When I covered Big Ten Media days a few months ago, there were a few platitudes that were often repeated by coaches and players alike. Many were quick to praise Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State as potential league leaders. They lauded the depth of excellent coaching in the conference, as well as their potential Player of the Year candidates. Nearly everybody, from the Buckeye player table to Iowa to the coaches, made a point of mentioning just how HARD it is to win Big Ten games on the road.
Many conference players had played road games at the premier gyms across the country. Most of the Buckeyes had played at Florida and Kansas. They agreed that Big Ten gyms, even the less than dominant teams, posed significant challenges. Deshaun Thomas specifically singled out Purdue as a difficult place to play.
Let's look at last Monday as an example. The premiere conference game was Indiana at Iowa. While the Hoosiers might have looked a bit more mortal than perhaps their preseason prognostications made them out to be, they were still a top five team nationally, and Iowa is probably going to battle with Wisconsin to grab a 7th bid out of the league. On paper, while Iowa is certainly talented, one would expect the Hoosiers to win, perhaps even comfortably. Instead, the Hoosiers shot only 40% from the field against the league's worth defensive team last season, and and eeked out a close four point victory, 69-65. If Iowa's best shooter, Roy Devyn Marble, shot only marginally better than his horrible 1-14 performance, they are storming the court in Iowa City.
Ohio State has seen this happen too. The Buckeyes lost to a decidedly meh Illinois squad on the road last season after Brandon Paul turned into the Muggsy Bogues Monstar and torched OSU for 43 points. They also beat Northwestern by only a bucket on the road. The dominant 2010-11 squad struggled to beat inferior Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan teams on the road. The 2008-2009 team LOST at Northwestern. Really, bad things happen to Ohio State grads in Evanston during the winter. Avoid it at all costs.
Why does this matter? Sports fans are aware in the abstract that it's harder to win road games than home games, but is it harder to win on the road in the Big Ten than say, the Big 12? Many of the Big Ten gyms are older, with student sections right on top of the players, leading to even louder environments. For middle of the pack squads, getting a road visit from an Indiana, Michigan or Ohio State increases the "bullseye" factor, and home crowds will be additionally keyed up. While the talent level of the league is obviously very high, with at least six teams likely to make the tournament, and with only one really *bad* time prior to injuries, the crowd factor will make even trips to Evanston and State College scary enough to make coaches nervous.
I don't think I began to comprehend this principle until I took a job that required regular travel. The stresses are laughably dissimilar, as nobody is screaming at me at my office, nobody is actively trying to prevent me from being effective at my job, and I usually get to sleep in my own bed at the end of the day, but the little changes in the daily routine absolutely impact a little. Totally superficial stuff like having the bathroom in a different place, or having to get up at 5:00 AM to get the Amtrak, or seeing different coworkers, can ever so slightly impact my readiness at work. To multiply those effects by a thousand, with constant travel all over the midwest for several months, and it isn't hard to see how some nights, you may not play up to your potential.
The Buckeyes get their first Big Ten road game on Saturday against a surprisingly strong Illinois squad, led by a three-headed monster in the backcourt. Had these teams played in Columbus, you'd probably think Ohio State would be a somewhat comfortable favorite, but given the Big Ten house-effect, and this OSU squad's lack of road experience, you never know.
Ohio State is fortunate this year to only play Minnesota and Iowa at home. Not having the road "trap games" against the middle-class of the Big Ten could give the Buckeyes a competitive advantage in the league standings. Even so, the Bucks still have a tough road game against Wisconsin, and even if the Badgers aren't very good this season thanks to point guard injuries, their home court is so strong that they are certainly going to beat Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State at home. The Bucks also have to travel to Michigan, Michigan State, a potentially feisty Purdue right after Illinois, and a near end of the season battle in their own house of horrors, Chicago's Big Ten Team (lol) Northwestern.
The commanding home court advantage is something we as fans should take special note of when trying to figure out the league this season. It's pretty unlikely anybody is going to blow the doors of the league this year without suffering a few scraps on the road, probably to a team that isn't quite as elite.
It wouldn't be shocking at all if Ohio State drops a game or two to a squad they ought to beat, especially earlier in the season, and we certainly shouldn't expect any more performances like the Nebraska beatdown, except perhaps against Nebraska. Saturday's game should be the first of several wars Ohio State will find themselves in this season. Let's see if they're up for it.