IOWA CITY — Tom Izzo might have the Big Ten's sixth-best basketball team, and his Michigan State Spartans rank 19th in both major polls.
"This league, definitely, has to be the best in my era," Izzo said Monday morning.
Izzo has coached the Spartans since 1995 and taken the team to seven Final Fours and one NCAA title. The Big Ten has sent 13 teams to the Final Four in Izzo's tenure, but the league hasn't amassed the concentration of talent like this since maybe 1989.
The Big Ten has six teams ranked among the top 19 nationally, including five in the top 14 by the Associated Press. Indiana (1), Michigan (3) and Illinois (13 by AP, 10 by Coaches) are a combined 28-0. Ohio State (7) and Minnesota (14 by AP, 16 by Coaches) each have lost just once — to No. 2 Duke away from home.
The league has an 88-24 record and only one school (Purdue) posts a losing record. Indiana (9-0) has won every game by double digits, including a 24-point thrashing of North Carolina. Michigan (9-0) has beaten teams from the Big 12, SEC, Big East and ACC.
The difference between the Big Ten's RPI and the No. 2 Pac-12 is greater than the difference between the Pac-12 and No. 4 ACC. Every team but Penn State boasts an impressive non-conference win. Northwestern took down then-No. 16 Baylor. Iowa beat Iowa State. Nebraska topped USC and Wake Forest, while Wisconsin beat California and Arkansas. Rebuilding Purdue knocked off Clemson by 12.
"At night I’ll go home when we’re done playing and you’re exhausted and you turn on ESPN and you see the ticker come across the screen and you’re just wow," first-year Illinois Coach John Groce said.
But perhaps the most impressive starts have come from Illinois (10-0) and Minnesota (10-1). Groce replaced Bruce Weber, who was fired after last year's 17-15 season at Illinois. Groce blended a talented corps of holdovers into a fast-break unit that averages nearly eight points more per game than last year through 10 games.
Indiana Coach Tom Crean compared Illinois' style of offensive play to Michigan and Michigan State.
"I don’t think there’s any doubt they’ve got great energy," Crean said. "They’re really moving the ball. They’re playing extremely fast. I think Illinois is a little more like Michigan has been in the sense that the break is ongoing and even Michigan State to that because Michigan State has always had such a great fast break in this league. Illinois is usually playing that way."
Illinois notched one of the league's most impressive wins with an 85-74 win Saturday at then-No. 10 Gonzaga. Brandon Paul earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors with 35 points in the win. The Illini have made 12 more 3-pointers than any other team nationally.
"John walked into a situation where nobody knew what was going to happen and he’s done a unbelievable job with that team," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "Obviously they’ve got some really good seniors. They’re playing well and brought some young guys along and they’re playing at a speed and something they're comfortable with. But they might have as much speed as any team in the country right now. That’s a scary thought."
Minnesota limped through an injury-plagued Big Ten season last year before enjoying a late-season surge to finish second in the NIT. The Gophers now have a solid back-court tandem in Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, along with a now-consistent Rodney Williams at power forward. Sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe, the Big Ten rebounding leader two years ago, comes off the bench and leads the Gophers with 6.5 rebounds per game.
"I think to be truthful I’m not surprised at all," McCaffery said. "I think when you look at Minnesota in particular, the development of their perimeter players throughout the course of last year, you could see it coming. They had some big wins and they had some tough losses. But at the end of the year they were so consistent and then Mbakwe comes back and Williams is really playing well and I just like the way that team is coming together. Tubby (Smith) has done an unbelievable job with that group."
Smith won his 500th career game as a head coach Saturday at USC.
"I don’t think people should be surprised with Minnesota," Crean said. "They’re better in this league because of the way they ended. The fact that Trevor is back, they just continue to improve. I think anybody that would count a Tubby Smith team out is not paying attention with the 500 wins that he has. The man is a Hall of Fame coach.
"The other team that people really have to be aware of and I think coaches in this league are, I would think and I know we are, is Iowa. Because they had a great win the other night against Iowa State. They’re still relatively young. They’re playing at a fast pace. So I think the league from top to bottom is outstanding."
INAUGURAL POWER RANKINGS
1. Indiana (9-0)
Hoosiers won't go undefeated but have all the tools to play into April
2. Michigan (9-0)
Talented point guard, shooting threats, scorers, rebounders, post presence and depth
3. Ohio State (6-1)
Buckeyes faded at Duke but who wouldn't?
4. Illinois (10-0)
The Big Ten's sleeping giant is awake
5. Minnesota (10-1)
Enough talent and depth to compete with anyone
6. Michigan State (8-2)
Beat Kansas yet only sixth ... for now
7. Iowa (8-2)
Starting 3 freshmen and growing game by game
8. Northwestern (8-3)
Owns impressive win (Baylor) and head-scratching loss (Illinois-Chicago)
9. Wisconsin (6-4)
Still trying to define roles after crippling early-season injuries
10. Nebraska (6-2)
Already had exceeded expectations barely into December
11. Purdue (4-5)
Rebuilding year for Boilermakers but they'll fight
12. Penn State (5-4)Tough to overcome Tim Frazier's injury and compete in stacked league