Brown: Despite Iowa's fast start, Big Ten race missing buzz

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – We're five games into the Big Ten men's basketball season, and Iowa's 4-1 start is a pleasant surprise when you consider where this team was after second-half meltdowns against Iowa State and Northern Iowa.

The Hawkeyes are not the only league team that took nonconference hits. Indiana lost to Eastern Washington. Texas Southern knocked off Michigan State. New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan stunned Michigan. Incarnate Word silenced Nebraska. North Florida got Purdue.

And the Big Ten, regarded as the best basketball league in the country last season, doesn't have the same sterling reputation now. Just two teams — Wisconsin and newcomer Maryland — are in The Associated Press' Top 25. At this point of the season a year ago, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan were all ranked 21st or higher.

That is just one reason why the Big Ten race hasn't generated much buzz nationally. Another reason is that the No. 7 Badgers are the overwhelming favorite to win the title. And then there's the Big Ten's expansion to 14 teams, which has watered down the value of a regular-season title in the first place.

Each team plays five opponents home-and-home, and eight others just once. Who you play, and where you play them, will be a significant factor in the regular-season race.

This is no knock on Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner, who has the unenviable task of putting the schedule together while negotiating a maze of TV demands.

"You play 18 games with 14 teams, that's the only way the math works," Rudner said.

Wisconsin, with a majority of its Final Four team back, also got an assist from the schedule. At least that's the way it looks, judging by who is hot and who is not three weeks into the season. Two of the Badgers' five home-and-home foes are Northwestern and Penn State. And Wisconsin plays Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and Illinois just once.

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan suggested last season that the conference slate be increased to 20 games. He repeated that at the league's preseason media day.

"Let's play 26," Ryan said. "Ernie Banks said 'Let's play two,' didn't he? No, 20 would be great. Scheduling is so hard nowadays."

I floated the idea of 20 league games to Iowa coach Fran McCaffery before last Tuesday's game at Minnesota. He was all for it. He also said he didn't think it would ever happen.

Next season, five of each team's eight one-play opponents in 2014-15 will become home-and home dates. And the five home-and-home foes will become one-plays next season. So Iowa will play Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Nebraska just once in 2015-16.

Then in 2016-17, the three remaining teams will be played home-and-home along with two of the mirror teams this season as the cycle starts over.

Even though the league season is watered down from a round-robin perspective, the standings will still play a significant factor when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. That's why Iowa's 4-1 start is significant. The Hawkeyes' next five games include a home date with Maryland and two games with the Badgers.

"We're 4-1, but we're not sitting here patting ourselves on the back," McCaffery said. "We've got to go to Wisconsin (Tuesday) and Purdue (Saturday) the next two games. The league is brutal. So you can never get too full of yourself. You can never get too down on yourself."

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.