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Wednesday, January 15
Updated: January 16, 12:37 PM ET
 
Battling for every W part of life in Big Ten

By Jeff Shelman
Special to ESPN.com

Want a way to irritate your favorite Big Ten coach? Want to get under his skin and see his blood boil like it does after some backup guard throws the ball to the other team?

Tell him there's no way the Big Ten is as good as the SEC, ACC, Big East or Pac-10. Continue by saying that the best teams loose too many games to be considered one of the nation's elite teams. Then you can really turn the knife by saying there's too much parity for the Big Ten to be the best conference in the country.

Jerry Holman
Jerry Holman and the Gophers weren't able to protect their home court against Illinois.

Then run away. Fast.

"Parity," Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien said. "Is not a bad thing.

"I think this is the type of conference where teams beat up on each other. I don't see anyone going through the league with one or two losses. There's way too many good teams."

Just looking at the first week of league play indicates O'Brien might be onto something. His team opened the Big Ten season by losing at Michigan State. Two days later, they returned to Columbus and beat Indiana.

The Spartans then followed up their victory over Ohio State by going on the road and losing consecutive games to Iowa and Purdue - teams that were a combined 10-22 in league play last season.

Much like in the SEC, the next two months in the Big Ten will be a bloodbath. Unlike the Big 12, which could see a team like -- oh, say Kansas? -- run away and hide, the best teams will lose multiple games. Road victories, regardless of the opponent, are cherished. And upsets will happen, seemingly, every Wednesday and Saturday.

"I see the league race as being wide open," Illinois coach Bill Self said. "I think you can make a case for four or five teams. If a team gets hot for a month, they become the favorite. I don't see anybody running the table; the winner is going to have some losses."

That's certainly been the trend of late. In 2000-01, Ohio State and Michigan State tied for the title with three losses. A year later it was Illinois and the Spartans sharing the crown with three setbacks. The last Big Ten team to win an outright Big Ten regular-season title was 15-1 Michigan State in 1998-99, while Ohio State lost four times and three others went 9-7.

Last season, four teams -- Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio State -- had five losses, but a share of the title. It was the lowest winning percentage for a Big Ten champion since 1926. Spartans coach Tom Izzo thinks this year's league champ could again have as many as five losses.

So what makes the league so difficult? The coaches contend fans have much to do with it. They're everywhere, after all. Last season, the league led the nation in attendance for the 26th consecutive season, drawing more than 2.25 million fans. Big Ten teams have already drawn more than 1 million fans this season.

With the exception of Penn State and Northwestern, Big Ten teams play in front of nearly full houses -- especially in league play. Some of that has to do with 10 of the schools being public institutions with large fan bases. Some of it also has to do with the fact that nearly every school has played in the NCAA Tournament in recent years.

O'Brien, previously at Boston College, has repeatedly talked about the crowds being a huge difference from the Big East. In the Big East, there were places on the road that weren't that intimidating to play and places where the crowds weren't large.

Winning on the road simply doesn't happen much in the Big Ten. Last season no team finished with an above .500 road record in league play. Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State, however, each went 4-4 away from home. Three teams -- Iowa, Penn State and Purdue -- failed to win a conference game away from home.

That's part of the reason why this week is so crucial for Illinois. The Illini already have a road victory this season, winning at Minnesota's difficult Williams Arena, but they have two road games this week. If Bill Self's team can get a split this week -- they play at Iowa on Wednesday night before travelling to Indiana on Saturday -- it will be clearly the league favorite.

But just don't expect the Illini to run the table.

Iowa, meanwhile, remains the biggest surprise in the Big Ten. With Saturday's victory over Michigan State, the Hawkeyes opened league play 2-0. Not bad for a team that many people thought would be a Big Ten bottom dweller. Izzo has a theory on why the Hawkeyes are improved.

"I don't want to insult anybody either way, but sometimes there's addition by subtraction," Izzo said. "Sometimes you lose some guys and it brings your team together in different ways."

The Hawkeyes' improvement is just another reason why the Big Ten figures to be bunched together.

Games of the Week
Illinois at Indiana
Saturday
Two of the Big Ten favorites going head-to-head in a key conference game. The winner here may be the league favorite.
Missouri at Oklahoma State
Saturday

How about this week for the Cowboys? First a brutally tough game against Oklahoma. Now another game against a top 25 team.
Michigan State at Minnesota
Saturday
The Spartans don't want to lose three games in a row. The Gophers don't want to drop two in a row at home.
Marshall at Kent State
Saturday
This is the Golden Flashes first significant test since losing to Bowling Green. For Marshall it's a game that would make an early statement.

K-State Surging
There was significant optimism before the season surrounding Kansas State. This was supposed to be the season in which the Wildcats made a move in the Big 12. So what happened? K-State opened the season by losing four of its first six games, falling to Brigham Young, Toledo, Northwestern and Wisconsin-Green Bay.

But since then, Jim Wooldridge's team has quietly won eight consecutive games. While a number of those victories came against overmatched teams, Saturday's victory over Texas Tech was certainly legitimate. The Wildcats held the 25th-ranked Red Raiders to 26-percent shooting (16 of 61), outrebounded Texas Tech 51-26 and rolled to a rather routine 68-44 victory.

"We've gotten off to a better start this year, but we've only played one league game," Wooldridge said. "We think we're an improved team. It's what we do in the next 15 games that's important."

Well, the Wildcats (10-4, 1-0) have certainly gotten the attention of the rest of the Big 12 coaches.

"I think Kansas State has something going," Kansas coach Roy Williams said. "When they did that against Texas Tech, nobody can talk about their schedule or strength of schedule. It was a very, very convincing win."

The Wildcats have improved with a combination of balanced scoring, defense and rebounding.

Gilson DeJesus, who made 5 of 7 three-pointers and scored 19 points against Texas Tech, leads K-State with 12.9 points per game, but he's one of four players averaging at least 11 points per game.

On the glass, the Wildcats have outrebounded their opponents in 11 of its last 12 games. They've also held all 14 opponents under 50 percent shooting this season and 11 of 14 under 40 percent. Senior Pervis Pasco has played particularly well during the winning streak, averaging 14.0 points and 9.8 rebounds in the last eight games.

The upcoming schedule for the Wildcats is difficult with three of four games on the road, starting with tonight's game at Colorado.

K-State, however, will have one less player on the bench as senior Janerio Spurlock has left the team, indicating he was unsatisfied with his role and amount of playing time he's received.

Around the Midwest

  • While the Big Ten is a league in which teams beat up on each other, the Mid-American Conference might be even more difficult when it comes to top-to-bottom balance.

    Examples: Bowling Green goes on the road and defeats league favorite Kent State. Then the Falcons respond by losing at Eastern Michigan. Western Michigan has some quality non-league victories this season - defeating Michigan, Auburn and Virginia Tech - but the Broncos are currently 1-3 in MAC play. While it's only mid-January, every MAC team already has at least one conference loss.

  • Nebraska suffered a significant loss when sophomore guard Jake Muhleisen broke his hip in Saturday's loss to Kansas. Muhleisen was the Huskers third-leading scorer with 11.7 points per game, but he led the team in both minutes and assists. Muhleisen is expected to miss the rest of the season.

    "It's fair to say Jake is devastated because he wants to help the team this year," Nebraska coach Barry Collier said.

  • Creighton's No. 13 ranking in the Associated Press poll matches the Bluejays best-ever ranking. Creighton had been ranked No. 13 in March 1975.

  • Is Southern Utah now the best team in the Mid-Con? The Thunderbirds were impressive in a 73-58 victory over league favorite Oral Roberts and are the only 2-0 team in the conference. Southern Utah can certainly shoot the ball. In two victories last week, the Thunderbirds averaged 11 three-pointers a game. Forward David Palmer was named the league's player of the week after averaging 20.5 points per game in victories over Oral Roberts and Missouri-Kansas City.

  • What do you think was the reaction of former Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs when he saw the 48-46 final score of the Sooners loss to Oklahoma State?

    Who's Hot
    Brian Cook, Illinois: The senior forward has become much more aggressive this season and he has been the best player in the Big Ten. In victories over Minnesota and Wisconsin, Cook averaged 28 points and 10 rebounds as Illinois opened Big Ten play 2-0. Against the Badgers, Cook was virtually unstoppable, scoring 31 points on 12-of-19 shooting in 26 minutes of action.

    Who's Not
    Kyle Hornsby, Indiana: The Hoosiers gunner missed all nine of his field goal attempts and all eight of his three-point attempts in Indiana's loss at Ohio State.

    Quote To Note
    "I have no idea what's going on in the players minds, but we're not playing with any toughness at all."
    -- Indiana coach Mike Davis on his Hoosiers' recent play.

    Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.








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