If a sportswriter had a nickel for every time a Big Ten coach told him the league is the best, top to bottom, that it has ever been, he wouldn’t be a sportswriter anymore. He’d be on a Caribbean island, with a cold drink, writing the great American novel.
Just in the past two days, Tom Izzo of Michigan State, Bo Ryan of Wisconsin and Thad Matta of Ohio State made that oft-repeated claim about the Big Ten. This time, though, their assertions may be right on the money.
How else to explain what has been going on in the conference the past few weeks? Since Jan. 25, road teams have won more than half the games played — 20 of 37. That is not the case in any of the other major conferences.
And this hasn’t occurred just because ranked teams like Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State each have gone 3-0 away from home during that time, but also because traditional also-rans Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State each have gone 2-1.
Since Big Ten play began Dec. 31, road teams have won at a 44.7 percent pace. In only one other season since the conference returned to an 18-game schedule in 2008 have road teams won as many as 40 percent of the games.
“I don’t think there’s a coach in the Big Ten who feels good going into a game, like, ‘Hey, chances are if we just play basketball, we’re going to win the game,’ ” Matta said.
The Buckeyes once would have had reason to feel that way tonight. They play host to Northwestern, which they have beaten 32 consecutive times in Columbus dating to 1977.
But then, the No. 24 Buckeyes have lost three times at home in conference play this season to teams that had not won at Value City Arena since Matta became Ohio State coach in 2004. Iowa had lost seven games in a row since 2004, Michigan nine straight since 2003 and Penn State nine in a row since 2001.
It’s the first time in Matta’s 10 seasons that Ohio State has lost three Big Ten home games.
“Every night is a war,” he said after the loss to Michigan last week. “What you see in this league now is a bad three-minute stretch, a bad four-minute stretch, can cost you.”
Penn State, in overtime, was the first unranked team to beat Ohio State at home in five years. Only two other unranked opponents have managed that against Matta’s teams.
“It definitely shows the toughness and the depth of our conference that the teams at the bottom of the standings can come in places like the Schott and Assembly Hall at Indiana and get wins against programs that are usually at the top of the league,” junior Sam Thompson said.
Northwestern had won three straight road games — at Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, before it lost at Michigan State last week.
“Every other league has bad teams. We don’t have bad teams,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
That should work in the Big Ten’s favor when teams are selected for the NCAA tournament.
Although no Big Ten team ranks among the top 10 nationally this week, a result of the recent volatility in the league, seven are among the top 53 in the Rating Percentage Index, a power ranking consulted by tournament selectors.
“Conferences that are exceptionally strong and have a lot of depth are benefited by that depth and strength of depth,” said Ron Wellman, Wake Forest athletic director and chairman of the tournament selection committee.
The Big Ten’s RPI as a whole ranks second to the Big 12’s.