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A mediocre Big Ten could set up Illinois for success

The Big Ten is picking up where it left off last year and doesn’t look great.

Jack Jungman // TCR

Last year was a down year for the Big Ten. Only two teams were ranked by the end of the year and only one team made it out of the first weekend (Michigan State, lost in the Sweet 16).

At this time last year, the Big Ten was at its peak with 6 teams ranked in the AP poll. Right now, there are just two teams ranked (Illinois & Purdue).

I know there’s the fact that everybody likes to bring up that a Big Ten team hasn’t won a championship since 2000, but it really does seem like the conference is hitting a rut in the last two years. Illinois has the opportunity and the talent to take advantage of the currently weak conference.

Just how weak is the conference?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

KenPom: 2, 16, 18, 19, 23, 38, 44, 48, 50, 64, 70, 71, 118, 128

KenPom is actually higher than most on a couple Big Ten teams. Michigan State is one of those teams, who is 4-3 including a loss to James Madison to open the year, but still 19 in KenPom.

The AP poll is much worse. Only two teams are ranked in the top 25, with three more of them receiving votes (one of which is Nebraska, who just lost by 30 to Creighton). It’s obviously still very early on, but if this season trends in the same direction as last year, things could get concerning.

At the start of last season there were three ranked teams, with the peak being six at about this point, the week of Nov. 28, but at the end of the year the number dropped to two teams. The conference season is always a tough one for the Big Ten as they beat up on each other, and now should be the time to get up in the rankings.

The conference as a whole has losses to Princeton, UAB, Long Beach State, and San Francisco.

It’s college basketball, teams lose to worse teams. But the non-conference slate is a time for conferences to build resumes before the conference has to play itself. So far, it looks like a weak conference.

It’s time to capitalize

Craig Pessman // TCR

The game against Rutgers gave me a lot of hope for the upcoming conference season. Of course we have a lot left to learn with the gauntlet of FAU, Tennessee, and Missouri coming up before conference play, but considering Rutgers is a middling Big Ten team and the road game was mostly one-sided, it was a great-looking win.

As detailed before, at this time in the season the conference looks worse than last season in terms of voting, and Illinois was 11-9, 5th in the Big Ten.

Of the five losses:

  • Three to Penn St. (36 last year —> 127 this year KenPom)
  • One to Maryland (23 —> 70)
  • One to Northwestern (38 —> 48)
  • Two to Indiana (30 —> 69)

The other two losses were to Ohio St. and Purdue, both of whom have improved via KenPom rankings. However, that’s seven of the nine conference losses that have fell from last year, most of which have gotten significantly worse (Penn State and Maryland come to mind).

Of course the rest of the non-conference schedule coming up is incredibly important, especially since the Big Ten is most likely going to have a negative connotation going into Selection Sunday. There has been a narrative for a while now that at the Big Ten does not deserve the number of teams it has in the tourney because of the record it has had in recent history.

That being said, the Illini are still tuning up. There are a lot of transfer newcomers — Domask, Harmon, Guerrier — and while we should find out what this team is really made of during this next stretch of a week, I think if all goes according to plan the Illini can really boost their stock going into March.

Illinois is a top three (unknown where in the top three) team in an underwhelming conference. This team is experienced and talented, the pieces are falling into place for a great conference season that can hopefully transfer this winning into the postseason.

The Big Ten has the reputation of every team being good not great, and very beat up going into March.

But this year, that might not be the case.