The Big Ten conference has not produced a national champion since Michigan State won the title in 2000. The Pac-12 is the only other power-six conference during that span that has not produced a champion.
It's not as though the league has been down—its produced five runner-ups during in the 2000s—and last season the Big Ten got to puff its chest as it spent most the year as the undisputed best league in college basketball.
Every week there was a must-watch game. Michigan was a bad roll of the ball away from making the Big Ten championship a four-way split, speaking to the number of dominant teams at the top. The Wolverines produced the national player of the year (Trey Burke), and the Big Ten claimed the top spot in the Associated Press poll for 11 out of 20 weeks.
The Big East entered the conversation for best league in America after sending two teams to the Final Four and producing the national champion, but the Big Ten was better overall. The best argument for that is probably the fact that the Big East had eight tourney teams compared to seven for the Big Ten; however, the Big Ten won more tourney games (14 to 13). The Big Ten also had the best winning percentage (.667) in the tourney of any league with more than two teams.
That’s revisionist history, and now that the NBA draft deadline has passed, it’s time to look forward.
The question entering the 2013-14 season is: Can the Big Ten repeat as the best league in the country?
Taking a Step Back
Part of the reason the Big Ten was mighty again was Indiana. The Hoosiers transformed in two seasons from a 3-15 team in the Big Ten in 2011 to the league’s champ in 2013. Tom Crean, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo made the program relevant again.
That resurgence should give IU fans hope that Crean will succeed facing his second big challenge in Bloomington: replacing Zeller, Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford.
The other part of the equation of the Big Ten's rise was that its top teams had mostly kept their best players on campus for at least two seasons. That allowed Indiana and Michigan to have their best seasons in years.
Had Zeller, Oladipo, Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. returned, the Hoosiers and Wolverines would have been in consideration to be preseason No. 1. Instead, the Big Ten lost its entire all-league first team to the NBA, with Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas joining that group.
The Hoosiers are the team that will suffer the most. Crean did sign the sixth-best class according to Rivals.com, led by big man Noah Vonleh. Vonleh is the only player considered a possible one-and-done prospect in the league and the only incoming Big Ten freshman ranked in Rivals.com’s top 20.
In other words, don’t expect a bunch of freshmen stars in the Big Ten next season.
Reason For Hope
Even with the loss of the all-league first team to the NBA, the Big Ten once again held on to more of its top players than most leagues. In fact, the SEC had more players declare for the draft than the Big Ten.
Tom Izzo won the battle to recruit his top NBA prospects to return to campus one more season. Adreian Payne, Garry Harris and Keith Appling all considered leaving early and all decided to stay in school. The Spartans will be the preseason favorite and have the potential to be Izzo’s best team since 2000.
Michigan will be the top challenger with Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III deciding to come back for their sophomore years. The trio of McGary, Robinson and Nik Stauskas will be one of the best in the country. The key for Michigan to remain a top team is whether incoming point guard Derrick Walton can help compensate for the loss of Burke.
Ohio State and Wisconsin have been the Big Ten’s most consistent teams over the last five years and their consistency gives reason to believe the Big Ten will again have at least four teams vying for the league title.
Ohio State has finished in the top two for four straight years. It wouldn’t be smart to bet against Thad Matta and veteran point guard Aaron Craft. The Buckeyes also return LaQuinton Ross, who should be considered the top candidate to be the league’s breakout player in 2013-14.
Bo Ryan has never finished outside the top four in the Big Ten, and the machine has the parts to continue grinding next season. Ryan graduates three starters, but he returns point guard Josh Gasser, who missed last season with an ACL tear. Sam Dekker, along with Ohio State’s Ross, is another player primed to become one of the league’s stars.
What made the Big Ten great this past year was that the league had two teams (Minnesota and Illinois) that both played great in the nonconference, and even though they had their struggles in league play, both were capable of beating anyone.
That middle tier is usually what separates the great leagues from the good ones.
There’s potential for that group to produce several potential tourney teams again. Iowa, which finished 9-9 in the Big Ten, returns its five leading scorers from a team that made the postseason NIT championship game. Purdue ended its streak of six straight NCAA tournament appearances last season, but Matt Painter returns his three leading scorers.
John Groce has a challenge in year two at Illinois after graduating leading scorers Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, and Minnesota has a new coach and also loses big men Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. Both programs, however, have enough pieces to contend for a NCAA tourney bid.
A New Challenger
The Big Ten returns enough for me to believe that the league will be good again. Good, but great? We’ll see.
The one league that has the potential to be what the Big Ten was last year is the ACC, because of the additions of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh to their league. That gives them seven teams that made the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina could potentially start the year in the preseason top 10. The Big Ten will also have three schools (Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State) that will be in consideration.
The old Big East had produced the most tourney teams every year for six straight seasons. The ACC was the last league to top that in 2007.
Even with the loss of Maryland following next season, the new-look ACC will continually challenge the Big Ten as the best basketball league in American and deserves to be the preseason pick heading into next season.
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