonight was a big win for us, and I’m going to take it as a big win. But I’m not going to be one for fool’s gold. They’ve got to get better, and they will get better.”
That, folks, is why Izzo is a perennial Final Four contender and a future Hall of Famer.
4. If you forced me to choose, I would pick Indiana as the Big Ten’s top team right now. But the one weakness the Hoosiers have is their bench. Yes, I realize it’s not a huge weakness. If it were, Indiana wouldn’t be 21-3 overall and 9-2 in conference play. Still, Indiana needs to get more production from its reserves, who averaged just 6.5 points in victories over Michigan and Ohio State. Will Sheehey scored 13 points off the bench in Thursday’s loss at Illinois.
5. I was surprised Ohio State didn’t put up a better fight in Sunday’s 81-68 home loss to Indiana. After watching the Buckeyes against Michigan five days earlier, I was convinced Thad Matta’s squad had what it took to win the league title. The chances of that happening now appear slim -- Ohio State is two games out of first place -- but that doesn’t mean this team can’t make a significant run in the NCAA tournament.
The Buckeyes have improved as much as any team in the league since the start of conference play. The biggest question around that time was whether Ohio State had much beyond veteran point guard Craft and scoring machine Deshaun Thomas.
Against Michigan, I watched LaQuinton Ross go off for 16 points before Lenzelle Smith Jr. hit a huge basket in the waning seconds of regulation that helped force overtime. Amir Williams and Sam Thompson combined for 16 points and six blocks while shooting a combined 6-for-7 from the field.
This is hardly a two-man team.
6. I’m not sure any conference rivals the Big Ten when it comes to home-court environments. I’ve been to nine of the 12 venues. Michigan’s is the fanciest (though Nebraska may have something to say about that a year from now), Indiana’s is the loudest and most intimidating (at least recently), and Purdue’s is the most underrated. I attended a rather "blah" game at Michigan State’s Breslin Center, so I may not have gotten a true feel for how rowdy things get there. I've never been to Iowa, Penn State or Illinois.
7. Is Tubby Smith in trouble? The thought of Smith losing his job would have been tough to fathom a month ago when the Gophers were 15-1 and potential contenders for the league title. Minnesota, though, has lost six of its past eight games and is in danger of finishing conference play with a sub-.500 record. Minnesota has made just two NCAA tournaments in Smith’s five seasons, and the Gophers lost in the first round each time. A third straight first-round loss -- or missing the NCAA tournament altogether, which seems unlikely -- may lead Minnesota to make a change.
8. Nebraska is just 3-8 in the league and 12-12 overall, but it’s hard not to be impressed with the job first-year coach Tim Miles is doing in Lincoln. Miles took over a bad program that finished 12-18 a year ago and lost five of its top six scorers. He basically had nothing to work with, or so it seemed. Nebraska has lost by single digits to Ohio State and Wisconsin and was still in the game against Michigan and Michigan State with less than five minutes remaining. Nebraska’s new basketball arena will be among the country’s best when it opens next season. If Miles can sign a few good players, the Cornhuskers could be an upper-half Big Ten team within three years. Their fans will definitely fill the arena.
9. Purdue is 12-12 overall and 5-6 in conference play, but the Boilermakers won’t be down for long. When you lose players such as Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson during a two-year stretch, you’ll almost always take a step back. Matt Painter is one of the top X’s and O’s coaches in the game, especially when it comes to defense, and Mackey Arena is a tough environment for any opponent. Look for the Boilermakers to be back in the Big Ten title hunt within a year or two.
10. I’m not sure fans in most Big Ten cities realize how good they have it when it comes to newspapers. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the space publications such as the Indianapolis Star and Detroit Free Press devoted to their coverage of Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and the Big Ten in general. Multiple well-written stories before and after each game, insightful columns and quick-hit notebooks. They didn’t miss a thing. The first thing I did each morning was trudge down to the hotel lobby to purchase a paper, and that hasn’t happened in a while.