* The Big Ten Conference is down?
There's still some people out there saying the Big Ten conference is down
in Men's Basketball. This week of February 23rd, I personally don't see
it. At least not by looking in the ESPN poll. The Big Ten has four teams
in the Top 25 (Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan, and Illinois). Iowa
received votes this week, but they didn't make the Top 25. That's five teams
in the eleven-team conference - and I think that's the sign of a strong
Add to that observation the fact that the ACC has three teams in the Top 25
this week (granted, they have No. 1 and No. 3). Two great teams do not make
a great conference however. At least in my opinion.
Consider that the SEC, like the Big Ten, has four teams in the Top 25.
Michigan State has risen from the fog of a "Cinderella" team to someone
rated in the teens. Kentucky and South Carolina, Top 10 material in the
early season, have been heading in the opposite direction of the Spartans of
late, though they seem to be coming back around in the rankings.
And the PAC-10 ... well, they have three teams in the Top 25 (Arizona,
Stanford, and UCLA). But I'm not certain if ANY of the other teams in the
PAC-10 have made it into the Top 25 this season. The Big Ten have had at
least six teams in the Top 25 sometime this season (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa,
Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue). To save myself from the wrath of Golden
Gopher fans, I won't argue that Minnesota might have been in one of the
pre-season Top 25 polls - though it's a moot point now.
Looking at all this, I'm still of the opinion that the Big Ten is NOT down
this season. I think that they're competitive and are one of the best
basketball conferences in the nation.
Yet I can't deny that there are still people referring to the Big Ten as
"down" and I've been trying to figure out why they think that.
* The Big Ten lacks talented players.
The most common reply I've heard about the Big Ten being "down" is that
they're lacking the talented personnel they need to be a top basketball
conference. Now, it's true that the Big Ten haven't had a recruiting class
in the last five years that was better than the class of Big Ten recruits
that had Glenn Robinson, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, etc. That was a very
talented group and it's true the Big Ten took a hit in their game quality
once those NBA superstars left college.
But the recruiting in the Big Ten has been getting better, all the same.
Last season's recruits weren't bad. This season's recruits were a fine
collection, and next season's batch of recruits looks to be even better. But
that's another column article.
So let's say that assumption some have made about the Big Ten is valid ...
that the Big Ten doesn't have the talent right now. If that's so, how does
one explain the high ratings of the Big Ten teams in the polls? The Big Ten
teams certainly didn't start the season glowing in the Top 25 polls - that
was the ACC. I believe Purdue and a combination of Michigan/Minnesota/
Indiana were in the pre-season Top 25 rankings. Since then, Iowa has risen
and then swan-dived in the ratings; Michigan State has risen from obscurity;
and Michigan and Indiana have fallen and risen in the polls like a bobber in
a lake full of starving bass. Meanwhile Purdue, staying in the Top 10 for
most of the season, is currently working on fire control - having just lost
games to Iowa and Penn State.
* Differences in Big Ten standings and Top 25 standings.
Another puzzler is the Big Ten standings. Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan spent
(or are spending) a lot of weeks in the Top 25. Yet Illinois and Michigan
State are above Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan in the Big Ten standings.
Michigan State just got into the Top 25 in the last month and Illinois got
there in just the last week. Strange, isn't it? I mean, would you expect
Clemson to be ranked above Duke in the Top 25 poll?
But Illinois doesn't look very impressive on paper. They start five seniors
(I know, you're thinking, "Gawd, what decade are they living in?") who
share the scoring responsibility. They have trouble scoring a lot of points
and they lack a true center, but they make up for it by being one of the
best defensive teams in the country. They don't make turnovers, they do
make their free throws, and they make smart shot selections.
What is impressive about Illinois are their results. They beat Iowa (twice),
Michigan State, Indiana, and Clemson. They beat Texas by 25 points and
defensive slow-down teams aren't supposed to do that to run-and-gun teams.
Sure, they've lost eight games so far. Two were to Purdue. They lost to
to UCLA by 5 points, lost to St. Louis by 6 points, lost to Louisville by one
one point ... not a bad job for a bunch of players most people don't know
Michigan State is much the same. MSU finished sixth in the Big Ten standings
last season, and were passed over for the NCAA tournament. Add three Top 100
recruits (one a walk-on) and all of a sudden you're in first place in the
in the Big Ten a year later? That doesn't seem very likely. Not even if you
believe the Big Ten lacks talented players.
MSU is where they are because they're second in the Big Ten in scoring
defense and are averaging 15 offensive rebounds a game. That and the fact
their star point guard Mateen Cleaves is dishing out 8 assists a game.
Michigan State thrives by playing good defense and limiting their mistakes.
Meanwhile, their guard play, steals, and offensive rebounds are getting
them a lot of automatic points. It might not be sexy to some basketball
fans, but it's certainly effective.
Remember Minnesota last season? They went to the Final Four.
* Coaching seems to be the key.
So if I try to combine all of this: that the Big Ten is ranked impressively
while perceived as down in talent ... that teams long outside the Top 25
are leading the Big Ten ... that teams no longer in Big Ten title contention
are still ranked high ... well, I start looking away from the playing talent
and start examining the coaching talent.
And what I see impresses me.
In fact, considering that Rick Patino is in the NBA and that Dean Smith is
retired, I can honestly say that - from top to bottom - the Big Ten has the
best display of coaching talent in the country. Yeah, right ... you don't
believe me do you? Okay, you pick whatever conference complement of
coaches you want and keep them in mind while I ramble on. Deal?
Old Coaching Blood:
Indiana - Bobby Knight
Everybody knows who he is and everybody has an opinion about him. But he's
357-145 (71%) at Indiana whether you approve of his methods or not. This
season, his team is battling the leave-takings of point guard Neil Reed
(last spring) and center Jason Collier (last fall). Nonetheless, they're
still in the upper division of the Big Ten and have been in the Top 25
polls for a decent portion of the season. He's got all the great basketball
coach credentials: conference titles, great winning records, great players
recruited and being recruited, and don't forget the National Championships.
The only criticisms Knight seems to be getting as a coach (and not as a
person) is that his style of interfacing with his players may becoming
Purdue - Gene Keady
Most people have heard of this guy as well. He's been at Purdue for 18 years
now and racked up a record of 366-160 (70%) while he's been there. Some
Purdue fans like to point out that Keady is the winningest coach in
basketball history against Bobby Knight (Keady is 18-18) ... not that Keady
thinks it's that big of a deal. What impresses me about Keady is that
there's only been one or two seasons in his career at Purdue where he hasn't
finished in the upper division of the Big Ten. And Keady really didn't
start reeling in the big-name talent until the 1990's. In the 1980's, Keady's
teams played hard-nosed man-to-man defense and played methodically on
the offensive side of the ball. Now that Keady has some faster players on
his team, Keady has been running a high-octane offense and press defense.
Keady has won numerous Big Ten titles and National Coach of the Year awards,
but no National Championships. That seems to be Keady's biggest criticism.
Yeah, well ... they say time heals all wounds.
Iowa - Tom Davis
If people don't remember him, they'll probably remember his Iowa coaching
style. Press forty minutes a game, make good shots, and rebound better than
anyone else in the nation. Davis was pressing even way back when it wasn't
popular. In his twelve years at Iowa, Davis is 229-119 (66%) and, to my
knowledge, Davis has kept with this coaching style most of his Iowa career.
Davis doesn't have any Big Ten titles under his belt, but he sure has had
some good teams, as well as players, over the years. This current squad
of players may be his best team yet, though their backcourt is a bit
young right now. With the look of his next recruiting class, the team can
only get better next season. Iowa spent most of the season in the Top 25
but fell out of favor when the Hawkeyes had a bad slump of four or five
Big Ten games. The most common criticism I've heard of Davis is that his
teams can't win consistently enough for Big Ten titles. But if Iowa wins
a Big Ten tournament or a NCAA tournament, I have a feeling Hawkeye fans
won't care so much about that anymore.
Minnesota - Clem Haskins
If you didn't know him by last season, you do now. Haskins is in his 11th
year at Minnesota, gathering a record of 203-161 (52%). Last season, he
led his team to the Final Four. Unfortunately, he lost a half dozen players
before basketball season started this fall, and his team is struggling
to reach the upper division due to a light and inexperienced bench. But
Minnesota has already started rebuilding the program ... Blue Chip center
Joel Pryzbilla has committed to the Golden Gophers. You may be hearing his
name again before too long.
New Coaching Blood that is well ... Old Coaching Blood:
Wisconsin - Dick Bennett
His team's defensive prowess is mentioned in the same breath as Chaney's
Temple teams. Bennett's career coaching record is 396-213 (65%). However,
this is only Bennett's 3rd year in the Big Ten. He recently came to Wisconsin
after coaching quite a few years at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Bennett has already
already shocked some. His Badger team tied for 3rd in the Big Ten last season
and went to the Big Dance, which was well above most people's expectations.
With five new freshman, this season is a rebuilding one for Bennett. But as
soon as his young kids start playing offense as well as their defense
(Wisconsin was tied for 2nd in the Big Ten in Scoring Defense not too long
ago), Wisconsin will be dangerous again.
Illinois - Lon Kruger
His career record is only 259-195 (57%) coming into this season. But he's
turned some failing basketball programs around in alarming fashion. Florida,
for example. And, in just his 2nd year in the Big Ten, he's turned Illinois
into a Big Ten title contender. He shocked some people last season (though
not me) in tying for third in the Big Ten race. He shocked even more people
this season (including me) by being in the race for a share of the Big Ten
title in the last week of Big Ten play.
Ohio State - Jim O'Brien
This is Coach O'Brien's first season in the Big Ten and well, let's just
say he's had better times. But O'Brien has been coaching at Boston College
for 11 years and has made himself a name there. I'm sure he's hoping he
can do that again in Columbus.
Northwestern - Kevin O'Neill
This is O'Neill's first season in the Big Ten as well. O'Neill was able to
change frogs into princes in the last two basketball programs he coached
(Marquette and Tennessee). Now he's trying his same magic on the Wildcats.
Believe it or not, it looks like Northwestern may not be the basement
of the Big Ten any longer. But they still need to do some climbing to get
out of the cellar.
New Coaching Blood:
Penn State - Jerry Dunn
This is Dunn's third season and the Nittany Lions are still struggling in
the Big Ten. But they seem to be doing just fine at home. Penn State reeled
in their greatest upset in 50 years this last week by beating No. 5 Purdue
in their new Bryce-Jordan Center.
Michigan State - Tom Izzo
This is Izzo's third season as well. He's doing a bit better in the rankings
than Dunn though. Izzo is a lock for the Big Ten coach of the year award
and has to be a consideration for many of the National Coach of the Year
awards. His team, finishing just sixth last season in the Big Ten, has
guaranteed itself a share of the Big Ten title and is currently looking
at a two or three seed in the NCAA tournament. So what happened? Maturity
in his players. They were well-coached last season, but this season the
players are executing what they were taught. I thought MSU needed another
season for their players to grow into their roles. I was wrong, evidently.
Izzo got them working together as a team quickly.
Michigan - Brian Ellerbe
Last but not least is the interim head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
This is his first season as a head coach ... anywhere. Credentials? Well,
his team beat Duke this season. Wow. His team also beat Bobby Knight's
Hoosiers by 48 points in a game. I haven't learned his coaching style yet,
but he must be pretty good at motivating his players (at the very least).
All in all, I think the Big Ten conference has the best spectrum of coaching
talent in the Big Ten. This coaching talent also seems to be drawing in more
and more playing talent as each season passes. Regardless of the national
perception of the Big Ten and whether it is "up" or "down", I think fans of
of the Big Ten can look forward to many hard-fought battles in the Big Ten
in the coming seasons.
Smart, hard-fought battles.
When it comes to NCAA tournament time, and if I had to pick between a great
basketball player or a great basketball coach to be on my team ... I'd pick
No matter how great a basketball player is, he can only play for four seasons.
Coaches seem to stick around longer.