I want to tell you that Big Ten basketball isn’t really down.
After a season in which Michigan State and Wisconsin both made tourney runs and Purdue, Illinois and Indiana all made it to the second round in March, I want to scream at all the ACC-kissing pundits out there that Big Ten hoops are back.
I want to be able to use an exclamation point after I say Big Ten hoops are back without looking ridiculous.
I can’t do any of these things.
I can’t pretend that the Big Ten has been showcasing good or even respectable basketball so far this season. The early season non-conference play has just been ugly, and has cast the Big Ten in a light of national disappointment.
It’s not as if there weren’t reasons to be excited. Michigan State returned the top three scorers from a team that stunned three of the most touted teams in the country on their way to an Elite Eight appearance last year.
The Badgers returned everyone except Kirk Penney, and seemed a reasonable bet to improve on their loss to the No. 1 team in the nation in last March’s Sweet-16.
Indiana had one of the best players anywhere in Bracey Wright, Illinois was led by a top-flight point guard in Dee Brown, Minnesota stole a McDonald’s All-American from Duke in Kris Humphries and Tommy Amaker was finally going to get a chance to try his Wolverines in March.
At the league’s media day in October, Purdue coach Gene Keady said that this was the best he had seen the Big Ten since he arrived in 1980. After two disappointing years, the Big Ten looked like it was easily going to be as good as any conference in the country.
And just as easily as they were built, the Big Ten’s prospects have come crashing down.
Right now, only two teams in the Big Ten managed a win over a non-conference team ranked in the top 25: Iowa and Purdue.
Not that those wins, against Louisville and Duke respectively, aren’t both impressive, but two wins is just pathetic. Two wins tells the rest of the country that Big Ten basketball isn’t anything to worry about.
Two wins, by the way, stand against 18 losses. That’s right. The Big Ten has mustered a 2-18 record against ranked opponents outside of the Big Ten this season.
2-18 … there are no conference bragging rights at 2-18. The Big Ten is down; it’s nothing we can deny.
But is the Big Ten out?
Really, when we’re talking about the Big Ten’s disappointing start, we can narrow the field to two teams: Michigan State and Indiana. Every other team has, more or less, competed at the level that was expected of them. But Michigan State was supposed to be a top five team nationally, and Indiana was supposed to get back to a level at which they could compete for a Big Ten title.
Michigan State and Indiana were supposed to be two of the elite teams in the Big Ten. The national perception is that with records of 7-7 and 8-6 respectively, they are both enormous disappointments. That perception is something of a mirage.
Indiana’s failures thus far are the simpler to explain of the two. Simply put, anyone who expected the Hoosiers to be a good regular season squad in the first place hasn’t been following basketball in Bloomington since Mike Davis took over.
Davis is, simply put, a pretty terrible excuse for a coach. He hasn’t been caught cheating yet, so it’s hard to compare him to the Jerry Tarkanians and the Jan van Breda Kolffs of the world, but, really, as a coach he’s not much better. Davis inherited a program that over the past twenty-odd years had been the symbol of how hoops should be played at a college level, and he has managed within three seasons to turn it into a team that shoots indiscriminately, barely plays defense and plays generally undisciplined ball.
There’s no way the Hoosiers were going to go out and play well in the regular season. They have the type of team that doesn’t care and doesn’t play anything resembling real basketball until it’s important.
There’s some unfortunate magic about basketball at Indiana that lets them make unexplainable runs occasionally. Sure, they’ve looked awful so far this time around and it’s hard to watch them lose by 30 points every other night, but when all is said and done, don’t be surprised if things work out in Hoosierville.
Michigan State’s failure is a bit more complicated to justify. It’s tough to argue that a team ranked in the top five in every preseason poll isn’t a disappointment when it has a .500 record after 14 games.
The basic argument against the Spartans is that head coach Tom Izzo has played with fire in his scheduling for a long time now without getting burnt, and this year the flames finally caught up to him.
An early 0-5 record against ranked non-conference opponents has set the Spartans for an uphill battle to regain prestige. But Izzo’s team has also already seen Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse and Oklahoma, and with Duke as the exception, they’ve stayed in it every time. They can’t possibly see a better team from here on out.
Michigan State will have to come close to running the table in the Big Ten and get a little bit of love from the selection committee to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament, but neither would be altogether surprising, and don’t think that in March there will any team in the country tougher to go against than the Spartans.
The Big Ten has been struck in its most vulnerable soft spot this year — its reputation. But when all is said and done, there could be as many dangerous teams coming out of this conference as the ACC or Big 12. If history has shown anything, it’s not to count anyone out when it comes to college hoops. So before you jump on the high horse of any of the hundred basketball analysts hanging around tobacco row waiting for Coach K to do something they can label “a work of genius,” remember down is not necessarily out.