Iowa Men's Basketball

Big Ten is deep end of this year's college basketball pool

Winning at Minnesota Sunday more daunting for Hawkeyes than a first-round NCAA game

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) grabs the ball in the Hawkeyes' 72-52 win over Minnesota last Dec. 9 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Iowa center Luka Garza (55) grabs the ball in the Hawkeyes’ 72-52 win over Minnesota last Dec. 9 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. No. 25 is Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu. He and Garza are among the 20 finalists for the John Wooden Award and the 10 finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award. Their teams meet Sunday again in Minnesota. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Is Big Ten men’s basketball as good as so many people would have you believe?

Yes. Are Big Ten teams great? Maybe not. However, “great” isn’t a term you’re hearing applied to many teams anywhere this season. There is no apparent LSU football parallel in Division I basketball.

What the Big Ten has are lot of capable teams and a lot of hard places for visitors to leave as winners. Iowa experienced that the hard way yet again Thursday night when it lost at Indiana to a Hoosiers club that is just 6-7 in the Big Ten.

That said, does Indiana look like anything special to you? Does the Hawkeyes’ opponent Sunday, Minnesota? At 8-6 in the Big Ten but unable to win anywhere on the road in its conference other than Northwestern, does Iowa?

On the other hand, couldn’t you see all sorts of Big Ten teams making serious waves in the NCAA tournament?

In the latest projections of ESPN chief cook/bottle washer/bracketologist Joe Lunardi, 11 Big Ten teams are in the NCAA field of 68. That would tie the tourney’s record, set by the Big East in 2011.

However, only Maryland (a No. 2) and Penn State (a No. 4) from the Big Ten are in Lunardi’s top 16 overall seeds. Everyone else is from a No. 5 to a No. 11, and six are no higher than a No. 8. Iowa is a No. 6.

The current Big East clearly lacks the Big Ten’s depth of quality teams. In fact, it now has just 10 members. However, four are seeded fifth or higher in Lunardi’s latest kit/kaboodle. The Big 12 is no Big Ten from top to bottom, but has two No. 1 seeds in Baylor and Kansas, and a No. 3 in West Virginia.

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Look at any NBA mock draft for 2020, and you won’t see a Big Ten guy pegged as a lottery pick (Top 14). But there are multiple players from the ACC, Pacific-12 and SEC.

That isn’t a one-year thing. Over the previous five years, the ACC had 39 first-round draft picks, the SEC 25, and the Big Ten just 14. Of the 24 players who will participate in Sunday night's NBA All-Star Game, none came to the league from the Big Ten. Of the 44 players who are finalists to be on the U.S. men’s basketball team in this year’s Olympics, only three are Big Ten products.

So what distinguishes the Big Ten from other leagues this season?

“I think you’re looking at a lot of the good players, deep teams, some veteran guys, veteran coaches,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think that’s what you’re looking at. We’re not relying — as a conference, that is — on one or two guys on each team.”

Big Ten teams, Iowa star center Luka Garza said recently, are “very, very good and athletic and experienced. I think there’s multiple guys like that on each team.

“You see some leagues where they’ll have one lottery pick and the rest of the guys aren’t really up to par. We have a lot of guys on each team who are very good, and just really deep teams who are really experienced that have been through this.”

Fact: The Big Ten has players. Look at the Hawkeyes’ opponent Sunday. Like Garza, Minnesota sophomore Daniel Oturu has played his way into the Wooden Award’s late-season list of 20 finalists from not having been on the preseason watch list of 50 players. The 6-foot-10 Oturu averages 20.1 points and 11.5 rebounds. He’s terrific.

The Pac-12 had eight players on that preseason list, the SEC seven, the Big Ten six. But here we are in mid-February, and the Big Ten has six on the late-season list while the Pac-12 and SEC have just one apiece.

Yes, the Big Ten is about depth, of good teams and rosters. A big reason Penn State is 20-5 with an eight-game winning streak is its depth of talent. It has nine players who have been taking care of business.

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Which would be tougher, playing a current projected No. 7 seed like BYU, Houston or LSU on a neutral court in the NCAA tourney, or trying to waltz out of Williams Arena with a win over a Gophers team that’s not even in today’s brackets?

A hint: Iowa beat 7th-seed Cincinnati in the NCAAs last March. It lost at Minnesota two months earlier.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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