WASHINGTON — Malcolm Hill quickly learned during his freshman season just how competitive and unpredictable the Big Ten can be.
Illinois had a disappointing season in 2013-14, finishing 7-11 in conference play and playing in the NIT. Still, the Fighting Illini won twice against the top five teams in the league, including a seven-point victory at Michigan State against a team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Hill’s senior season is about to begin, and one of the themes for the 2016-17 season in the Big Ten is uncertainty at the top of the conference. Wisconsin has the most experience returning, including preseason player of the year Nigel Hayes, but most national publications do not see the Badgers as an overwhelming favorite.
“I think it shows how good the conference is,” Hill said Thursday at Big Ten media day. “I think the Big Ten is the best and most competitive league in the country. There are a lot of great teams in this conference, but it can be hard for them to stand out because on any given night you can lose. I think in some other conferences you can go into certain games and take teams lightly. That’s not the case in the Big Ten at all.”
There appears to be the potential for a lot of great teams in the Big Ten in 2016-17. Beyond Wisconsin, Michigan State has one of Tom Izzo’s best recruiting classes coming in, but he will also rely on young talent more than he is used to. Indiana has at least three all-conference caliber players, though only two cracked the conference’s preseason list of 10.
Purdue and Maryland both finished 12-6 in conference play last season and both returned a player many pundits expected to declare for the NBA draft. Hill’s crew at Illinois, Michigan, Iowa … there are lots of teams with high expectations this season.
There does not, at this point, appear to be a Kentucky or Duke, that looks capable of overwhelming the rest of the conference.
“It’s exciting,” Ohio State junior Keita Bates-Diop said. “I feel like the Big Ten is always one of the toughest leagues to win every year, but like a few years ago Wisconsin was the big favorite and there are years like that. This year, there could be seven or eight teams that win it and it wouldn’t be that surprising.”
Kansas has won the Big 12 for 12 consecutive seasons. When the conference’s preseason poll was released Thursday, the Jayhawks were unsurprisingly at the top. Kentucky is expected to dominate the SEC.
The ACC is a tremendous league most years and will likely be again in 2016-17, but Duke is loaded and is expected to be No. 1 or No. 2 in the country to start the season. The Pac-12 has Oregon and Arizona and maybe UCLA with teams capable of being elite, but lots of questions after that.
For the Big Ten, it isn’t a matter of how many great teams there could be, but rather where they might all end up in the hierarchy.
“I think the parity in the league is as good as it’s ever been,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “Some elite teams will emerge, but we just don’t know who they are. The constant is you look at the level of coaching and programs in this league and it is off the charts. I think all of us see signs of life and hope, and that’s great for this conference.”
The big factors that several players and coaches pointed to are pretty simple. The Big Ten is loaded with great coaches, both at established programs and those trying to force their way upward like Penn State, Northwestern and Minnesota.
It’s always hard to win on the road because of how many schools can provide a hostile environment. There is always lots of experience and returning veteran players, even on teams with a talent disadvantage.
Some years there is a dominant team at the top of the Big Ten when the season begins, but that’s not the case right now. That could allow lots of teams to dream about winning a conference title.
“You know that every night you’re going to get a team’s best shot, or that every game is going to be competitive,” Penn State junior Shep Garner said. “With the league being so deep, it is just a lot of fun. There are no nights off. You can’t not put up extra shots after practice or put in the extra work. Everybody wants to play in a league like this against top competition.”