Three Reasons the Nation's Ugliest Conference Could Surprise in March
Time for the Big Ten to put up or shut up.
Time to find out how good (or bad) this league really is.
From Joe the Fan in your neighborhood sports bar to the talking heads on ESPN, few storylines in college basketball have gotten as much attention this season as the Big Ten's style of play.
Once the infamous Penn State-Illinois score hit the ticker, (you know the one I'm talking about: PSU 38, ILL 33) a conference that was never known for its style points saw its national reputation sink to a new low.
So what if 38-33 is usually the score of an ACC game at the first media timeout?
So what if the games seemed to have the same number of field goals as your average football contest?
(Big Ten football, that is. Everyone knows that Big 12 football games far outpace Big Ten basketball in the scoring department. Remember Graham Harrell?)
Anyway, the real question isn't how beautiful the basketball is here in the Midwest; instead, we should be asking how effective the basketball is.
In other words, how will the Big Ten's signature style play out on the sport's signature stage?
This may surprise you, but after watching the league's best battle it out in Indianapolis this weekend, here are three reasons I think the underrated Big Ten (gasp! there, yes, I said it!) could sneak up on America during March Madness.
1. Great Coaching
The Big Ten had an impressive roster of coaches a couple years ago—and then added John Beilein, Tubby Smith, Todd Lickliter, and Tom Crean. How's that for a who's-who of basketball IQs?
For those who want a quick refresher in recent basketball history—it hasn't been all that long since Beilein took the Big Dance by storm with Pittsnogle and company.
Tubby Smith has a national championship, five SEC tournament championships, and oh, by the way, 16 straight 20-win seasons at four different schools (Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, and now Minnesota).
Lickliter owned mid-majors at Butler, and Tom Crean was winning dozens of Big East games at Marquette before deciding to take on the Indiana rebuilding project.
Those are the comparative rookies. You all know the league's veterans.
Bo Ryan's winning percentage is somewhere between amazing and ridiculous. Master recruiter Thad Matta is still drooling over the lineup he could have had this year: Greg Oden, Daequan Cook, Mike Conley, Jr., Kosta Koufos, David Lighty, and, oh yeah, that Evan Turner kid.
Tom Izzo and Bruce Weber have taken teams to the Final Four in the last five years.
The list goes on.
Is it possible that the reason Big Ten games are so low-scoring and hard-fought has more to do with the presence of coaching talent than the absence of beauty and/or a boatload of NBA-quality players?
Food for thought as you're looking at that 5 Florida State/12 Wisconsin matchup on your ninth bracket of the week.
In Indianapolis, Izzo talked about the influx of coaching talent and how the new blood (specifically Tubby Smith) has taken the league's stellar defenses to even greater levels. "I'm glad he's in the Big Ten. He's a wonderful addition to our league," Izzo said of the Golden Gophers' second-year coach.
When asked if he was surprised how much Smith has embraced the defensive mindset of the conference, Izzo went a step further.
"I don't know if he embraces it. I think he's a leader in it. If you watched his teams at Kentucky, they played the same way."
Tubby Smith and his fellow Big Ten coaches have accomplished great things in past NCAA tournaments. I, for one, don't think they've forgotten how to coach or how to win in the postseason because they've moved to basketball's "Department of Defense."
2. Emphasis on Half-Court Execution and Physical Play
No matter how many teams VMI scores 100 against this year, it doesn't really matter in March. When tournament time rolls around, things tighten up, blowouts go the way of VHS tapes and printed daily newspapers, every possession becomes incredibly critical, and back-and-forth nailbiters become commonplace.
In other words, all the rest of the teams in the nation finally have to slow down, work harder, and play like the rest of the Big Ten has since New Year's Day.
"The thing that helps us [Big Ten teams] is we're used to playing half-court basketball," Purdue's Chris Kramer explained to me. "In tournament games, you can't always run out and score a bunch of points, so you have to be able to slow it down and execute."
Don't overlook the fact that Big 11 games tend to gravitate toward the ancient "no blood, no foul" mantra. Teams come out of the league bloodied and battle-tested, and that toughness will come in handy during the physical grind of March Madness.
Michigan State is a perfect example. Izzo seems to show up in the Final Four time and time again because he has a team that is tough enough to rebound and defend when the referees put their whistles away at crunch time.
E'Twaun Moore likes his conference's chances at "one shining moment" in March.
"The Big Ten is a very physical conference," Moore said after his Boilermaker team won the league's postseason tournament. "That's why we don't score as many points as the ACC and some of those other leagues."
Moore was one of several players who told me that for them, every conference game seems like an NCAA tournament game. My guess is that Big Ten players won't be overwhelmed by the grind-it-out style of the Big Dance, because they've been playing basketball that way since Day One.
"Our whole league takes pride in it," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said of the low-scoring defensive struggles. "Preparation, defending, playing hard. NCAA success, a lot of times is matchups, but we just have to see what happens and go in with a good framework."
3. Solid 2008-09 Non-Conference Results
As an Ohio resident, I'm aware (painfully so) that my hometown league has never won the Big Ten/ACC Challenge (or found one stinking team to beat Duke in the event's entire history). I get that.
At the same time, even when their non-conference results haven't been the prettiest, the Midwesterners have made good showings for themselves when it comes to Sweet 16 trips and Final Four appearances.
I can't take credit for the research, but I read recently that the Big Ten has been represented in the national semifinals nine times in the last decade, tied for most over that time span with the all-powerful ACC.
(And we still can't win one measly Challenge.)
Anyway, the final reason that Big Ten teams are ready to make noise in March is that this year, they actually have performed relatively well against the nation's elite in the out-of-conference schedule.
Michigan beat Duke.
And almost shocked Connecticut in Connecticut.
Minnesota surprised Louisville on a neutral floor.
Purdue took Oklahoma to overtime in the Preseason NIT before losing a heartbreaker, despite being outshot 46-5 at the free throw line (not that I'm bitter or anything).
Michigan State won at Texas.
Talk to the Big Ten coaches, and they know their teams can compete with the best America has to offer.
"I do get a little bit tired of having to defend the No. 2-ranked conference in the country," Thad Matta admitted. "One of the biggest things that's probably been a little bit different about our league, (and ironically it's our school), is guys have left early.
"You can go down to Chapel Hill in the ACC—Hansbrough stuck around for four years. Those guys have been in there. For whatever reason, it hasn't worked for us.
"I think that's where you have to defend a lot of the talent. From coaching to environments, to just across the board, this is a great league. It really is."
The bottom line is that the Big Ten can't hope to match up with North Carolina, Duke, or Kansas in beauty contests.
But they have a good shot in a 63-61 basketball game—against anybody.
Keep that in mind as you start on bracket number ten.
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