Let me set this quickly aside, Jay Bilas isn't my favorite ESPN college basketball anchor, there are certainly other people I would much prefer to hear call a game. That said, he's a voice in college basketball that a lot of people respect. He played the game and sometimes he has good insight. I just wonder if he's gone off the deep end with his blog post on Tuesday. (Unfortunately you'll need ESPN Insider to read it.)
When he ranks the top college basketball conferences in the country here is all you need to know:
1. Big Ten
The Big Ten always has been strong at the top, but the bottom of the league often has let the league down. For too many seasons, the Big Ten has been unfairly criticized for its style of play and the relative weakness of the lower third of the conference. Not this season. There is nary a doormat in the league, as Northwestern, Iowa and Indiana all will be much improved and much more competitive nationally. Michigan State and Purdue are the two best teams in the league, and the Spartans make a great case for being the best team in the country. Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio State will be in the national discussion all season. It should have happened long ago, but the conference should finally win the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, an annual irritant to the Big Ten's reputation. If a team survives this league's slate, it truly will be among the nation's best teams.
Yup, Bilas thinks the Big Ten is going to be the best conference in college basketball. He even suggests that the Big Ten is going to win the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Because it's the easiest direct comparison, lets see how the two conferences are projected to match up - remembering of course that this is still September.
Here are the 11 match-ups for the challenge (ACC-Big Ten, home team in bold):
- Virginia - Penn State
- Wake Forest - Purdue
- NC State - Northwestern
- Maryland - Indiana
- North Carolina - Michigan State
- Virginia Tech - Iowa
- Clemson - Illinois
- Miami - Minnesota
- Boston College - Michigan
- Duke - Wisconsin
- Florida State - Ohio State
The ones that jump off the page as obvious picks? Penn State over a hapless Virginia squad, Maryland over still rebuilding Indiana, Virginia Tech over a gutted Iowa, Michigan over Boston College at home and Ohio State over Florida State. That's 3-2 Big Ten.
Then there's the closer games - Purdue should beat Wake Forest, Clemson should beat Illinois and Minnesota should beat Miami. That puts the Big Ten up 5-3. Not bad.
And then there's the close ones. The most entertaining games out of the set appear to be Northwestern vs. NC State, Duke vs. Wisconsin and the Challenge's premiere contest, Michigan State vs. North Carolina.
And honestly, for most people around the country it won't matter if the Wildcats can beat the Wolfpack. What matters to the casual fan is the big boys at the top.
If Wisconsin and Michigan State can both pull out victories then the Big Ten can rightly be considered the better conference for a season, and it would certainly help the bubble teams at the bottom of the conference come Selection Sunday. If they split while playing at home, it's not the end of the world. But, if the Badgers and Spartans both lose, it will be a big blow to the credibility of the conference. Even if the rest of the conference does well and gains a victory overall in the Challenge, those two losses will hang heavy.
There's big pressure on the top of the Big Ten to live up to the preseason hype. The conference should be deep - except for Indiana and Iowa - but it's those teams at the top that really matter.