Before No. 17 Maryland men's basketball began the bulk of conference play, head coach Mark Turgeon could sense just how much of a grind this year’s Big Ten slate would be.
“I think this will be the single hardest league season that I’ll go through as a player and/or as a coach to this point in my life,” he said on Jan. 3.
Regardless of how fans perceived the statement, it has certainly rung true thus far with the conference deeper than ever and arguably the best in the country.
Currently, 12 of the 14 teams in the Big Ten are in the top-50 of NET rankings, including seven in the top-30. The league also has a total 24 wins over ranked opponents, which is twice as much as any other conference in the country.
Last season, a conference-best eight teams made the NCAA Tournament, which led the country. While it’s still very early, it seems as if much more Big Ten teams will be dancing this March.
In his latest March Madness predictions, college basketball expert Andy Katz had a whopping 12 teams from the conference making the field of 64 — Michigan State (No. 3-seed), Maryland (No. 5-seed), Michigan (No. 5-seed), Ohio State (No. 6-seed), Wisconsin (No. 6-seed), Illinois (No. 8-seed), Penn State (No. 8-seed), Rutgers (No. 8-seed), Iowa (No. 9-seed), Indiana (No. 10-seed), Purdue (No. 10-seed) and Minnesota (No. 11-seed).
While he added that the number might be slightly less as conference play continues, Katz remarked, “I will guarantee you this. The Big Ten will have the most teams in the NCAA Tournament.”
The Terps have certainly felt the depth of the league as they’ve started the season 3-3 in conference play for just the second time since joining — they did so in 2017-18 and finished with a program-worst 8-10 Big Ten record.
While it seems unlikely for Maryland to finish with such a bad conference record again with the caliber of talent it has this season, at first glance, that comparison raises major red flags. But the Terps aren’t they only highly touted team to struggle thus far in 2019-20 Big Ten play, which can best be described as a madness.
Unlike any conference in the country, numerous ranked teams are in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings.
No. 19 Michigan, which was 7-2 in nonconference play (its only losses were to top-10 opponents) with wins over then-No. 6 North Carolina and then-No. 8 Gonzaga (now No. 1), is presently in 10th place with a 2-3 record. The team is ranked No. 20 by KenPom.
No. 21 Ohio State, which ranks No. 9 in KenPom and was seen for some time as one of the best teams in the country with wins over then-No. 10 Villanova, then-No. 7 North Carolina and then-No. 6 Kentucky, is a mere 2-4 in Big Ten play — good for an 11th-place tie with Penn State and Nebraska.
No. 15 Michigan State (13-4, 5-1 Big Ten) and No. 24 Illinois (12-5, 4-2) are currently in first and second place, respectively, with No. 17 Maryland (13-4, 3-3) in a four-way tie for sixth place.
“The standings are as weird as it gets,” expert Gary Parish said on CBS Sports’ Eye of College Basketball Podcast on Jan. 12. “This is A — a great league — and B — a league that seems wildly unpredictable at this point.”
And six games into conference play for most teams, this goes well beyond standings. The fact of the matter is, in the Big Ten, anyone can win on any given night.
Of those five ranked teams, only three of the combined 13 losses have come to other top-25 opponents. In fact, unranked teams have knocked off ranked conference foes 11 times already — nearly four times more than any other league in the nation.
Much of that disparity comes from defeats on the road, which have become quite the trend in the conference. Big Ten teams are currently 6-36 away from their home court, with unranked home teams 10-1 against ranked away teams.
Michigan State, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State are a combined 2-12 in conference road games, with the latter three all without a Big Ten victory away from home.
“Our league is the worst [on the road],” Michigan State Tom Izzo said after his team’s upset loss at Purdue, later saying it shouldn’t be used as an excuse. “And I think our league’s the worst because our league’s the best, as far as attendance.”
But even knowing that other teams are struggling, doesn’t matter much to the Terps, who are 0-4 in true road games this season.
“It [doesn’t] put us at ease because we know how talented we are,” junior guard Darryl Morsell said. “But it’s tough. It’s hard when you go into a different environment and it’s your 25 group of people against 18,000 different people. It’s tough, but that’s been our whole focus ever since we got back from Iowa, just being mentally tough and physically tough.”
Morsell made those remarks before Maryland lost its third Big Ten road game of the season in a last-second 56-54 heartbreaker at Wisconsin Tuesday. The Terps did show more toughness in that one, coming back from being down at the half and looking in position to win for much of the second period of play, but simply couldn’t execute down the final stretch.
From shooting struggles to turnovers, a lot of questions remain for Maryland, but honing in on toughness and execution will be key if it hopes to find its way towards the top of the toughest league in the land.
“There’ll be a couple teams that separate themselves, I just don’t know who it’s going to be yet,” Turgeon said. “But the rest of us will probably just beat each other up. Hopefully we’re one of those teams that separates ourselves.”