Is Big Ten best league?

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The Big Ten and Big 12 through the first month of the 2020 season have separated themselves from the pack in the annual debate over which is the best conference in college basketball. 

The Big Ten on Monday had nine of its 14 members — led by No. 6 Wisconsin — in the AP Top 25. The Big 12 has been perhaps even more impressive — quality-wise. It placed four schools — No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 Kansas, No. 8 Texas and No. 9 West Virginia — in the top 10. Add in No. 13 Texas and the two conferences accounted for 14 of the 25 ranked teams. 

The advanced analytics gurus agree. The conference accounts for six of the top 10 schools in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, and four of the top five in Jeff Sagarin’s

The Big Ten holds a slim margin over the Big 12 in KenPom’s conference ratings; the ACC is currently a distant third. 

The Big East was a 16-team conference when it sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. Could the Big Ten equal or break that record 10 years later (assuming we have a tournament with the normal 68 teams in 2021)? 

KenPom numbers say, maybe. 

As of Tuesday morning, 13 of the 14 Big Ten schools ranked in the top 54 in country, according to his ratings. Only Nebraska (No. 115) ranks outside the ranks outside the top 100. And three Big Ten players — Iowa’s Luka Garza, Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu and Trayce Jackson Davis of Indiana — hold the top three spots in KenPom’s player of the year standings

As conference play takes over the schedule, these teams will take turns beating each other — and gaining high-quality wins. Northwestern is No. 53 at KenPom and 57th in Sagarin’s ratings, but the Wildcats have wins over Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State to begin conference play. On Monday, Wisconsin (KenPom No. 6) lost at home to Maryland (No. 39). 

At this stage, it appears nine of the 14, while not locks, are extremely likely to be included in a field of 68. (The “bracketologist” aggregator Bracket Matrix on Tuesday morning had 10 Big Ten teams in based on the 31 prognosticators it is tracking.) With Nebraska reduced to a spoiler’s role, that leaves four teams — including a surprising name — squarely on the bubble. 

Maryland is 6-3 after its resume-enhancing win over the Badgers brought it to 1-2 in the conference. Indiana (5-4) and Penn State (3-3) appear to be on the shakiest ground. But both have numerous opportunities remaining for quality wins. 

The fourth bubble team, though, is Michigan State. Tom Izzo’s program has the fourth-longest current streak of NCAA Tournament appearances, last missing out in 1997. But the Spartans (6-3) are slumping. They’ve lost three in a row — by 14 at Northwestern, by nine in a home loss to Wisconsin, and they were blown out 81-56 on Monday by Minnesota, which shot 63% from 2-point range. Michigan State has dropped from 20th to 49th in KenPom’s ratings over the past 10 days. Pomeroy’s numbers now project a 13-13 record for the Spartans. That would almost certainly bring an end to a 22-year run of NCAA Tournament appearances for one of college basketball’s bluebloods. 

Here are this week’s picks. The numbers for the spreads are based on game predictions at KenPom.com. 

Wednesday 

Seton Hall at Xavier -2, total 144: The Musketeers have had a week off since their first loss of the season, 66-61 at Creighton. It was just the second subpar offensive performance for Xavier — the Musketeers survived a 51-50 slog against no-tempo Bradley on Nov. 26.  

Against Creighton — not generally scary, defensively — Xavier was just 8-of-32 from deep and created just seven second-chance opportunities. But the Musketeers are actually a good 3-point-shooting team (30th in the country), and Seton Hall is not as good on the defensive glass as the Bluejays are. 

The Pirates are 6-4 after a 1-3 start, and they are generally efficient on offense. Neither team is good at creating turnovers, which should help the scoring. The Over is 6-3 in Xavier games. XAVIER and OVER 

Thursday 

Colorado at USC -2: Both Buffaloes losses have come on the road — including 88-74 at Arizona on Monday. But USC could provide a better matchup for Colorado. 

The Buffaloes are good at protecting the ball and decent on the offensive glass — the Trojans are not good on defense in either of those categories. 

USC had three weeks off before a Tuesday game at Santa Clara. Foul trouble would be a big problem for the Trojans: Colorado (85.2%) is the No. 2 free-throw shooting team in the nation. COLORADO 

Southern Utah -1 at Montana State: Southern Utah is a very good rebounding team; Montana State is not. 

The 7-1 Thunderbirds are 77th nationally on the offensive glass and No. 4 on defense. The Bobcats are 263rd and 323rd, respectively. 

Southern Utah’s 6-foot-11 center, Ivan Madunic, and 6-6 junior Maizen Fausett should be able to create second-chance opportunities, even though the Montana State defense is decent on the interior. 

The Over is 4-1 in the Thunderbirds’ five games against Division I opponents, but Montana State’s inability to score since an opening-game upset of UNLV makes the total (145 or so) seem risky. SOUTHERN UTAH 

Last week: 2-1

Season: 13-2-2

About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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