The Big Ten loves football but is actually way better at basketball

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The Big Ten loves football but is actually way better at basketball

The Big Ten unquestionably finds more of its success in hoops than in football. (USATSI)
The Big Ten unquestionably finds more of its success in hoops than in football. (USATSI)

Indiana beat Wisconsin earlier this week in a one-possession game that was back and forth and undecided until Ben Brust missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds.

This came six days after the Badgers had destroyed Illinois.

This came two weeks after Illinois had handled Indiana in overtime.

So, to summarize, Illinois beat Indiana, then got worked by Wisconsin, then watched the Indiana team it topped top the Wisconsin team that started what is now a three-game losing streak for the Illini that will move to four Saturday unless Illinois upsets Michigan State.

Which is possible, of course.

The Spartans will only be favored by about five points.

"The league is really good top to bottom," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a future Hall of Famer, told CBS Sports Radio recently. "That's what's so great about it."

And it really is great -- basically for the fourth straight season.

The Big Ten is often mocked because it prides itself on being a top-notch "football" conference even though it hasn't been a top-notch "football" conference in a while. The league went 2-5 in bowl games this season, 2-5 last year and 4-6 the year before that. And to those yelling that bowl records aren't the best way to gauge the strength of any particular league, let me remind you that the Big Ten hasn't had more than two football teams finish in the top 15 of the Sagarin ratings in any of the past four seasons.

Only Michigan State finished in the top 15 this season.

Only Ohio State finished in the top 15 last season.

Neither finished in the top five.

Legends and Leaders?

Please.

But basketball is a different deal.

Though the Big Ten's member institutions, on the whole, care more about football than basketball, they're actually much better, on the whole, in basketball. For proof, let's return to the statistically unbiased Sagarin ratings that highlight the quality at the top.

The Sagarin ratings were updated after Wednesday night's games.

The top 15 looks like this:

  1. Arizona
  2. Michigan State
  3. Wisconsin
  4. Iowa
  5. Oklahoma State
  6. Villanova
  7. Ohio State
  8. Creighton
  9. Iowa State
  10. Kansas
  11. Syracuse
  12. Florida
  13. Wichita State
  14. Pittsburgh
  15. Michigan

As you can see, three of the top four, four of the top seven and five of the top 15 schools are Big Ten schools, and what's wild is that this isn't really a break from the norm. Last season, five Big Ten schools finished in the top 15 of the Sagarin ratings. Season before that, the Big Ten had four of the top nine. Season before that, the Big Ten had three of the top 13.

Poor Urban Meyer had his strength of schedule debated all season because the Big Ten offered Ohio State so few quality opponents. Meantime, Iowa's Fran McCaffery coached his second league game at Wisconsin and his fourth at Ohio State. He'll be at Michigan on Wednesday, then deal with Izzo and Michigan State six days later.

(No wonder he's always on the verge of flipping out, huh?)

Seriously, this is a basketball league that's so strong at the top that the team that finishes fourth could reasonably be picked to make the national title game, which is exactly what Michigan did last season. And, just like last season, a 14-4 league record will likely be good enough to win the Big Ten outright because, at one point or another, every contender will almost certainly take a loss to somebody in the bottom half of the standings.

It's unavoidable.

Why?

Because only two of the Big Ten's 14 members are ranked outside of the top 100 at KenPom, which is another unbiased statistical formula. To place that in context, understand that no other league with more than 10 members has fewer than three teams ranked outside of the top 100. The SEC, bless its heart, has five ranked outside of the top 100. That means somebody like Florida should, for the most part, be able to get away with winning on off-nights while somebody like Michigan State will have to perform pretty much every night.

"The depth in this league is maybe the best it's been since I've been in," Izzo said after his Spartans struggled to pull away at Northwestern. "It's going to be a dogfight-conference."

Just like last season.

And the season before.

And the season before that, too.

So, by all means, keep those Big Ten football cracks coming because they're mostly accurate and often funny. But the basketball side of things is no joke. Granted, the league, despite all its success, still hasn't won a national title in this sport since Michigan State got one in 2000, and I'm only pointing that out so some of you don't have to. But that probably has more to do with the structure of the NCAA tournament than anything else, and, either way, I won't be surprised if that streak is snapped on April 7 at AT&T Stadium.


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and college basketball insider for the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts an award-winning radio show in Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two sons and two dogs.
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