Photo courtesy Rick Osentoski – USA TODAY Sports
If you follow college basketball with any kind of regularity, then you probably know there was a big game in a B1G conference last night. That’s right, I’m talking about #2 Michigan taking on the fourth ranked Fighting Illini of Illinois. The 76-53 blowout for Illinois was wildly unexpected, especially given the absence of Illini star Ayo Dosunmu and the hot-streak that the Wolverines have been on. While this game doesn’t necessarily prove my point on its face, the implications surrounding the result speak volumes.
Before we begin, I am not, and never have been a conference homer. I love to see teams that aren’t my own lose, whether they’re playing an FCS team or the Coaches Poll #1. I do, however, think that the level of competition on a nightly basis is an important metric for judging the potential of a tournament run. Without further adieu, I will explain why the Big Ten reaffirmed itself as the outright alpha conference in the 2021 Men’s Basketball season.
For starters the Big Ten was able to increase its dominance within the most recent AP Poll, finding four teams in the top-seven. The voters wind up as a huge influence for selection Sunday, and the likelihood of two 1-seeds and two 2-seeds has grown rapidly in the last week-and-a-half.
As well as that, any of those four teams could very well win the championship. Vegas Insider currently holds each of Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State, and Illinois within the top-ten odds to win the Division I National Championship. The first three of those are within the six most likely, and for good reason.
Michigan has been one of the hottest teams of the 2021 season, COVID Break and all. The Wolverines may well be the best team in the country, but both of their losses have come in blowout fashion. One off night is all it takes to sink an otherwise successful season, so Juwan Howard’s Michigan team must keep their guard up at all times.
Iowa was one of a few preseason favorites out of the Big Ten, but despite a midseason “slump” the Hawkeyes have battled back right into serious contention. Luka Garza may be the best player in the country, and when they’re hot there’s no stopping the Iowa offense. The opposition must watch out, and hope for an average shooting night if they want a chance to take down the Hawkeyes.
The Buckeyes of Ohio State started the season with the lowest expectation of the teams on this list, but in my eyes, at their peak they’re the best team in the country. The scoring potential from 1-5 makes it hard enough to defend this team, but if the bench has a good night as well then you can forget about any chance of stopping the depth of this team. Duane Washington is the best scorer in the country when he’s on, and struggles mightily when he’s off. He and EJ Liddell will ultimately make or break this team, and I have them as a severe threat if they can get back to their winning ways.
The last team in the Big Ten with a *realistic* chance at a National Championship this season is Illinois. They blew out Michigan down a star, but I don’t think that’s a game to read into so much as it seemed like a right time right place situation. Not to discredit a highly impressive win over a very good team, but that is the one time that happens out of a 10000-game simulation. The Illini are one of the toughest teams in the country, and their physicality will be the difference between a Round-of-64 upset and a Final Four run. There’s something to be said for peaking at the right time, and a win over Ohio State on Saturday would be a huge step towards that peak.
The only conference in the country that has more than one AP Top Ten team is the Big 12, and I have a hard time finding any scenario that West Virginia makes a deep tournament run. The Big Ten is an elite basketball conference, and an Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio State vs. The Field to win it all would draw in my money for sure. The Big Ten Tournament will be a masterclass of college basketball, and will be a huge step up from many of the potential matchups found in the first few rounds of March Madness.