A Kiss Before Dying

By Ramzy Nasrallah on January 22, 2013 at 3:00p
slam i am

The Big Ten is loaded, right? It's kind of like the opposite of football, right?

It's the sweetheart conference of the college basketball season thus far in large part because it's so deep. There's significant separation in the Sagarin conference ratings between the Big Ten and every other league. Predictably, B1G teams litter the upper echelon of every ranking metric.

Ten of its programs have at least one win over a top-50 team this season – only Purdue and Nebrasketball don't, and both of them have numerous opportunities to rectify that in conference play. As many as nine could make the NCAA tournament.

The conference that spent the entire football season either getting embarrassingly de-pantsed or shamefully barred from postseason competition needed this badly. College basketball is now the Big Ten's pride elixir.

[dramatic music] Or is it?

No B1G program has cut down the nets following March Madness since Sparty did in 2000, back when current freshmen were still watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Jim Tressel was still coaching Youngstown State. Thad Matta was an assistant at Butler.

In that span ACC teams have claimed five titles, teams from the Big East and SEC (football conference!) have each won three and Kansas has won one.

Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State have reached the final game in that span, but alas, no national titles for any B1G men's basketball program.

Reasons for tempered optimism abound. The first is that ugly 13-year streak, which isn't the best predictor of the future – but isn't all that encouraging either.

There are also some more current historical warnings – from the current season: Butler beat Indiana. Ohio State lost to both Duke and Kansas. Wisconsin lost to Marquette. Somehow the B1G-ACC Challenge was a draw this year even though the ACC is only Sagarin's sixth-best conference.

The Big Ten has a record of 10-31 against Top 25 teams. On one hand it's faced a whole slew of good squads (battle tested!) but on the other it hasn't come close to breaking even in doing so (good job, good effort!).

Aside from what's actually happened on the court and within the statistical prediction models, there's also the entrenched method for how college basketball's season narrative is shaped in exclusively rosy, overly positive fashion: How do we really know who is good anymore?

Consider lead ESPN screamer Dick Vitale, who doles out gold stars at a frequency that would make the galaxy blush:

Lest one think Dicky V doesn't know any alternative superlative, he also used the following: special (8 times), tremendous (7), unbelievable (6), super (5), superb (5), outstanding (5), phenomenal (3), sensational (3), excellent (2), awesome (2), dynamite (2) and brilliant (1), and when none of those adequately captured the moment, he simply blurted, "Wow!" (13).

On only three occasions could Vitale's comments be described as remotely negative. A sample: "[ Maryland's] half-court offense is really not superb." The result of all this is that the extraordinary gets lumped in with the banal until everything sounds like hype.

College basketball coverage is overwhelmingly skewed toward the praising of absolutely everyone involved, and Vitale is the loudest culprit. By the way, those hyperbolic Vitale metrics above are from a Sports Illustrated article in 1998. They could have been from last week though.

His exceedingly tired schtick – where every coach, player and conference is just awesome, baby  has long been part of the fabric of college basketball coverage. 

The Big Ten returned a lot of great talent and is unquestionably deep. This celebration was planned while Kentucky was still cutting down the nets in New Orleans.

But non-conference play that just concluded at the end of 2012 was, at best, inconclusive. At one point of the college football season, Geno Smith was the runaway Heisman winner. Things change. The Big Ten is now busy beating up on itself.

We've also been dragged unwillingly into a college sports realm where the media, most notably ESPN, has shrewdly aggregated its audiences by marketing conference matchups instead of teams (with classic rivalries overriding that practice). ESPN didn't create the S-E-C chant, but you know it would have by now.

He loves you back. He thinks you're best.

Beyond program marketing, conference pride is generally regional – it's not really a Big Ten quality. Remember that decade when Michigan sucked and didn't make the tournament? Remember how Penn State and Nebraska are perpetual works in progress?

Remember the anguish you felt when Jadeveon Clowney beheaded Vincent Smith and "the SEC beat a Big Ten team" in a bowl game? Yes, you only just finished being sad about all of that...never.

The Big Ten being the best conference in basketball also helps promote Big Ten basketball broadcasts better, the way that gimmicky aircraft carrier games are used to promote a sport that begins way too early – and even worse – when college football's regular season is reaching its crescendo.

This all sets up the best part of the college basketball season: The Tragedies of March. Anything less than one Big Ten team in the Final Four will be viewed as a letdown, even if the conference superiority might have been embellished all along.

And if this century of Big Ten basketball has been defined by anything else, it's a letdown.

You can already see the jersey collars being yanked up above the eyes of benchwarmers, slumping into their own laps in shame, as the first and second-weekend exits mount for what will be an abnormally large pool of worthy combatants from Jim Delany's Death Star.

Everyone also loves a good tragedy from afar. Watching those high seeds – B1G or otherwise – fail in March is spectacular, as long as it's not your team.

But those teams have to get those high seeds somehow. They have to win games, get talked about and bracketologized favorably.

A Big Ten team might finally end the title drought in 2013, but conferences don't actually win titles. Only plucky teams that can win six straight tournament games do that, and the B1G hasn't had one of those for too long.

But there's always a chance, right? It's kind of like the opposite of football, right?


Comments Show All Comments

TheHannimal's picture

What is happening to the B1G right now in hoops on a macro level, is similar to what Sparty goes through on a micro level every year (hopefully).  Start off the year with some major matchups in tough environments.  Losing some, winning some.  Then come tourney time and when it matters most, they are battle hardened.  They can draw from experience and climb out of adverse holes.  Hoping the B1G plays this way in the tourney because we could sure use a title.

Chief B1G Dump's picture

Well put.  Its hard to gauge a conference until its all said and done IMO.  Right now, the perception is that the B1G is tough and deep - and that has yet to be proven otherwise.
A title would indeed be nice...as long as its not M*ch*gan.
And not to be a Negitive Nancy but I can not stand Dick Vitalle.  There are games I turn on to watch and then hear him announcing and turn it straight to Seinfeld reruns.  Can't stand the guy.  Thy ultimate Duke/Coach K fluffer.  Really he fluffs everyone, but them especially.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater's picture

+1 for the anti Dick Vitale stance.  
I flipped on a game over the weekend that I was hoping to watch, until I heard his voice and  changed the channel.   I despise him immensely.   His "awesome, baby" and "PTP'er" schtick was old in 1988.   Now it is just sad and pathetic.   He offers zero insight into a game, zero strategy ideas or explanations on why a team is doing what they are doing, nothing.   I hate him.  Period.

BucksfanXC's picture

I'm not sure winning the tourney should be the metric. I guess it is the ultimate prize, but it is so tough and takes a lot of luck of the draw. If you were able to play every tournment round as a best of 3 or best of 5, I'd bet the B1G would do very well. Not that they don't already do well, but better.

“Any time you give a man something he doesn't earn, you cheapen him. Our kids earn what they get, and that includes respect.”  - Woody

grcunning's picture

Sagarin ratings this early in the year are similar to football's preseason rankings, pretty worthless(remember USC being #1?)
Beating directional schools may look great statistically, but really doesn't tell how schools will perform against better competition.  The best we can do right now is determine the best 25 teams, not how they will fare against each other(and especially how they will perform on the road or at a neutral site).
So far, I see us as a sweet 16 team and no better.

Nick's picture

kinda true but its different with basketball. many b1g teams have played good ooc schedules 

OHBuckInCA's picture

I agree about this team's end in the tourney.  I don't think the team has the scorers beyond DT that can get them through a slump and much beyond the sweet 16.  If DT has a down night, there goes the game.
That being said, who know how things may develop in the next month.  The Big Ten tourney will be huge to see where this team's ceiling is.

"The time you give a man something he doesn't earn, you cheapen him. Our kids earn what they get, and that includes respect." - Woody Hayes

bukyze's picture

Hey hey hey.... is that girl with a revealing tanktop, a heart over her left breast and the word 'dicky' on her shirt really appropriate for this site? (Sorry, the Wilson thread made me do it).

Breakawayspeed's picture

How about she lose the last two letters of her graphic?

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater's picture

Interesting points Ramzy.   The B1G has been the "best" conference for what seems like several years now, yet we can't produce a champion.  
I just hope OSU isn't one of those first weekend exits you mentioned, but it is really geting hard to believe this team can go even Sweet 16 level deep.   Half court play is huge in the Tournament and right now, OSU is awful working for good shots in a half court set.   I have a feeling this won't end well for us fans that first weekend.

Poison nuts's picture

For me - not producing a NCAA champ over the past few years does not mean that the B1G is not the most competitive & balanced conference from top to bottom in the land...it simply means that a few teams - like UK, KU, Duke & a few others are still the best teams in the land...But that does not mean the SEC, Big XII, or even ACC are the strongest overall conferences, it means those conferences have some elite teams. As you said, hopefully the B1G conference has a winner this year & hopefully - it's OSU...Even if right now it looks like there is no chance in hell that it can happen.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

German Buckeye's picture

Certainly basketball is different than football, but don't we equate greatness (be it individually as a team or collectively as a conference) in football with nothing less than a championship?  I would hold the same applies to basketball.  The SEC has continued to dominate football by winning BSC championships - no one really cares who wins other bowl games.  I'm pretty shocked the media in general hasn't picked up on the trend Ramzy points out of no BIG team winning the NCAA since 2000.  In football, the BIG has been getting raked over the coals for coming short of the championship.  I'm surprised basketball hasn't either.      

zhamilton05's picture

I've said this for the last few years: B1G basketball teams play hard defense and (usually) are well-coached. Some years like 2006-07 and 2012-13, the B1G happens to have a fortuitous mixture of upperclass talent and good recruiting for a number of its teams, and the conference gets some national love during the regular season. More often, the grinding style doesn't lend itself to highlight reels, and we get ignored.
The nation's prettiest basketball usually isn't played in the Midwest, but our teams often outperform expectations in the Big Dance because they can bring the D every night. Michigan State and Wisconsin are especially notorious for this. However, as the article mentions, B1G schools don't win it all. My theory is that, while we can bang and scrap and surprise some talented-but-undisciplined teams in the NCAA tournament, we will constantly lose to the elite teams that meld hard-nosed defense with top-tier athletes. Some of it comes down to the old problem of demographics: most of the blue-chip athletes either don't hail from the Midwest, or they leave the region to play for the best coaches.
So, enjoy the big lights and attention while you can, B1G basketball fan, because the chances are that the league will (understandably) stumble short of the finish line again.

acBuckeye's picture

I give this the same train of thought that I give the B1G in football..... If it's not Ohio State winning games, then I don't care. Another B1G team winning a basketball championship means about as much to me as, say, Rhode Island winning one. If it's not Ohio State winning it, then I'm pissed.