Conference spotlight: THE BIG TEN

The Big Ten has become the Big One.

This year, the Illinois Fighting Illini have proven to be the epic warriors of a conference that typically oozes a passion of almost mythological proportions.

Urbana-Champaign is Mt. Olympus in the Big Ten, and the drop-off is steep. At 18-0, Illinois is No. 1 in the nation, while no other Big Ten team is ranked in the top 15.

The national media is abuzz about their chances to become the first undefeated team in college basketball since Indiana last did it in 1975-76.

Coach Bruce Weber’s team is led by the sterling play of upperclassmen guards Luther Head (16.3 ppg, .522 fg percentage) and Dee Brown (13.3 ppg, 1.6 stl). They conduct a fiery up-tempo game, and often overcome bad performances with sheer intensity and unselfishness.

“Nobody cares who the high scorer is. We’ve got a lot of guys who can score,” said Head after all of his teammates had an off night in a rout over Northwestern last Saturday.

They’ve tallied blowout wins against the likes of No. 3 Wake Forest and No. 18 Cincinnati. The rest of their regular season, they’ll face conference competitors.

Illinois has a 5-0 record on the road while no other team in the Big Ten is above .500 on tour. That doesn’t mean the orange folk won’t have to maintain their current level of play to stay undefeated.

Yet to come is a trip to No. 16 Michigan State (10-3), who could be a serious contender by tournament time if they can overcome three tough road losses-and roll through a somewhat favorable schedule the rest of the way.

No. 23 Wisconsin (12-3) is coming off a big win against Michigan State on Sunday that extended their home winning streak to 38 games, the longest in Division I. It will be interesting to see if they can trip up the Illini next Tuesday at home sweet home (ESPN, 5 p.m.).

Another team with potential is No. 24 Iowa (13-3). Pierre Pierce is averaging almost 18 points a game for the Hawkeyes, who face Illinois twice in their remaining schedule.

Michigan (12-6) finally seems to have revived its basketball program, and it has an exciting young team that could contend as early as this year, if it learns to gel a little better in crunch time by March.

Both Minnesota (13-4) and Ohio State (12-6) have had solid seasons, and they will be looking to steal the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago from the 10-13 of March.

Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue all figure to have little chance at doing anything but ruining somebody else’s hopes with an upset.

If nobody topples Illinois in the regular season, the team will go into the tournament and face stiffer competition with no concept of what to do when things get close.

At least that’s what the experts will say if things go wrong. The inspired play of this Illini team has many thinking they won’t. Some God seems to have favored them…

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