Big Ten basketball scheduling is distressingly unbalanced.
Too large — and soon to be larger with Rutgers and Maryland — for a double round-robin, it is unfair in terms of deciding a legitimate champion.
First, let’s divide the conference into three logical groupings with the nationally ranked foursome of Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa at the top, the quartet of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota in the middle, and Purdue, Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern bringing up the rear.
Bo Ryan’s Badgers have a 3-0 start and play Michigan State and Ohio State just once each, and both in the Kohl Center where the environment provides an enormous advantage. And Wisconsin gets to play its last three games against Penn State, Purdue and Nebraska, while Tom Izzo’s Spartans close against Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State.
Oddsmakers might project that the Spartans and Buckeyes would have to be two games better than the Badgers to finish even with them in the standings.
As for the Illini finishing in the top six, they also face a huge disadvantage. As one example, the Illini play eight games against the top four teams while Indiana’s Hoosiers play just six games against them.
When tournament time rolls around, the conference standings won’t matter anyway.
That was ugly
There’s no way to pin a happy face on the UI’s 95-70 collapse Wednesday at Wisconsin. For all the talk about the Badgers shooting better — 24 of 38 on two-pointers vs. the UI’s 20 of 60 — this was a case of the home team making child’s play of the previously effective Illini defense.
The balanced Badgers put five players in double figures, with Sam Dekker rebounding from a 2-for-9 performance against Iowa to shatter the UI interior with ridiculous ease. This wasn’t a lucky night. It was a routine display of superior skill and shot-making. Seventeen Badger layups (my count) and 33 free throw attempts tell all you need to know.
On this night, Tracy Abrams reverted, Jon Ekey was invisible offensively, Nnanna Egwu had nine offensive boards in what was otherwise a Strawman impersonation, and the five UI freshmen needed three baskets in the last 2:30 to finish 5 of 22 from the field.
It was an inexplicably weak performance, but we are left with one obvious conclusion: Based on Wisconsin’s passing and execution, if Kohl hosted these teams again tonight, the result would be the same.
And here’s a happy thought: Ben Brust, a 6-foot-1 guard, is the only senior in Bo Ryan’s eight-man rotation. The Badgers, now 16-0, should be better next season.
Rough road ahead
All of a sudden, we’re putting the “must” label on Illini showdowns with neighbors Northwestern on Sunday and Purdue on Wednesday, what with Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin coming in quick order.
What can we expect defensively? If Saturday’s 75-55 defeat of Penn State brought about UI coach John Groce’s highest defensive grade in two seasons, Wednesday’s effort was the opposite.
“We didn’t guard ’em,” said Groce in Madison, Wis. “We took away their threes early and tried to force them inside the arc. Our post defense was atrocious. We were nervous to help (on drivers), and they wheeled and dealed. We had no answers. We weren’t able to take anything away.”
Groce said for the first time all season, the Illini let shortcomings on one end affect the performance on the other. It was a total breakdown even though, in Groce’s words, “We crushed them on the glass with 25 offensive rebounds (on 54 missed field goals).”
Groce teams have recovered before, and this club already has shown an ability to respond to adversity. But here are stark facts: The Illini must not only defeat the tailenders to reach the NCAA tournament but they also must avoid going 0-8 against the top four, all of whom they play between Jan. 18 and Feb. 4.
Illinois always pulls off some surprises at home, but it’s no small order based on what transpired Wednesday night.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.