Life’s tough in the Big Ten. At least that was the saying down in Bloomington when I roamed the campus a few years back.
At least this season the opposite is true. Turns out when it comes to basketball, life is especially easy for this year’s Hoosiers.
The conference’s unbalanced schedule — where each team plays five opponents on a home-and-home basis and the other eight only once — leads to unbalanced opportunities to compete for the championship in a season that appears wide open.
For the 2015-16 title chase, which starts today, IU and Michigan State have comparatively easier roads to cut down conference nets at the end of the regular season in 10 weeks.
To test this, we focused on the league’s top half during the preconference season: Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue.
Those seven teams own the best records with three or fewer losses, a fairly accurate barometer of league success in past seasons.
Each team was assigned points for games against the other six, one for a home game and two for a road contest. The team with lowest number of points has the easiest path.
The result is that the Hoosiers (10) and Spartans (11) have a significantly easier road than their competition. Iowa (15) has by far the toughest; Maryland (12), Michigan (12), Northwestern (13) and Purdue (13) are in the middle.
A look at road games illustrates. Indiana has only three road games against the top tier (Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa), and none of those until February. That should give the unpredictable Hoosiers time to find a rhythm.
Indeed, Northwestern is the only top-tier home opponent before February, as the first six games are against the lower tier.
By comparison, Iowa could be out of the race before it even starts. The Hawkeyes play at Purdue, Michigan State, Maryland, Indiana and Michigan, the first three of those in the season’s first month. Iowa opens at home against the Spartans.
Of course, while the schedule disparity is real on paper, it matters little when the ball goes up. You’ve got to play who is on the calendar.
As well, several of today’s frontrunners may be conference busts, and vice versa. For instance, which is the real Ohio State? Is it the 7-5 team with a November home loss to Texas-Arlington? Or is it the team that dismantled Kentucky in Rupp Arena two weeks ago?
What about Wisconsin, last year’s runaway champs at 16-2? With the retirement of Bo Ryan last week, will the sputtering Badgers reignite under new coach Greg Gard?
Or is preconference dominance of teams like Purdue a better indicator of what is to come?
The Boilers are well-situated for a quick start. Purdue plays top-tier teams in only two of its first seven contests, and those are home games with Iowa and Michigan.
Does any of this really mean anything?
An in-state cynic would say, “No, not if Indiana continues to play defense like it’s an option rather than an obligation.” Or, “No, not if Purdue’s big men continue to play down to their opposition like they did against Butler.”
There is a good dose of truth to that.
As the Boilers travel to Wisconsin tonight and the Hoosiers go to Rutgers on Wednesday in games both should win, we’ll learn about the first story in the 18-chapter book that is the Big Ten season.
It is an especially easy read in Bloomington and not too difficult in West Lafayette. Both have the talent to bring home a title, but both have much to prove before that happens.
Life’s tough in the Big Ten? Sure, but not too tough for the Hoosiers and Boilers this year.
The Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule creates winners and losers going into the conference basketball season. Here is a look at the impact on the top seven teams’ schedules from easiest to toughest schedule:
Team Points* Tough road games*
Indiana 10 Michigan, Michigan St., Iowa
Michigan St. 11 Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue
Michigan 12 Purdue, Iowa, Maryland
Northwestern 12 Maryland, IU, Iowa, Purdue, Michigan
Maryland 13 Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan St., Purdue, IU
Iowa 15 Purdue, Michigan St., Maryland, IU, Michigan
*Points were awarded based on home (1) and road (2) games against other teams in the top seven by record to date.