The Big Ten.
Scarlet and Gray and Maize and Blue. Buckeye leaves and winged helmets. Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.
Mention the Big Ten and people's first thought turns to football. Some might think of Indiana basketball. But, by and large, the Midwest is football country.
So far, though, the 2012-13 season has belonged to basketball. In the initial USA Today Men’s Basketball Coaches Poll, three of the top 5, including No. 1 Indiana, and six of the top 25 were Big Ten schools. Currently, the Big Ten has two teams ranked in the top 5, three in the top 10 and six in the top 25.
“I think everybody in the preseason knew what this league was going to be, and that’s what it’s been,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said.
Compare that to mighty football, where, at one point this season, no Big Ten schools appeared in the poll. It was the first time since the Coaches Poll was introduced that no Big Ten team appeared in the rankings, and the dubious honor was thanks in large part to Ohio State’s ineligibility for the poll. In the current Associated Press Top 25, the Buckeyes are ranked third, while three other conference teams litter the poll.
“The good news is that we’ve got the resources and the population base, the coaches, that we’re going to be in the mix," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said of the football issues. “But some years we’ll be up and some years we’ll be down in both sports.”
Just six seasons ago, it was the opposite. In 2006, the entire sports world turned to Columbus when No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan squared off in Ohio Stadium. It was one of the conference’s best showcases of football in its history that spans more than a century. But the drop off began six weeks later. First, Michigan was blown out in the Rose Bowl by USC and a week later Florida pummeled Ohio State to win the national championship. The league finally bottomed out in the first month of this season.
“I think we have a lot of programs in transition,” Delany said.
While the football side of things was being lauded, Big Ten basketball was being criticized for its slow, methodical style and lack of March success. But in the past 16 years, the Big Ten has had 13 Final Four participants. Three times during that same span the Big Ten had multiple teams in the same Final Four.
Still, the conference has a lengthy championship drought in both sports. It hasn’t won a title in football since 2002 (Ohio State) or in basketball since 2000 (Michigan State). Dating to 2000, the conference has lost six national championship games.
Rewind back another 20 years to 1980 and the Big Ten has a combined six national championships in football and basketball. In the same time period, the SEC has won 16 – 11 in football and five in basketball.
More than a decade may separate the Big Ten from its last title in basketball, but it has been the gold standard in the sport for several years.
“This league is awesome,” Penn State head coach Pat Chambers said. “Incredible league, great coaches, adjustments on every timeout, halftime, great players, great talent.”
The current season got off to another rugged start with Minnesota beating Michigan State in a game featuring two ranked opponents. The Spartans didn’t really lose any ground, though, because the game was away from East Lansing.
Holding serve at home and picking off a couple games on the road is the key to staying at or near the top of the standings. But winning on the road in the Big Ten is one of the toughest tasks in college sports.
“We have talent in our league from top to bottom and I think that’s what separates us,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said. “Obviously those teams that have been voted in the Top 25 are all worthy of those rankings, but I think the teams that are at the bottom in the rankings are teams that can push to the top and put themselves in good position come March.”
Another factor that plays greatly in the Big Ten’s basketball success is the caliber of its coaches. Aside from Urban Meyer, there are no home runs on the football side. It’s the complete opposite in basketball, which has names such as Izzo, Matta, Crean and Smith.
“I think right now this league has the best coaches that we’ve ever had and a lot of it starts there,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “Some of the new guys that have been brought in the last couple of years have done a great, great, great job.”
That trend has continued in the first two months of this season. The Big Ten’s 12 head coaches have the conference positioned as the No. 1-ranked league in the RPI to go along with its impressive haul in the polls. Entering conference play, eight Big Ten teams have a legitimate chance at hearing its name called on Selection Sunday.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers are not one of them, but they have showed steady improvement in tallying a 9-4 record.
“Technically, I haven't had my brains beat in yet,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said.
That could be coming to an end, though, as Nebraska takes on three-time defending Big Ten champion Ohio State tonight. In two games against the Huskers last season, the Buckeyes won by 31 and 34 points.
“The Big Ten defensively is as good as there is in the country,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “Just having different guys out there that can knock shots down is something that is going to be advantageous for us throughout the season.”
When Evan Ravenel transferred from the finesse-filled ACC (Boston College) to Ohio State and the Big Ten, he wasn’t expecting near the bruising style that he encountered.
“I thought it was going to be a bunch of corn-fed guys,” he said. “But all these guys can move. They’re physical and skilled. This conference can play.”
Indiana and Michigan are the prohibitive favorites. The Hoosiers have one loss, but they’ve spent most of the season atop the polls. They’re leading the nation in scoring and seem to win every game in convincing fashion. Meanwhile, the Wolverines are one of a handful of remaining unbeatens. Ranked No. 2, Michigan won every non-conference game for the first time in 27 years.
Lurking are Ohio State, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan State. Illinois and Minnesota have been the biggest surprises. Illini head coach John Groce has transformed the Orange and Blue into a top-15 program in a few short months. The Illini’s signature moment came when they won the Maui Invitational. But the coming months are the real test.
“The league is going to be really tough,” said Groce, stating the obvious. But he knows from experience from his time as an assistant at Ohio State under Matta.
The Golden Gophers have center Trevor Mbakwe back and it’s made a big difference – literally. The enforcer has Minnesota positioned to return to the NCAA Tournament. Its only loss came to Duke in the Bahamas and Monday’s win over Michigan State officially signaled the Gophers' return to being a contender. Already this season, Minnesota has wins over Memphis, Stanford, Florida State, USC and Michigan State.
“I think we’re in good position, but I know we have to play better,” Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said.
With the 108th season of Big Ten basketball underway, the conference’s 12 teams will claw to end a 12-year national championship drought while upholding a golden era for the nation’s top conference.