When the Big Ten released its schedule for next season on Thursday evening, it proved once again that not all league slates are created equally. Here’s a look at which contenders caught breaks with the teams they’ll see twice and which contenders drew the short straw.
1. WHO DID BO RYAN MAKE MAD?: If Bo Ryan is going to extend his remarkable streak of finishing in the top four in the Big Ten every season he has been at Wisconsin, he might receive some national coach of the year consideration. Not only did the Badgers lose Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser from last year’s national runner-ups, they also drew maybe the toughest conference schedule of any Big Ten team. The five Big Ten teams Wisconsin will face twice next season? Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois. That’s the preseason league favorite, three other top contenders, a fifth NCAA tournament hopeful and none of the league’s bottom-tier programs. Ouch. Other players will have to step up to support returning standouts Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig for the Badgers to survive that gauntlet.
2. MARYLAND’S ROAD IS ROUGH TOO: Maryland enters the season as a leading contender nationally, but the Terps will be challenged plenty in league play. They drew a difficult Big Ten schedule in which some of their toughest games come on the road. The five teams they’ll play twice are Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Northwestern, the first four of which are projected to reach the NCAA tournament. And while Northwestern probably won’t be one of the league’s elite teams next season, the Wildcats do return their four leading scorers from last season. Of the Big Ten teams Maryland only plays once, the Terps will face the two toughest on the road. Maryland visits fellow league title contenders Michigan State on Jan. 23 and Indiana on either March 5 or 6.
3. PROTECT THE RIVALRY GAMES: The biggest downside to the Big Ten’s unbalanced league schedule is that many of the league’s premier rivalry games only happen once a year now. In the first season in years that Purdue and Indiana are expected to both contend for the league crown, the Boilermakers’ lone game against the Hoosiers will be Feb. 20 in Bloomington. Michigan State and Michigan will meet for the only time in Ann Arbor on Feb. 6. Illinois-Northwestern, Wisconsin-Minnesota and Michigan State-Michigan also will take place only once apiece next season. One way that the league could avoid this problem would be to protect its biggest rivalries by designating one opponent each team will play twice every year. That might be a disadvantage for programs whose rivals are strong every season, but it would be beneficial for fans.
4. INDIANA CATCHES A BREAK: Of the leading contenders for the Big Ten title, Indiana may have gotten the most favorable path. The Hoosiers only face one of the teams expected to finish in the upper half of the league twice, and that’s a Wisconsin team that lost a lot of talent from last year. The other four teams Indiana will see twice are mediocre Illinois and Iowa and rebuilding Minnesota and Nebraska. That’s certainly not a cakewalk of a schedule by any means, but it’s much more favorable than it could have been. And in a year when the league title chase should be more wide-open than it was last year when Wisconsin was dominant, that could be the break that Indiana needs.
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