Down in football, Big Ten hoops will be no laughing matter this season
Go ahead. Laugh at the Big Ten. The big, proud (sometimes TOO proud) conference, the guts and heart of the Midwest sports scene, is setting football back a few decades. Forget about Legends and Leaders. The league should rename its football divisions: Also Receiving Votes In the AP Poll, and Ineligible For Bowls Through Corruption Or Incompetence. Sure, the names are unwieldy, but the more time you spend remembering them, the less time you have to spend watching them.
Yes, get your laughs in now.
Because this league is about to kick your butt in basketball.
The Big Ten is not just great at hoops this year. It is great from top to (almost) bottom. If you want to watch the best of college hoops this year, the Big Ten is where it's at.
"Our league is good, boy," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who has led the Spartans to six Final Fours. "You know, it's 10-deep good. I think it's the best it's been in a long time."
The Big Ten is great at basketball right now for precisely the same reason it is lousy at football. The traditional football powers are all in transition. Urban Meyer is in his first year at Ohio State. (That's actually been quite a smooth transition). Bill O'Brien is in his first year at Penn State. Brady Hoke is in his second year at Michigan. Nebraska is in its second year in the league after being an unhappy afterthought in the Big 12. With all due respect to Wisconsin, Michigan State and the rest of the league, those programs have to be really, really good for the league to be great.
Basketball is different. Izzo is one of the top five coaches in the country. Tom Crean has rebuilt Indiana into a potential national champion. John Beilein has taken Michigan out of the NIT wilderness and into the top 10. Thad Matta has turned Ohio State into a place where elite players want to play, and he has won big there. Minnesota has a national title-winning coach, Tubby Smith, and Purdue has a bright young-but-established coach in Matt Painter, and as for Wisconsin's Bo Ryan ... well, I will leave it to Izzo: "If you and I played for him, the guy is going to win 20 games."
The coaching roster in the Big Ten beats any other league in the country.
"There are so many programs that are now through the rebuilding process," Beilein said. "For a while there, there was Michigan State, there was Ohio State and there was Wisconsin. There were the three. But there are many programs right now that have had the same coach for a few years. There are eight or nine possibilities for an NCAA bid."
I have a theory about Big Ten basketball. It is called the Purdue theory, which is sort of interesting because as soon as Purdue graduates read it, they will hate me. This is a shame, because I have loved watching Purdue basketball over the years, because I love tenacious defense and unselfish offense, and I love what Purdue basketball means to people in that part of Indiana. OK, here goes:
If Purdue is great, the Big Ten is not.
That's it. That's the whole theory. Purdue has had some very, very good teams over the years, but the place has not churned out too many NBA lottery picks. And so when Purdue wins the league, or comes close, it usually means the league is down. (I'm sorry, Purdue fans. I love you. I do.)
Now the league has a ton of talent. That is the fun part: With so many good teams, the league is set up for one of the wildest races in its history.
Indiana is the No. 1 team in the country, led by potential No. 1 overall pick Cody Zeller and freshman Yogi Ferrell. But the Hoosiers could finish third in the Big Ten without being a major disappointment.
Michigan has far more talent than Beilein has ever had: sophomore point guard Trey Burke, junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr., and touted freshmen Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III (sorry again, Purdue fans) and Nick Stauskas. Beilein is an exacting coach -- the great coaches all are -- and so it says something when he is so effusive about a group of freshmen.
"These young men are really very receptive to being coached," he said. "They work really hard and they're embracing the culture of Michigan basketball."
Michigan is in the top five in the country in some polls, but may not end up the best team in the state. Never, ever count out an Izzo team. Sometimes he gets so down on his players, I wonder if he will lose his mind. But this week he told me: "I kind of like my team, believe it or not." And he should. He lost star Draymond Green, but most of the key players from last year's No. 1 seed are back: Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne. Freshman Gary Harris should be a star before he leaves.
"I don't think we're a top-10 team right now," Izzo said, "but we can become one."
Izzo is one of those guys who seems to talk to every other coach in the country and keep tabs on every other team. So you can imagine how closely he watches the teams in his league. And while he usually praises the Big Ten, as we talked about the league this time, he sounded different. It was like he knew he didn't have to defend or explain. Anybody who watches basketball should understand.
He looks at Illinois and Purdue ("Who wants to play them?" Izzo asked) and his friend Tubby Smith's group at Minnesota ("He should have his best team. I think easily they're a ranked team, I really do.") and talked about how hard it is to play at Northwestern, and on and on.
Kentucky may roll through the Southeastern Conference again. Louisville could plausibly do the same in the depleted Big East. But nobody is going to run away with the Big Ten this year.
"My first year in the league, I wouldn't say it was down, but there were a small number of programs that were in really good shape," Beilein said. "This year 12-6 could win the league, and I know that sounds crazy. But if you're on the road eight times this year, it's difficult.
Yes, get your laughs in now. Then sit back and admire the Big Ten. At least until spring football starts.