Big Ten Tracking for Record Number of NCAA Teams. If They Survive League Race.

Herb Gould

In a season like this, I can’t help but wonder what Armageddon reference my late friend and Chicago institution, Tribune sportswriter and columnist Robert Markus, would have used to describe this year’s fierce Big Ten basketball campaign.

Gettysburg? The Wilderness? The Battle of the Bulge? The Charge of the Light Brigade?

Like me, Bob was a military history guy. And like me, he would have loved the in-the-trenches race going on in Big Ten hoops.

In mid-January, 12 of the 14 teams—everyone except Nebraska and Northwestern—were in the discussion for NCAA bids. That’s not going to happen. I would expect that number to drop to nine or 10—which would still be a league record.

As NCAA.com/BTN analyst Andy Katz put it, ``They're going to cannibalize each other.’’

As an Athletic headline wondered, ``Will anyone survive the Big Ten?’’

As Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said with one of his patented sighs after losing a nailbiter at Indiana last week, “The parity is off the charts.”

Illinois and Michigan State lead at 7-2. But Maryland, Iowa and Rutgers (all 6-3) are only one game back. The top 10 teams are separated by three games in the loss column.

And the No. 11 and 12 teams are lurking. Ohio State (3-6) had been ranked No. 2 in the nation on Christmas Day. And Michigan (2-6) had been ranked No. 5 on Pearl Harbor Day. Which Mr. Markus would have liked.

Twelve Big Ten teams are in the top 44 of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking, which has replaced the formerly ubiquitous RPI.

Not bad, eh?

So what’s going to happen from here?

I could lawyer up the case for any number of teams to win the league. At this point, though, signs point to a shared conference championship. Whether that’s two teams, or four, or five. . . stay tuned.

I sort of like the pattern that’s forming at the top. The revivals of Illinois and Rutgers are legit. And Michigan State and Maryland, which have been all-around good programs for years, are very solid, even if they aren’t getting a ton of hype at the moment.

But Iowa and Wisconsin (5-5) showed in their battle of attrition Monday the kind of toughness that gives them a chance. Down 57-45 with seven minutes to go, the Hawkeyes went on a 19-2 run for a 68-62 win.

The Badgers were playing without their No. 2 scorer, sophomore Kobe King, who was said to be attending to a personal matter. Tyler Wahl, a promising but wispy 6-7 freshman who looks like he skipped high school, played a career-high 28 minutes in his first college start, contributing seven rebounds. While young, Wahl has a big upside.

Iowa is loaded at freshman. C.J. Fredrick, whose uncle, Joe, was a sharpshooter at Notre Dame, is the Hawkeyes’ third-leading scorer. And Joe Toussaint is a skilled and scrappy point guard straight out of the Bronx who already is a difference-maker.

ROAD WINS ARE RARE

The Badgers’ weak spot, an offense that has a tendency to sputter, did them in. But this was also about the Hawkeyes digging in to defend their home court, which is the key stat in Big Ten basketball this winter.

The top 10 teams are 40-5 at home in conference play.

That said, we saw a lot of road toughness last weekend, when Illinois won at Michigan, Maryland won at Indiana and Michigan State won at Minnesota. That’s three of the five.

Another indicator I like is Good Schedule Timing. Or rather, avoiding Bad Schedule Timing.

For example, Wisconsin has had Bad Schedule Timing lately, going to Michigan State and Purdue when the the Spartans and Boilermakers were coming off of tough losses. (Sparty had been blown out at Purdue; the Boilers had been drilled at home by Illinois.

After the tough loss at Iowa on Monday, Wisconsin finishes with six of its last 10 at home, and none of its road games are at league leaders Michigan State, Maryland, Illinois or Rutgers.

Contrast that with Michigan State, which goes to Wisconsin, Illinois and Maryland while playing six of its remaining 11 games on the road. And Maryland, which still has home-and-homes with Michigan State and Rutgers.

On the other hand, overcoming bad timing makes a loud statement.

Minnesota showed a lot by eking out a 62-59 win at Ohio State last week when the Buckeyes were desperate for a win. Illinois flexed some impressive muscle by winning at Michigan 64-62 against the reeling Wolverines, who really could have used a win—and played that way. Down the stretch, Michigan missed its No. 2 scorer, Isaiah Livers, who aggravated a groin injury that had sidelined him since Christmas in the second half. Compounding its personnel woes, Michigan goes to Nebraska without point guard Zavier Simpson, who was suspended for a game by Juwan Howard for a team-rules violation. Simpson leads the nation in assists.

In a race like this, home losses are crushers.

While Michigan and Ohio State have dug deep holes that will make it difficult for them to win the league, they are well-equipped to trip up other teams. And they need to be desperate for wins that could salvage their seasons with NCAA bids.

And that’s a pair of teams that were in the top five in the nation in December.

SOME BIG TEN NOTABLES.. .

@ Kofi Cockburn, Illinois’ 7-foot, 290-pound Jamaican-born center, is sensational. He’s looking very one-and-done. What Al McGuire used to call ``an aircraft carrier,’’ Cockburn is a seven-time Big Ten freshman of the week—and a serious All-America candidate.

Maybe they should just start calling it the Kofi Cockburn Freshman of the Week Award.

Between Cockburn (pronounced co-burn) and 6-4 sophomore point guard Ayu Dosunmo, another likely NBA departure, Illinois has an outstanding inside-outside punch. With their deep and balanced roster, the Illini could enjoy their best season in a long time. Consistency, though, is an issue for Illinois, which already has let games get away against Miami, Missouri and Maryland.

@ Led by 6-11 junior Luka Garza, Iowa is very watchable, with an intriguing upside. Garza, who leads the league with 22.9 points a game, including 28 ppg in league play, is a warrior at both ends. After games, he looks like a sparring partner who forgot to wear the headgear.

The Hawkeyes have defensive work to do. But with Garza backed up by shooters like sophomore Joe Wieskamp and Fredrick, the Hawkeyes can score.

And watching Mount (Fran) McCaffery erupt after a call he doesn’t like is. . . the greatest show on cornfield earth.

@ Gotta love what’s going on at Rutgers. Steve Pickiell, who had a nice run at Stony Brook, has brought a good blue-collar work ethic. And found some talented players who are doing what it takes.

From Jim Delany on down, people talked about how being in the Big Ten would help a program like Rutgers get its act together. We’re seeing that with this basketball team.

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