As much of a downer as the Big Ten Conference football season was this fall, the league sure looks like it’s ready to redeem itself on the basketball court.
Although preseason schedules are hard to judge because teams boost their record by playing schools that you have to Google to confirm they actually exist, what the Big Ten has accomplished through the first month of the season is awfully impressive.
The latest Associated Press Top 25 poll has six teams ranked, which includes four in the top 10, led by top-ranked Indiana and No. 3 Michigan.
Those six don’t even include the likes of Purdue or Wisconsin, which have struggled so far in the preseason, but one shouldn’t be surprised that when all is said and done, they’ll both at least be in the conversation among the Big Ten’s contenders.
What that means is an absolute gauntlet in the Big Ten schedule this winter, where the regular season league champ could easily have five losses by the time teams take the floor for the Big Ten tournament in mid-March. But in the long run, it’s unbelievably exciting to confidently believe the league can have two or more teams in the Final Four.
Amazingly, Michigan could be one of them.
It’s still strange to see the Wolverines ranked this high and receiving as much praise from college basketball writers across the nation. Already, ESPN college basketball writer Chad Ford has labeled the Wolverines as the most talented team in the nation. More recently, Ford’s cohort at ESPN, Andy Katz, said U-M has what it takes to cut down the nets in the national championship game in Atlanta in early April.
Maybe the inconsistency that dogged the Tommy Amaker era in Ann Arbor has been permanently engrained in my brain, thus casting doubts that the Wolverines really are national title contenders. But maybe, the program really has separated itself from the thick fog cast by the Ed Martin scandal, which played a significant role in the Wolverines missing the NCAA Tournament for 10-straight years from 1999 to 2008.
Michigan’s share of the Big Ten championship last season — its first since 1986 — was the first step in completely removing that “Black Hole” era, in which some years, Michigan wasn’t even the second-best program in the state if Central, Eastern or Western Michigan produced an NCAA Tournament-worthy squad.
Of course, there was no question who was on top during that era, thanks to Tom Izzo leading Michigan State to three Big Ten titles and four trips to the Final Four.
Even with Michigan’s resurgence, it’s fair to say that Izzo and the Spartans aren’t going anywhere. Top recruits throughout the Midwest — including Grand Rapids Christian phenom Drake Harris — are still drawn to the sparkling pedigree the program has developed. MSU will still be in contention every season in the Big Ten, as well as candidates to make an extended run in the NCAA Tournament and knock on the door to the Final Four.
But to say the Spartans are unquestionably the top program in the state is, well, in question.
It’s become even more of a hot topic discussion this year, thanks to Michigan’s 10-0 start and the Spartans looking downright average in losses to UConn and Miami (Fla.), and less-than-inspired against non-power conference schools Boise State, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Loyola (Chicago).
That’s not to say in another two months, Izzo can’t work his magic and transform the Spartans into the defensive-minded, highly proficient offensive team we’ve come to know and love. He’s done it time and time again.
But these Wolverines appear to be a throbbing thorn in Izzo’s side that isn’t going away anytime soon. Granted, I’m not ready to proclaim the Wolverines’ Final Four-worthy yet until they add a few big-time road wins to their resume — say in East Lansing for one — but the early-season praise they’ve been receiving is reasonable.
From their unbeaten start, it’s easy to recognize this current crop of Wolverines is collectively the most talented squad since the “Fab Five” reached their second NCAA title game against North Carolina in 1993.
The criticisms of past John Beilein teams at Michigan — notably they live and die by the 3-point shot and they’re not physical enough to consistently win the rebounding battle — have been erased this season.
With talented freshman wings Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, the continued improvement of Tim Hardway Jr.’s mid-range game, and more of an offensive presence in the post, U-M has its most well-rounded offensive attack in Beilein’s six-year tenure.
Last year, Draymond Green had the same number of rebounds (16) as Michigan had as an entire team in the Spartans’ win over Wolverines at the Breslin Center on Feb. 5. This season, with freshman big man Mitch McGary and a healthy Jon Horford, Michigan has won every rebounding battle but one in its 10 games.
Really, it means two in-state programs have stepped up to the “big boys” table. Regardless who is better now or in the long run, there hasn’t been a more legitimate chance in my lifetime where both MSU and U-M could reach the pinnacle of college basketball in the same season.
That in itself should erase the sting of a college football season gone awry.