The Big Ten conference is the Goliath of college basketball this season. The conference boasts six teams ranked in the top 25, including three in the top ten. Arguably the best conference in college basketball this season, the Big Ten is filled with talented teams and players. Conference play this season will be a gauntlet for all involved. As Tom Izzo and his Spartans are well-aware, there will be few throwaway games.
Within any conference, there are tiers separating the class of the league from the cellar dwellers. The general position for many of the teams can already be roughly determined, but the battle for the top spot is still wide open. Second ranked Michigan currently holds the honor, but #5 Indiana, #8 Minnesota, #12 Illinois, #15 Ohio State and #22 Michigan State are all very much in the running. MSU head coach Tom Izzo was asked for his prediction on what the standings will look like at the end of the season. “What’s gonna happen is somebody’s gonna have one of those schedules where they play three teams in a row and they might get killed three games in a row,” Izzo elaborated. “They might play two of the best teams at home and the second best team on the road and the fifth best team on the road.”
Michigan State faces arguably the toughest seven game stretch in the Big Ten, as the Spartans will do battle with five ranked opponents in seven games, taking on #15 Ohio State, Wisconsin, #5 Indiana, #12 Illinois, #8 Minnesota, Purdue and finally #2 Michigan. The Spartans may be the team Izzo was talking about: a squad that could lose three in a row but still be a very good team. Considering the depth of the conference, a number of talented Big Ten teams could end the season with losses in league play but still be a major contender in the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, Big Ten play could break a solid team into pieces. Michigan State has to be ready for the grueling, two month long journey to the Big Ten Championship.
Running the table in the Big Ten seems like an improbable feat in any circumstances, but in today’s conference, such an accomplishment seems nearly impossible. Izzo came close to doing it himself 1999, leading the Spartans to a 17-1 record. Wisconsin downed Michigan State in the conference opener, but the Spartans did not lose another league match all season. The odds of a team doing one win better are slim. To put it simply, Izzo said, “I’d be shocked if they did.”
Izzo sees this season as an irregularity, considering the remarkable amount of parity. He imagines that when dividing teams into tiers, one squad might be unfairly placed. “I think what’s gonna happen, you talk about those shelf levels, is somebody who’s maybe third, fourth or fifth — [that team] could be us, [it] could be somebody else — if you lose those three games in a row, you’re gonna become worse than you are because that normally doesn’t happen.”
So if the likelihood is slim of a team rolling to an undefeated record in Big Ten play, could it be possible for a squad to match Izzo’s 17-1 record of 1999? Izzo again weighed in: “I think it would be harder. I think it was easier the year we did it. There were some good teams in the league but there [were] more bad teams in the league then. I think of that pressure of every week and if somebody can do it, they sure do deserve it.”