In my 25 plus years of following Big Ten basketball, I have seen a great deal of very good basketball (see Michigan State circa 1999-2000) and some pretty poor basketball (see Indiana circa 2008-2009).
Over the past few seasons, the Big Ten has been given very little respect on the national level. In some years, it's been well deserved (see 2007-2008). This year however, I don't think that criticism is justified.
Sure, we've seen scores like Purdue 49 - Iowa 45 and Michigan State 54 - Michigan 42. And as much as we'd like to, who can forget the Penn State victory over Illinois when the teams combined for 71 points in Penn State's 38-33 win?
There are a number of possible reasons why offensive execution in the Big Ten has been, well, offensive:
- Is it the talent on Big Ten rosters? While I will acknowledge that the elite level talent in the Big Ten may not be what it is in the ACC or Big East, the reality is that there are a number of very talented offensive players in the Big Ten (Evan Turner, Talor Battle, Kalin Lucas, Manny Harris and Robbie Hummel come to mind).
- Is it the experience level of Big Ten talent? While it is true that the Big Ten is experiencing a youth movement (The top three, and six of the top 10 scorers in the Big Ten are sophomores; 10 of the top 11 assist leaders are either freshmen or sophomores), this is not substantially different than the other power conferences.
- Is it the coaching in the Big Ten? While it's true that the Big Ten coaching ranks are dominated by coaches who take great pride in the defensive tenacity of their squads (Bo Ryan, Tubby Smith, Matt Painter, Bruce Weber, etc.), Big Ten teams have demonstrated an ability to put up points when playing quality teams from outside the conference.
While all of the above may contribute to the dearth of scoring in the Big Ten, it is this writer's opinion that the painfully poor quality of officiating in the Big Ten is the primary culprit.
I've always felt that a basketball referee should be like a good offensive linemen. If you don't notice him, that means he's doing his job well.
Unfortunately, most Big Ten fans not only recognize a number of the officials who ref Big Ten games, they tend to let out a collective groan when these officials walk on the court with whistle in hand.
Many of these officials (from Ed "Homer" Hightower to "TV" Ted Valentine) seem to believe that those fans are there as much to see them as they are to root on their teams.
If you've watched many Big Ten basketball games this year, you've obviously noticed the painful frequency with which officials miss calls. While I will readily acknowledge that basketball referee is a very difficult vocation (particularly in the age of supremely gifted athletes coupled with ready access to instant replay both on TV and the Jumbotron).
However, some of these calls have been so blatantly obvious, it is unfathomable that they are missed, particularly since the officials are frequently in very good position to see the play.
Where Big Ten offenses struggle is with the inconsistency displayed by Big Ten officials. While there is no doubt that the Big Ten is a physical conference known more for its rugged play than graceful execution, the lack of consistency displayed by Big Ten officials thwarts any fluidity Big Ten offenses can muster.
And the problem isn't that games are inconsistently officiated from game to game. It's that the officials are inconsistent within games.
I singled out Ed Hightower in the subject of this article for good reason. Not only has Mr. Hightower officiated in more Big Ten games than any other official this year (24 through Sunday), he was the lead official for a pair of embarrassingly poorly officiated games this week involving my Purdue Boilermakers.
On Thursday, Hightower teamed with Rick Hartzell and J.D. Collins to officiate the Purdue vs. Michigan game in Ann Arbor.
Perhaps recalling the game played two and a half weeks prior in West Lafayette (when Manny Harris was ejected after inadvertently striking Chris Kramer with an elbow and breaking his nose), Michigan was whistled for five quick fouls in the opening three minutes and 58 seconds.
Over the course of the remaining 36 plus minutes however, Michigan was called for just 11 more fouls. Meanwhile, Jujuan Johnson, Purdue’s improving big man and a candidate for All Big Ten first team honors, seemingly could do little on the court without being whistled for a foul.
Johnson was whistled for his 3rd foul with 8 1/2 minutes to play in the first half and would end up playing only 14 minutes. Without Jujuan Johnson's shot blocking presence, Michigan's DeShawn Sims had a field day, shooting 13-16 from the field and scoring 29 points.
On Saturday, Hightower made the trek to West Lafayette, bringing with him "TV" Ted Valentine and a relative newcomer in Eugene Crawford, Jr. This game was so poorly officiated that many Purdue fans speculated that Hightower and crew were trying to make up for their poor showing on Thursday.
Their focus du jour in this game appeared to be the moving pick with questionable calls on Dallas Lauderdale (two in the first half), Robbie Hummel, and Evan Turner. The foul on Turner, his fourth, came at the 10:29 mark of the second half and essentially eliminated any chance that Ohio State had of coming back in the game.
The officiating was so poor in this game that after one obviously missed call, Purdue's Chris Kramer could be seen chuckling as Purdue was setting up to inbound the ball.
I realize the Big Ten doesn't have a monopoly on poor officiating, but the frequency in which calls are missed coupled with the inconsistency in the way games are called has made for a painfully frustrating season.
Hopefully Rich Falk, the Big Ten Supervisor of Officials, will work to address this problem in the offseason. He may find it interesting to venture over to Statsheet.com, which assesses officials on a number of factors and allows its users to rate the officials.
Note on the link below that none of the referees listed as top rated are Big Ten officials.
Further perusal will find that the most frequently rated official with 413 votes (as of this writing) and an anemic 1.3 rating is none other than Ed Hightower. Ed, I hear you are a great guy, but you need to go, and take some of your compadres with you, please!