The Big Ten season is halfway done -- every team except Nebraska (slackers) in the league has played nine games (although Northwestern, like the overachievers that they are, has already played ten games), so it seems like a good time to break down the conference.
Let's start with the standings, courtesy of PSD.
THE CURRENT STANDINGS
|TEAM||CONF WINS||CONF LOSS||%||OVERALL WINS||OVERALL LOSS|
Thanks to Michigan's loss at Indiana on Sunday, every Big Ten team has dropped at least one game to a fellow Big Ten team this season, meaning that we can at least complete the B1G Circle of Life (or Death, as it were):
So what do we know at the halfway point?
* We know that there are fewer teams in title contention than we expected at the start of January.
We entered January thinking that there were probably five teams that would seriously contend for top honors in the Big Ten: Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan -- and Michigan was included in that list with some trepidation, given their 8-4 record in non-conference play and the absence of preseason All-Big Ten big man Mitch McGary. But three of those four losses were to very good teams (Arizona, Duke, Iowa State) and Michigan has weathered the absence of McGary far better than expected, gelling into a lethal offensive team (their 121.4 AdjO rating on KenPom is the 3rd best in the nation). Michigan State and Iowa have also lived up their end of the bargain, going 8-1 and 6-3, respectively, and remain contenders for a Big Ten title (although the Hawkeyes, admittedly, need some help). Wisconsin and Ohio State remain alive mathematically in the Big Ten title chase, but at 4-5 in league play and with both teams displaying notable holes in their games (Ohio State can't really shoot and Wisconsin can't defend very well), their odds of seriously vying for a Big Ten championship are pretty remote. (Minnesota and Indiana have similar 4-5 records and Northwestern has a 5-5 record; those teams also retain very remote hopes of a Big Ten title.)
* The road to a Big Ten title goes through The Mitten State.
If you were to break the Big Ten into tiers, it might look something like this:
TIER 1: Michigan, Michigan State
TIER 2: Iowa
TIER 3: Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska
TIER 4: Purdue, Penn State, Illinois
And, honestly, if you wanted to toss the Tier 4 teams there into Tier 3, I wouldn't complain. There (obviously) isn't much difference between 4-5 and 3-6.
But the point is this: Michigan and Michigan State are at the top of the food chain this year and if you want to win the Big Ten title, you're going to need to go through them. Michigan State's lone loss was to Michigan, while Michigan's only defeat came in a road ambush by a sharp-shooting Indiana team. Iowa's played each team once this year -- and lost both times. They get a second shot at Michigan this coming Saturday, but their second chance at Michigan State (in East Lansing -- gulp) will have to wait until March.
* We know that Northwestern is much better than advertised.
If the season ended right this second (it's not, don't worry!), Northwestern -- yes, Northwestern -- would get a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament as the 4th seed. They're currently all alone in 4th place in the league, sitting at 5-5. This is the same Northwestern team that lost to DePaul (tied for last in the Nu Big East) and Illinois State (5-5 in the Valley). Those five wins include several wins over the rest of the Big Ten's middle class, too --Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana -- and they've come both home and away (they won at Wisconsin and at Minnesota last week). Northwestern's wins aren't pretty, but in league play they're playing some of the toughest defense (they rank in the top 5 in conference play in defensive efficiency, eFG%, free throw rate, 2P%, 3P%, and Block %) around. And they're making Iowa's pair of 26-point wins over them look better and better. We'll take that.
* We know that the bottom of the league is not bad at all.
Someone has to be at the bottom of the Big Ten because when you play games someone wins and someone loses (keen insight, eh?) and inevitably someone ends up with a lot of losses. Right now that team is Illinois, riding a 7-game losing streak in B1G action -- and yet anyone who watched Iowa play Illinois on Saturday knows that they gave Iowa all they could handle in that game (for the final 30 minutes, at least). They're a bad team in terms of record, but they're hardly a truly terrible team overall. Ditto projected lightweights like Nebraska and Penn State, who each have three wins apiece in league play. Nebraska is one missed tip-in away from being undefeated at home in their new arena in Big Ten play and they've already claimed scalps from Ohio State, Minnesota, and Indiana (all potential NCAA Tournament teams) in Lincoln. Penn State's won three in a row, including an OT win over Ohio State in Columbus last week. Coaches like to say that "there aren't any nights off or easy games in the Big Ten" -- but this year that cliche is genuinely true. There aren't any pushovers to be found in the B1G this season.
* We know that it's hard to win on the road... except when it isn't.
In all seriousness, it isn't easy to win on the road in the Big Ten -- home teams have won 31 of 54 league games so far this year (57.4%) -- but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise after road teams won six of eight games last week. Iowa was a victim of the road team surge on Tuesday (losing their first home game of the season to Michigan State in OT) but a beneficiary of the same on Saturday (knocking off Illinois in Champaign for the first time since 1999).
* * *
For Iowa, the second half of the Big Ten season is an opportunity to do a lot of things that haven't been done in a while. For instance, It's a chance to win more than three road games for the first since 2003-04. Iowa has three road wins now (@OSU, @jNW, @ILL) and four more remaining (@PSU, @IND, @MIN, @MSU). None figure to be easy -- not in this year's Big Ten -- but it's still a great opportunity for Iowa to pick up some wins on the road in the Big Ten, something that's been very difficult for them to do over the last decade (mainly because Iowa was pretty bad for the last decade).
It's also a chance for Iowa to win 9 or more conference games for the first time since 2005-06 (11-5). Iowa has six league wins now, so four more wins would do the job -- and just defending home court would give Iowa eleven league wins. 10+ wins in B1G play would also give Iowa a winning record in the Big Ten for the first time since 2006-07 (the final year of [REDACTED]).
And, of course, the second half of the season is also a chance for Iowa to claim its first Big Ten regular season title since (deep breath) 1978-79. The odds of doing so aren't great, not with Iowa a full two games back of Michigan and Michigan State in the standings. But it's not pure fantasy, either. 15-3 or 14-4 would likely be good enough to get Iowa at least a share of a regular season title, maybe even 13-5.
Outside of the quests to satisfy certain record-related benchmarks that haven't been sniffed by Hawkeye teams in many, many years or a conference title that hasn't been seen in decades, the second half of the season also presents opportunities to improve seeding in post-season tournaments. Iowa's currently a rock-solid #3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament (which would give them a first round bye for the first time since 2005-06; goodbye, Thursday basketball!) and they could certainly improve on that if they can make up ground on Michigan and Michigan State. Of course, a bad week could also send them tumbling into the clawing masses of the Big Ten's middle class and put them in a dogfight for a top-4 seed and first-round bye.
And there's always the matter of NCAA Tournament seeding to ponder... that's still a ways off, but on current form Iowa's looking at not just making the tourney with a "happy-to-be-here" seed like 9th or 10th, but instead entering the field with a "we're-here-to-make-some-noise" seed like 4th or 5th. A strong showing in the second half of B1G play could entrench Iowa in those spots -- or even slide them up the S-curve, into even headier seeding territory.
Here's Iowa's remaining schedule:
TUESDAY, 2/4: Ohio State (6 PM CST, ESPN)
SATURDAY, 2/8: Michigan (1 PM CST, ESPN)
SATURDAY, 2/15: at Penn State (12 PM CST, ESPNU)
TUESDAY, 2/18: at Indiana (8 PM CST, ESPN)
SATURDAY, 2/22: Wisconsin (11 AM CST, ESPN2)
TUESDAY, 2/25: at Minnesota (6 PM CST, BTN)
SATURDAY, 3/1: Purdue (7:15 PM CST, ???) or (SUNDAY, 3/2 at 3 PM CST)*
THURSDAY, 3/6: at Michigan State (8 PM CST, ESPN)
SATURDAY, 3/8: Illinois (7:30 PM CST, ???) or (SUNDAY, 3/9 at 3:30 PM CST)*
* The date/time and TV arrangements for the Iowa-Purdue and Iowa-Illinois home games have not been set yet.
But what about you? What do you think will happen in the second half of the Big Ten season? Hit up the comments.