Big Ten matchups for men and women are competitive as ever

The conference’s depth is making for some intriguing duals this spring.

Just how high-quality are Big Ten men’s and women’s tennis matches this spring?

For starters, the Northwestern women’s team has won 11 straight matches and is the clear-cut No. 1 team in the country; proving so with an impressive 5-2 win over second-ranked Baylor last weekend. On the men’s side of things, conference-leading Ohio State – which has won 29 consecutive conference matches and is on pace to win its third-straight Big Ten title – is ranked 2nd in the country.

While both leagues have dominant forces at the top – including many which filter the Top 25 ITA rankings – the depth of both divisions from one through 11 is what is making for competitive matches every weekend.

Perhaps no teams can justify just how tough the Big Ten is this season than the Minnesota men’s and women’s tennis teams, who have already seen a barrage of top-level teams come through the Baseline Tennis Center and expect to see more with the heart of the conference season still left for April.

Women receive early tests

The Gophers women’s tennis team just completed a rugged early season stretch in the Big Ten at 1-4, with all four losses coming at the hands of Top 50 nationally ranked teams.

Minnesota has lost to No. 22 Michigan, No. 28 Indiana, No. 29 Ohio State and No. 46 Iowa.

Oh, and the top team in the country – the Wildcats – still loom on the Gophers’ plate.

A perfect example of how tough the Big Ten is this season, from head to toe, may be Minnesota’s struggle last weekend to get a win against unranked Penn State.

The Gophers, still strong in the running for an NCAA tournament bid with a ranking of 57th in the country, had to muster everything they could to rally from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Nittany Lions 4-3.

Just another day in the Big Ten.

“It’s kind of a cliché, but in conference play you can’t take anyone lightly. There are no horrible teams in the Big Ten. There are 11 teams that are all capable of beating decent teams,” women’s coach Tyler Thomson said.

“Michigan State (was) unranked and they just beat the 31 team in the nation (Washington) last week. Penn State barely beat Wisconsin 4-3. It’s not just Penn State. It’s every Big Ten match. You have to come ready to compete, or somebody is going to catch you off guard.”

With 10 of the 11 Big Ten teams making an appearance at one time or another in the ITA rankings this season, Thomson said the conference continues to gain respectability.

“I think top to bottom the Big Ten is not yet at the level of the ACC, SEC, and Pac 10, but we are closing the gap.” Thomson said. “The bar continues to get raised.”

“I think it’s great to see, he said. “I’m one of those people who when I’m done competing against them, I’m there biggest fan. It’s good to see the conference do well.”

Men at bottom, despite encouraging signs

The old adage goes something like this: Nothing is as good as it seems and nothing is usually as bad as it seems.

The second part of that quote may be fitting for a young, rebuilding – yet improving – Gophers team.

At 2-14 overall and 0-4 in conference, coach Geoff Young’s squad finds itself in last place in the Big Ten.

The four losses include a 4-3 decision to No. 51 Penn State, 6-1 to No. 45 Indiana, 5-2 to No. 14 Michigan and 6-1 to No. 2 Ohio State.

The men’s league has it all. You want domination? You’ve got it.

The Buckeyes are a legitimate National Championship contender and look as if they may complete their third-straight clean-sweep of conference season opponents.

The Gophers likely won’t meet Ohio State again – unless they are paired up in the Big Ten tournament – but Minnesota still has a date remaining with No. 16 Illinois at the end of April. The Illini rampaged through the NCAA tournament last season, making it all the way to the championship match before falling to National Champion Georgia.

“Over the last three to four years it’s arguably the toughest conference in the country,” Young said.

“I think the top five teams have been the strongest in the country (playing) indoors.”

You want parody? The Big Ten has that too. Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa find themselves ranked at 44, 45, and 46 respectively.

“The conference is not only good at the top, but it’s deep too,” Young said.