In the annals of time, few brand names in sports, much less intercollegiate athletics, throw around as much weight as the Big Ten Conference. Formed 31 years after the Civil War, the league has been a power broker since its infancy, carrying cachet that few in college sports have matched spanning the three centuries it’s been in existence.
The combination of athletic excellence and academic superiority is not seen anywhere else in the world, let alone the country. It’s been the gold standard for over 100 years.
But now the mighty Big Ten is at a crossroads. Entering college basketball’s postseason after one of the conference’s best regular seasons ever, a lingering void hangs overhead.
It’s been 11 years since a Big Ten school won a national championship in one of the marquee sports – football and men’s basketball. Go back to 1980 and the numbers are even bleaker: six national titles in the glamour sports.
When you glance at what the Big Ten’s arch nemesis, the Southeastern Conference, has done in that same timeframe, Jim Delany almost certainly shudders. The SEC has won 18 national championships – an astounding 12 in football and six in basketball.
When a triumphant Ohio State team walked off the Sun Devil Stadium turf on a warm January night in 2003, the Big Ten was riding high. The Buckeyes had just won an all-time classic that doubled as one of the biggest upsets in national championship game history. Michigan State was only two years removed from being the king of college basketball and Michigan had won a football title of its own in 1997.
But for more than a decade, the Big Ten has stood abandoned at the altar. The numbers stand in stark contrast to its status. Now the basketball season has offered renewed hope.
The debate ended months ago about which conference was the best. Two Big Ten teams have been ranked No. 1 this season, four have been ranked in the top 5 and six have been featured in the top 10.
College basketball’s two most respected ratings systems also sing the Big Ten’s praises. Ken Pomeroy has five Big Ten teams in his top 11, while the RPI lists seven Big Ten schools among the top 50. Both numbers will help on Selection Sunday in regards to seeding and getting teams in the tournament. The conference has seven teams locked into position to earn bids, with Iowa on the bubble.
“It’s been unbelievable, it’s been challenging, it’s incredible,” said Illinois head coach John Groce, whose team is likely to have its name called Sunday, about his first season in the conference.
The most fertile of recruiting grounds encompasses the Rust Belt. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the amount of blue-chip football players coming out of Ohio and Pennsylvania was akin to an assembly line in one of the many manufacturing plants dotting the landscape. Add Indiana, Illinois and Michigan to the equation and the same held true for basketball.
Those factories now sit empty and boarded up, and all that talent has since migrated south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Another factor that made the Big Ten so appealing during yesteryear were the nation’s best facilities. It gave the conference a leg up, but an out-of-control arms race has contributed to nearly every big-time program building state-of-the-art stadiums, arenas and practice facilities. Ohio State is among the leaders when it comes to providing its athletes with the best venues.
In a technology-driven era, the Big Ten Network has been revolutionary. Every school, from Louisiana-Lafayette to Ohio State, is on flat screens nationwide, so simply being on television is no longer a recruiting tool. Where the 24/7 Big Ten programming channel becomes an asset is in the bank account. Brinks trucks back up to all 12 member schools each year to unload the profit made from the network. And don’t forget, it was the Big Ten that set the pace in conference realignment.
Several schools have a legitimate opportunity to put an end to the Big Ten’s title drought at the Final Four in Atlanta. The season had several indelible moments and unforgettable games, and more often than not they involved Big Ten schools. It was appropriate that the season’s final regular season game – Indiana at Michigan – decided the conference championship and left us saying, “In a season that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
Even the players were spellbound by the non-stop action.
“You watch all the marquee matchups,” said Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft. “You want to see how teams are doing. It’s always fun to watch those games and see the atmosphere. You get in to the game and get excited when players make big plays.”
With two national player of the year candidates – Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo, not including the preseason national player of the year, Cody Zeller – there was plenty of head-turning throughout the season.
“The Big Ten is the best league in the country,” said Ohio State senior forward Evan Ravenel, who spent three years with the Buckeyes after beginning his career in the ACC at Boston College.
“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.”
Delany, who remains one of the most powerful people in college sports, has dealt with highs and lows during his more than two decades as the Big Ten commissioner. But the recent scandals involving Penn State and Ohio State were the darkest days of his tenure. Still, he came out with a glass half-full approach.
“We’ve got a lot of programs in very good shape,” he said. “If you look over the long reach in football and in basketball, we’re competitive. We’re competitive with some of the best conferences in the country. We’re not going to be the best in either sport every year. Some years we will and some years we’ll be down a little bit. And I think that’s the ride.
“The good news is I think we’ve got the resources, the population base and the coaches that we’re going to be in the mix. But some years we’ll be up and some years we’ll be down in both sports. I think history, at least in the 24 years I’ve been around, I’ve seen both and I've seen both in both sports. That’s just the nature of the world that we live in. It’s highly competitive. You have to recruit students, you have to retain them and you have to coach them well. They have to improve, and then you have to do it in the context of not only Big Ten but also outside Big Ten.”
The high rate of success on the hardwood has taken the sting off another so-so year on the gridiron.
“I know that six years ago, people sat around questioning where we were in basketball,” Delany said. “I was talking to (Michigan) Coach (John) Beilein. I said, ‘How long have you been here?’ John said, ‘I’m in my sixth year.’ I said, ‘What was the buzz around basketball six years ago?’ He said it wasn’t as positive as it is today, that's for sure.
“Likewise, if you go back six years, we’re playing a 1-2 game (Ohio State vs. Michigan in 2006), and the buzz is around football.”
As the biggest advocate for the Big Ten, Delany obviously has the league’s best interests in mind. But he also isn’t an over-the-top homer, instead choosing to be honest and realistic.
He’ll be present at various tournament sites during the month of March rooting on the Big Ten. The same will hold true for the conference’s players.
“It's a fraternity,” Ravenel said. “During the regular season, we aren't friends. But when it comes down to it, we’re part of one team – the Big Ten. We all pull for each other and want the Big Ten to win. If it was any other team than us, we’d be cheering them on.”
Ohio State’s title drought makes the Big Ten’s seem like a blip. It’s been 53 years since the Buckeyes won their lone basketball championship. Opportunity has knocked in recent seasons, but the door is yet to be broken down.
Another chance will take place in a week’s time. But until then, it’s all about finishing out a stellar year in the elite Big Ten.
“In terms of what makes the league unique this year, I think there was a very high continuity of players,” Matta said. “Teams had a lot of guys back. There’s a lot of talent from top to bottom. The caliber of player is very, very high, and you have the best coaches in the country locking heads every night.
“This isn’t going to be fun.”
We beg to differ, Coach.