Last season, the Big Ten never settled this argument: “Who’s the best?”
Three teams -- Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State -- shared the league’s regular season crown in a fight that lasted through the final game of the year.
This season will feature similar parity. Indiana could enter the year as the top team in the land on the preseason charts. With Trey Burke returning and a strong freshman class, Michigan should challenge the Hoosiers. Michigan State is stacked. Ohio State lost Jared Sullinger, but Deshaun Thomas could be the most versatile offensive player in the country. And Wisconsin lost an All-American point guard in Jordan Taylor, but the Badgers have never finished lower than fourth under Bo Ryan. Can’t count them out.
But a few key matchups, unveiled when the league released its schedule Thursday, could be crucial for the Big Ten race. League play starts with a pair of New Year’s Eve games: Indiana plays at Iowa and Michigan State travels to Minnesota.
Here are five key games for the Big Ten’s regular season:
Wisconsin at Indiana (Jan. 15) -- This is the only conference matchup between the Badgers and Hoosiers. Wisconsin beat Indiana twice last season. The Badgers held the Hoosiers to 50 points in their only regular season meeting. In March, they tied a Big Ten tourney record with 13 3-pointers in their 10th consecutive victory over Indiana. This is an important game for both teams. Indiana has struggled against Wisconsin for years. So this game will be a chance for the Hoosiers to make an early statement in league competition. The Badgers can prove that they’re legit contenders -- despite all the questions about their point guard situation -- with a win.
Ohio State at Michigan (Feb. 5) -- This will be their second meeting in three weeks. By early February, both teams should know where they stand in the league and nationally. Burke has the talent around him to lead Michigan to the Big Ten title. This should be a critical home game for that pursuit. Plus, the game will feature one of the best individual matchups in the game: Aaron Craft, arguably the best on-the-ball defender in America, faces Burke, possibly the top point guard in America. If the projections are true, then everyone in the league will be chasing Indiana for the top spot. So a chance to knock off another potential contender with a month remaining in the regular season is an important meeting for both squads.
Indiana at Michigan State (Feb. 19) -- The Hoosiers have all the tools to reach Atlanta. Cody Zeller might be the best player in America. Every key player returns. And Tom Crean boasts a nationally ranked recruiting class that features point guard Yogi Ferrell. But what if they struggle on the road again? Last season's Hoosiers lost their swagger when they left Assembly Hall. They were 3-6 in Big Ten road games. They led the Spartans in East Lansing, Mich., last season before a 20-0 Michigan State run turned the game for good. Indiana can’t dream of the Final Four -- or even the Big Ten championship -- unless it changes its identity away from Assembly Hall.
Michigan State at Michigan (March 2 or 3) -- The rivals could be vying for a slice of the Big Ten title when they face off in March. This is always a battle. But the stakes could make this one of the most entertaining and competitive meetings in the series. Five-star freshmen Gary Harris (Michigan State) and Glenn Robinson (Michigan) might be stars by that time. Branden Dawson, one of the best all-around defenders in America, should be completely healthy, too. This is big for recruiting. It’s big for bragging rights. And it’s also a game that could impact the final Big Ten standings.
Indiana at Michigan (March 10) -- Ohio State beat Michigan State by two points on the last day of the regular season. The victory established the three-way tie for the conference’s crown. On the last day of this year’s regular season, the Hoosiers will travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., to face the Wolverines. The Hoosiers suffered a double-digit loss when they visited Crisler Arena last season. I’ve already discussed the concerns about their execution outside Assembly Hall. But even if that’s the case, this will be a difficult game. I think Michigan is a tough matchup for Indiana with Burke’s speed and its athleticism on the wing with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Robinson. Must-see TV. The Big Ten title could be on the line. Or a piece of it, at least.