Not as Big 10

January 22, 2002 8:44 AM
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Without question, few organized sports are more surprising than college basketball. We see it every March, as Cinderella teams shock big-name schools in the NCAA Tournament, but the surprises begin way before the weather begins to warm.

Upsets abound as teams turn their attention toward their respective conference schedules. Kentucky has already lost two SEC games, Boston College has lost two Big East home games and Oklahoma State, undefeated during the non-conference portion of its Big 12 schedule, has lost twice at home.

But easily the most surprising conference race so far has been the Big 10. The dominant team in the league over the last few seasons, Michigan State, has fallen on hard times. Pre-season favorites like Illinois and especially Iowa, have been disappointing.

In their place, Ohio State and Indiana have taken control of the race, but every night seems to bring a new group of upsets, which promises competitive Big 10 basketball throughout the remainder of the winter.

Indiana and Ohio State faced off against each other Saturday, with the winner taking sole possession of first place, and remaining the only team undefeated in Big 10 play. Both teams were expected to be solid this season and compete for a spot in the NCAA’s, but each has exceeded expectations.

Indiana played a tough non-conference slate, and was just 7-5 entering Big 10 play. But since a 66-64 loss Dec. 29 to Butler, the Hoosiers have been perfect straight up, and 3-1 against the spread. They are 9-7 ATS in all their games, but just 3-4 at home.

Jared Jeffries has become one the best players in the Big 10, delivering on his huge potential as the team’s only real threat in the post, and complementing the Hoosiers’ three-guard attack, leading the Hoosiers to their lofty, early-season, spot.

Despite the Hoosiers fine start to Big 10 play, the Buckeyes have been the biggest surprise in the Big 10 and maybe the entire nation. Ohio State is 13-2 on the season, and 9-3 ATS. The Buckeyes have always enjoyed a significant home-court advantage, but this season they’ve been better than expected.

At the time of this writing, they were 10-1 SU at home and 6-2 ATS in Columbus. Ohio State’s success shouldn’t be that shocking, though. The Buckeyes have a very strong, veteran backcourt, led by Brian Brown, Brent Darby and swingman Boban Savovic.

The key to Ohio State’s season should come over a four-game road stretch that takes place from Feb. 6-20 in which they face Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Indiana.

Entering the season, Illinois and Iowa were thought of as the top teams in the league, but injuries and other assorted problems have kept each school from living up to their billing.

Illinois had virtually their whole team back after advancing to the Elite Eight last season. Most expected the Illini to dominate Big 10 play this season the way Duke has controlled the ACC over the last few seasons.

So far, that hasn’t happened. Still, it shows just how strong the Illinois program is when a 14-4 record can be considered something of a disappointment. Injuries have limited Illinois’ depth, especially up front.

Guard Frank Williams, last year’s Big 10 Player of the Year, is still leading the squad, along with forward Brian Cook. Illinois has been a money-burner, going just 7-9 ATS, but has won and covered its last two games through Friday. The Illini should be well-rested heading into their next game at home Wednesday against Wisconsin.

Iowa, along with Michigan State, has been the league’s biggest disappointment. The Hawkeyes have two of the top players in the nation in forward Reggie Evans and swingman Luke Recker, but their depth has been very questionable this season. They’ve been relying heavily on freshman guard Pierre Pierce to run the team and get the ball to Evans and Recker.

Pierce will be a very good player by the time his career is over, and he is already the team’s third leading scorer, but it is very hard for a team to challenge for championships when so much is expected from a young player. Unless the Hawkeyes can find some more players to contribute, they could have a lot of trouble getting back into the conference race.

Michigan State probably won’t be back in the Final Four for the fourth straight season, but should make the postseason. After winning 93 games over the last three seasons, the Spartans are just 10-7, including a 1-3 mark in the Big 10. They lost a number of very good players from last year’s team to the NBA.

A number of top recruits were coming to East Lansing, though, along with some solid role players back, so things didn’t seem that bad for head coach Tom Izzo especially after they took care of business against a strong Oklahoma squad.

After a five-game winning streak boosted their record to 9-3 on December 22nd, the Spartans began to fall apart. They went on the road and lost to Stanford, the first of four straight losses, including their first three Big 10 games, leading the Spartans to their current position. The Spartans have the time and talent to move out of the Big 10 cellar, but are still very young and need to improve in almost every phase of the game if they are to compete in this incredibly tough conference.