The Big Ten is good and crazy

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
2:30
AM ET

On Wednesday morning, the Wooden Award midseason watch list was revealed. At 25 players strong, the list is not particularly exclusionary; it name-checked plenty of players whose chances of winning the award are basically nonexistent (and not just because Doug McDermott is already looking like a lock). More crucially, the Wooden midseason list -- like any such list presented at any point before the season’s end -- is non-binding. Excluded players have until March 8 to play their way on. Joel Embiid and Lamar Patterson fans need not fret. At least not yet.

Still: If you are the type of person who roots for a conference as well as a team, and/or the kind of person who thinks collective conference strength is represented in NCAA tournament bid volume, you might have found yourself wondering what the makeup of the midseason Wooden list said about the Big Ten. Four players? And two of them (Keith Appling and Adreian Payne) from Michigan State? That’s it?

Not only is this the wrong way to frame the debate, it’s also just plain wrong. The Big Ten is, once again, the best conference in the country -- and more crazy fun than ever to boot.

Wednesday night provided another heap of evidence to this effect. It began in Ann Arbor, Mich., where a team (Michigan) that had essentially been written off in the wake of Mitch McGary’s injury knocked off an opponent (Iowa) that has spent the last few weeks drowning its opponents in wave after wave of offense. The Hawkeyes entered Wednesday night with one of the nation’s most efficient per-possession attacks, without a single regular contributor playing even average statistical offense, while also playing some of the fastest basketball in the country. And on Wednesday night, the Wolverines managed not only to frustrate and stall that offense (wrestling the game into a mere 66 possessions, and Iowa to just 67 points) but to clearly state their own offensive case (1.14 points per possession) as well.

Michigan guard Nik Stauskas (who had 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting, five assists, and five rebounds in 37 minutes) was the star of the show. This is becoming standard operating procedure: Since Dec. 3, when Michigan lost at Duke, Stauskas has been an utter individual tear, shooting the ball from 3 at the same rate (44 percent) as he did last season opposite Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. while somehow handling the ball more, penetrating more, dishing more (his assist rate has tripled to 21.0 percent from 7.6 a season ago) turning it over less (!) and generally being even more efficient with a larger share of possessions. Without forward McGary, the Wolverines’ offense hasn’t stalled. It’s gotten better. No wonder Papa Stauskas is thinking NBA.

Stauskas and the Wolverines’ “statement” -- as if they needed one -- was followed by a loss by the same team that made such “statement” designations unnecessary last weekend: Wisconsin. It was also, fittingly, another notice from another Big Ten team vastly outperforming its expectations.

That team would be Minnesota, coached by 31-year-old first-year man Richard Pitino. Where Michigan was written off due to circumstances during the season, the Gophers were kept at arm’s length pretty much from the get-go. They had Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins and no one else back, so the story went, plus a first-year coach with an uptempo style much closer to one former Kentucky coach (his father’s) than another’s (Tubby Smith’s, his predecessor). And yet with basically two exceptions (in a blowout at Iowa Sunday and a 14-point loss to Arkansas in November), Minnesota has been playing good basketball, even in its close losses, all season long.

Wednesday night was an accelerated version of same. It was also kind of weird, in that it came at the expense of a Badgers team that began the season 16-0 and has gone 0-3 since. Without taking anything away from Minnesota (the one true sin of all postgame press conferences), it’s safe to say Wisconsin gets a good portion of the credit for the loss in Williams Arena. Sure, the Gophers’ offense is good, but it is not so good that it should score 81 points in 58 possessions against anyone. Oh, don’t get it twisted: This wasn’t even a fast-paced game. Fifty-eight possessions is even less than this edition of the Badgers had become accustomed to, and they, another top-five efficiency offense nationally, did their fair share on the offensive end. But in their three straight losses (at Indiana, versus Michigan, at Minnesota), Wisconsin has allowed a positively NC State-esque 1.22 points per possession. The “how” makes even less sense than the “what.”

That’s as good a way as any to sum up where we are in the Big Ten. For the past five years, Ohio State has been as clockwork-consistent as any team in the country not coached by Bo Ryan. Whatever the look Thad Matta put together on offense -- from Evan Turner to Jared Sullinger to Deshaun Thomas -- the Buckeyes always, always, always defended like mad. The offensive questions prevailed this season, too, about whether LaQuinton Ross could step into that breach. But on Monday, the Buckeyes lost their fourth straight to Nebraska, and suddenly they a) are 2-4 in the Big Ten because b) they aren’t even guarding people anymore.

How downside up is this Big Ten winter? Here’s a fun fact: Ohio State’s 2-4 conference record puts the Buckeyes a half-game back of … wait for it … Northwestern. Yes, Northwestern, the Northwestern that lost to Illinois State and DePaul on its home floor and went 7-6 in nonconference play, the Northwestern with the worst statistical offense of major conference team in the country (it ranks just shy of Houston Baptist, Texas Pan-Am and Abilene Christian). The Wildcats are an atrocious wreck on offense. They’re also downright good on defense, which is how they’ve won three of their last four games, including wins over Illinois, Purdue and a road win at Indiana … just four days after the Hoosiers beat Wisconsin.

This makes no sense, of course. It’s the 2013-14 Big Ten. Very little does.

And yet, the end tally of all this madness is a league that still holds claim to three of the country’s most efficient offenses (Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa), just one team (Penn State) that ranks outside the kenpom.com per-possession top 100, seven that rank inside the top 50, and a collective average pace (66 possessions per game) far faster than anything it has approached in decades. Oh, and while Ohio State flails and Michigan surges, the Michigan State Spartans are chugging along, looking every bit the national title contender we thought they were in October.

So there you go. Michigan State. There’s one thing that makes sense about the Big Ten this season. Here’s another: It is still the very best league in the country, at least for now.

Oh, and one more: Divining some order from this madness these next few months -- or at least trying to -- might be more fun than it ever has.

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