College basketball seasons always bring us teams that perform superbly in the non-conference season but fall into mediocrity in conference. Many times those teams are the product of cushy non-conference schedules, as well as being exposed by tougher conference competition.
There are exceptions to this every season, though, and the Big Ten had its share of them this year. Those teams’ later downward spirals were about the only difference between the league again being the best in the country, and the consensus that it settled in a notch lower.
The Big Ten had an abundance of teams that performed well out of conference, only to see their level of play slip in conference. Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois all were, frankly, better teams in November and December than they were in February. And while some of that no doubt was the product of a tough conference, there also was a real slip in play for all three teams. The Hawkeyes in particular were a major disappointment in Big Ten play-at least the Spartans had injuries as a legitimate doctors’ note, while the Illini may have overachieved slightly in a 13-2 start.
(Some may even throw Ohio State in this mix, but in the Buckeyes’ case, early season success probably was the product of their schedule. OSU’s 13-0 start came against a quite friendly slate, and a 10-8 Big Ten mark and narrow first NCAA tourney game loss to Dayton looked about right for the Buckeyes’ season.)
Fortunately, the conference had its share of counters to those slumping teams. Wisconsin was an unexpected national contender, Michigan was excellent again, Michigan State finally got it together at tournament time, and Nebraska took advantage of an opening to finish fourth and earn its first NCAA Tournament bid in 16 years.
Overall, the Big Ten didn’t match its collective performance of the previous two years, when it ranked No. 1 in conference RPI both seasons. The Big 12 took over the top spot this year, and the Big Ten was just 4-12 against top 25 RPI teams out of conference (though it should be noted the league played just two of those 16 games at home vs. seven on the road).
The league still supplied a Final Four team, though, in Wisconsin, and two more teams advanced to regional final games. As so many say, conference strength goes through cycles, and the Big Ten has rebounded nicely from a cool stretch a couple years back and to a perch again around the top of college basketball.
The Big Ten Tournament was held in Indianapolis once again. This year’s tourney marked the arrival of the Michigan State team most expected to see all season. The Spartans sputtered through the end of the regular season, winning just five of 12 entering the conference tourney, but then blew through Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan for the tournament title.
The tourney began with four close games and two mild upsets. No. 9 Illinois ended any NCAA tourney hopes Indiana may have had, downing the No. 8 seed Hoosiers 64-54. No. 5 Ohio State edged No. 12 Purdue 63-61 and No. 7 Minnesota stopped No. 10 Penn State 63-56, and in the final first round game 11 seed Northwestern wiped out No. 6 Iowa 67-62, officially putting the Hawkeyes firmly on the fence for the NCAA Tournament.
The quarterfinals started with two excellent games. Top seed Michigan needed a basket by Jordan Morgan in the final seconds to hold off Illinois 64-63. Ohio State then ended No. 4 Nebraska’s tourney early in stunning fashion, as the offensively challenged Buckeyes rallied from an 18-point second half deficit for a 71-67 win. The other two quarters were far less suspenseful, as No. 2 Wisconsin dominated Minnesota 83-57 and No. 3 Michigan State cruised past Northwestern 67-51.
Semifinal Saturday belonged to the state just to the north of Indiana. Michigan held off Ohio State 72-69 in the first semi, as the Buckeyes almost had another comeback in them until Glenn Robinson III converted a three-point play for the go-ahead score with 2:55 left and Nik Stauskas added a basket late. Michigan State then built a 17-point halftime lead against Wisconsin and was never seriously threatened, shooting 57 percent in an 83-75 win.
The title game was another Michigan State romp, as the Spartans shot 50 percent but also held Michigan to 31.5 percent shooting. State led comfortably throughout the second half on its way to a 69-55 win.
Player of the Year: Nik Stauskas, G, So., Michigan
Sixth Man of the Year: Nigel Hayes, F, So., Wisconsin
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Craft, G, Sr., Ohio State
Freshman of the Year: Noah Vonleh, F, Indiana
Coach of the Year: Tim Miles, Nebraska
Gary Harris, G, So., Michigan State
Frank Kaminsky, F, Jr., Wisconsin
Roy Devyn Marble, G, Sr., Iowa
Terran Petteway, F, So., Nebraska
Nik Stauskas, G, So., Michigan
- Wisconsin made it to the Final 4, while Michigan and Michigan State also made regional finals to give the Big Ten three teams in the Elite 8.
- The Big Ten finished with a 10-6 record in the NCAA Tournament, a .625 winning percentage that ranked third of all conferences.
- Minnesota won the NIT. The Gophers’ third title ties them with Dayton and Michigan for the third-most NIT titles in history, behind only St. John’s (six) and Bradley (four).
- Nebraska finished a surprising fourth in the Big Ten, made its first NCAA Tournament since 1998, and also averaged 15,419 fans per game at Lincoln’s brand new Pinnacle Bank Arena.
- Four Big Ten players received All-America recognition of some kind. Stauskas was a consensus second team All-American and received several first team honors, while Dekker, Harris and Payne all received honorable mention honors.
- Craft and Northwestern’s Drew Crawford both were named first team CoSIDA Academic All-Americans
What we expected, and it happened: Most teams finished a couple spots north or south of expectations, so the smart aleck might point out that Penn State and Northwestern were still the weak links in the Big Ten. On a more positive note, though, Michigan stayed among the nation’s elite, winning the regular season title and performing as a top 10 team.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Iowa was anticipated to be a team capable of challenging for the Big Ten title, and for two-thirds of the season that’s exactly what the Hawkeyes looked like they were. In February, though, the Hawks started a puzzling fade that ended with Iowa middling in the conference and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Even with a schedule that missed a couple of the top teams, Nebraska finishing fourth in the Big Ten standings was one of the bigger surprises of the college basketball season.
Team on the rise: Minnesota. Richard Pitino’s first couple years as a college coach indicate his teams should only get better with time.
Team on the decline: Purdue. Unlike some other teams who are coming off a down year or two (such as Hoosier State rival Indiana), right now it’s hard to see when things will turn up for the Boilermakers.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Wisconsin is going to enter 2014-15 as a prohibitive favorite in the conference. Not surprising as the Badgers return four starters from a Final Four team. The Big Ten’s balance combined with unbalanced schedules, though, means a title for Bucky Badger is hardly a given.
Michigan will be back-again. Likely Michigan State, too. Nebraska will be a trendy pick, but we’re not completely sold yet; let’s see how the Cornhuskers do as the hunted this year instead of the hunter. Minnesota is our pick to ascend to the top 4-5, but it could just as easily be Illinois.
Though there is room for upward mobility this year, with the lack of returning experience for most of the top teams, the bottom of the conference doesn’t exactly look brimming with contenders at this point. Ohio State, Indiana and Iowa all have that reloading look to them, while Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue all are a notch below. On paper it looks like a slightly down year for the conference, but the separation between teams is still again razor-thin. There is plenty of room for someone to surprise and challenge for the conference title; in fact, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise at all if it happened.
Next year also is the first year in the conference for Maryland and Rutgers. The Terrapins should fit right in the middle of the pack and can probably already be listed on the bubble for next year’s NCAA Tournament. Rutgers has a long road to being respectable in the Big Ten in men’s basketball and almost every other sport.