CHICAGO, Ill -- Ohio State's Thad Matta doesn't fear. He's coached too long, won too often, and experienced too many things.
And yet, when he starts contemplating Big Ten basketball prospects, he stops to consider safer challenges -- like playing at Duke.
“I don't think any one of us can look at our (conference) schedule and say, I know we'll win this game,” he said during Thursday's Big Ten Media Day. “That's why I don't look at the Big Ten until December, trying to keep my sanity knowing how good this league is going to be. “
Or, as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo quipped when asked about the league's strength, “Why ruin a good day.”
Sure, Big Ten football coaches said similar things last July about the conference's strength, then saw their teams turn into fodder against the likes of Alabama and Notre Dame.
Nobody expects that from basketball. If you believe the coaches' preseason poll, the Big Ten has three of the nation's top five teams with No. 1 Indiana, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan. Michigan State is No. 14. Wisconsin is No. 21.
That doesn't even take into account Northwestern, poised to finally achieve NCAA tourney status, or perennial Big Ten power Purdue (young, but very dangerous) or experienced teams such as Minnesota and Illinois.
“We have talent in our league from top to bottom and I think that's what separates us,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Those teams that have been ranked in the top 25 are worthy of those rankings, but I think the teams at the bottom (of the league) can push to the top and put themselves in good position come March.”
The Big Ten, in other words, has taken its traditional powerhouse play and amped it up a notch.
“Last year I felt we had the best league in the country,” Painter said, “but you've got to prove yourself all over again. I think it looks like we could do that again.”
Izzo said the conference coaching has surpassed the era of Bob Knight, Gene Keady, Jud Heathcote, Tom Davis and Lou Henson.
“This league has the best coaches we've ever had,” Izzo said.
Powerhouse recruiting by Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and even Iowa has loaded up the talent. Freshmen such as IU's Yogi Ferrell, Michigan State's Gary Harris, Michigan's Glen Robinson III and Mitch McGary, Wisconsin's Sam Dekker and Purdue's A.J. Hammons are set to make instant impact.
“One of the biggest things I've seen,” Matta said, “is the level of play has really increased. You couple that with great coaches, great programs, that's what makes it a great league.
“It seems like everybody is at their best. Everybody appears to be on the upswing right now.”
That upswing has Indiana as the Big Ten and national favorite. Coach Tom Crean, while embracing the attention and pressure of the No. 1 status, said he's not ready assert his Hoosiers, who finished fifth in the conference last year, should be picked ahead of last year's three tri-champions Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
“Until somebody unseats them, you have to look at them,” Crean said. “They didn't get any worse, and probably got better.”
You could say that about every Big Ten team.
“You know it is going to be a hard-fought, grinded out in the sense of grinding through and getting our team up to that challenge,” Crean said. “You don't know what the league holds other than it's going to be a battle every night.”
Battles start with outstanding players such as Indiana forward Cody Zeller, the preseason Big Ten player of the year who is also a favorite for national honors.
Then you have guys such as Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, the former Bishop Luers standout and Indiana Mr. Basketball; Penn State's Tim Frazier; Northwestern's Drew Crawford; Michigan's Trey Burke; and Ohio State's Aaron Craft.
The Big Ten can really separate itself in non-conference play, starting with the Big Ten-ACC Challenge that features such matchups as North Carolina at Indiana, Ohio State at Duke and Michigan at North Carolina State.
Beyond that, Wisconsin plays at Florida, Michigan State faces Kansas and Texas, Ohio State also plays Kansas, IU has a potential matchup with UCLA, and more.
“You have to go out from a non-conference standpoint and solidify yourself,” Painter said.
Added Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan: “With our non-conference schedules, the type of teams we're going to play, we have to back it up.”
Figure the Big Ten will, meaning coaches will earn their mega-million-dollar salaries.
“It's going to be fun for the fans and the media, and hard on the coaches,” Izzo said.