Fourteen painful seasons have passed since the Big Ten last secured a national championship. Widely renowned as one of the top conferences in the country, the ongoing drought is puzzling after considering what constitutes traditional champions.
For starters, great coaching is always a necessity. There aren’t a group of better all-around coaches than the Big Ten has to offer.
In the recently conducted rankings of the top college basketball coaches in the country, ESPN lists three Big Ten representatives in the top nine spots. Tom Izzo registers highest at third, Bo Ryan follows a few spots behind at seventh and Michigan’s signal-caller, John Beilein, rounds out the list at nine.
All three guys have championship pedigrees at some level. Only Izzo has conquered the Big Dance—his 2000 MSU team was the last B1G squad to win it all—but all three guys are adept at preparing their teams for prolonged success.
Ohio State’s Thad Matta (No. 20) is the fourth member of the coaching quartet, and he has been to multiple Final Fours. In the last six seasons, those coaches have represented the Big Ten in the Final Four five times.
Quality of coaching certainly isn’t lacking.
An overarching criticism has been directed towards the Big Ten for its monotonous, rugged style of play. But if you look around the top teams in the conference, each squad has adopted its distinct tendencies.
No longer is Wisconsin maligned for its plodding pace. The 2013-14 Badgers were among some of the quickest-hitting, most dangerous offensive teams. They pushed the ball and had the athletes available to finish in transition, something foreign to traditional Bo Ryan teams.
Look at Michigan. Beilein’s “2-guard offense” was once a concoction built primarily on outside shooting, subtle back cuts and availability to all players. It was a fantastic system that consistently knocked off better, more athletic teams.
But once he started acquiring top-flight athletes, they blossomed as byproducts in his system. Like Wisconsin, the Wolverines have progressed into an ultra-efficient offensive team in the last two seasons.
Similarly, though not using the same sets, Michigan State pushes the ball to get easy buckets. Izzo’s consummate point guards are speedy with great vision, while the entire rest of the team runs the floor as well.
These teams pose so many different threats. It simply isn’t fair, nor is it true, to title the conference’s style of play under one characterization.
Lastly, every recent national champion has multiple NBA-caliber players. The Big Ten is full of them.
In the 2014 NBA Draft, five of the first 21 picks played in the B1G. Those players and their predecessors have comprised the Big Ten teams that have sent at least six squads to the NCAA tournament in the last four seasons.
With abundant talent, top-notch coaching and a host of incredibly efficient teams, why has this conference failed to win the whole thing?
That continues to remain a mystery, but they have been just one or two games away on several occasions.
Now, in 2014-15, it’s up to Wisconsin.
The Badgers return four of their five starters from a Final Four team that was just seconds away from advancing to the title game. They registered as the sixth best unit in the country by Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, a system that computes a team’s performance based on multiple factors, including adjusted efficiency and strength of schedule.
But Ryan’s teams have always been efficient. His 2013-14 team deviated from his previous ones because of its high scoring rate. The Badgers averaged 74 points per game.
Over 80 percent of that scoring will return to Madison.
While Ben Brust’s prolific three-point shooting will be missed, the Badgers have weapons across the board that can compensate. At center, Frank Kaminsky is arguably the toughest cover in all of college basketball. The 7-footer shoots threes at a 38 percent clip and possesses a complete post game.
Accompanying him is the versatile Sam Dekker, who is a future pro at the small forward spot. He will improve from his 13 points per game output next season as more of the scoring onus will fall on his shoulders.
In the backcourt are returning starters Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson. Gasser is a shot-maker and defensive stalwart, while Jackson runs the team and determines its tempo.
All four guys have distinct, complementary skills. And they have the experience of losing in a Final Four, something that will burden them throughout their transition to the new season.
The X-factor, however, is sophomore Nigel Hayes.
He averaged eight points on only 18 minutes per game as a freshman but has serious potential as a double-double threat on any night. While Kaminsky is more of a pick-and-pop type player, Hayes is an explosive athlete while moving towards the rim.
They will likely start aside from each other in the post. The frontcourt of Hayes, Kaminsky and Dekker may be the best in the country, with their combination of skill, size and versatility. Bronson Koenig and Duje Dukan are additional contributors who are poised to step into larger roles as well.
This squad will be one of the oldest of the top teams, but that will play to its advantage. Wisconsin has always been so effective at determining the tempo of every game, and this team is capable of playing at a variety of paces.
With Ryan running the show, the Badgers are poised to reel in that national championship.
Evidently, every tournament is determined by matchups, and it’s impossible to predict a champion nearly nine months in advance. But no other team, not even the loaded Kentucky Wildcats, has Wisconsin’s excess of experience, talent and coaching all meshed into one team.
It’s the Badgers’ time to end the drought.