Big Ten men's basketball race is 'muddled up'

Rick Brown
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan

ROSEMONT, Ill. – For years, Bo Ryan's Wisconsin basketball teams were labeled as overachieving or surprising.

Year after year, they'd exceed expectations. Like last season, when the Badgers finished 30-8 and made it all the way to the Final Four.

At the Big Ten's annual basketball media day Tuesday, overachieving was replaced by favorite. With four starters returning, Wisconsin is the overwhelming choice to win the Big Ten men's title this season.

"There's no question that Wisconsin is the class (of the league), but Wisconsin gets picked second or third when he's got nobody back, so I think that tells you a lot about Bo and what he's done," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Ryan, whose returning cast includes forward and preseason player of the year Frank Kaminsky and first-team choice Sam Dekker, sounded like a coach who didn't mind his team starting the season with a No. 1 target on its back.

"Our guys live in the moment, or at least we're trying to," Ryan said. "They're trying to get better. They know there's weaknesses to shore up, and we're trying to accentuate our strengths."

The compelling story in this season's Big Ten race might not be the Badgers' attempt to live up to expectations, but the jockeying expected to take place for the remaining first-division spots and the NCAA bids that will likely go with them.

"I saw us picked anywhere from second to eighth or ninth, and our fans kind of rumbled about that," Izzo said. "I told them, 'That's probably where I would have picked us.' I think that's where I'd pick a lot of teams."

Iowa is one of the teams in that first-division battle. The Hawkeyes, ending an eight-year absence from the NCAA Tournament last season, will try to win at least 20 games for a third straight season. That hasn't happened since the 1998-99 season.

"All the talk is about Wisconsin picked for first, and it should be," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "But there will be a lot of teams in this league that will go to the NCAA Tournament. And there's a lot of us who want and expect to be one of those teams."

Iowa was ranked 25th in the USA Today Sports coaches' poll released Thursday. The Hawkeyes have been picked sixth or seventh in most preseason Big Ten polls. The USA Today poll had Wisconsin fourth, Michigan State 18th, Ohio State 20th, Nebraska 21st and Michigan 23rd.

"That's the most unique thing about this league," McCaffery said. "There's not a bad team in it."

Instead of starting at the top, Izzo thinks a true measure of the Big Ten starts at the bottom.

"I think the bottom has moved up again," Izzo said. "The top, maybe other than Wisconsin, has maybe moved back a little bit. But I think there's an eight-, nine-, 10-team race. And with who you play more and where you play them, muddled up is a good word."

With the Big Ten growing to 14 teams this season with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, teams play five conference opponents home-and-home, with eight one-plays. With no round-robin schedule, a competitive imbalance is possible. Unless Ryan, a long-time proponent of 20 Big Ten games, gets his way.

"Let's play 26," Ryan said.