Big Ten basketball's rise
Any NCAA title contenders will have to deal with these teams
One look at Tubby Smith's squad's five-game stretch between New Year's Eve and Jan. 17 and the full clarity of what every team in the Big Ten is up against becomes blatantly evident:
Then-No. 18 Michigan State
No. 12 Illinois
No. 5 Indiana
No. 2 Michigan
Four ranked teams in five games all inside of conference play; games he didn't purposely schedule to get his No. 8 Minnesota Gophers "ready" for the NCAA tournament; games this season that just came with the Big Ten territory.
Tubby's not alone. Tom Izzo (MSU) has the same problem, as does Thad Matta (No. 15 OSU), John Groce (Illinois), John Beilein (Michigan) and the seven other coaches who have to collectively face more teams that will be ranked in the Top 20 than any other set of coaches in any other conference in the country this college basketball season.
Don't doubt but this is not the Big Ten we've been used to seeing of late. This is now the place where the players play every day all day. The new B.I.G. 10: The NCAA basketball version of the football in the SEC.
(Minus the seven straight national championships, of course.)
In any case, the Big Ten has become the best and most powerful conference in the NCAA. The conference that this season is going to be the one that beats itself up during the season in ways that will take its toll on each team in ways that will either benefit or be their demise come tournament time.
"The strength of the league is in its depth. Right now, there are six teams in the Top 25 and a couple more that are right on the cusp," Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody said. Last week his Wildcats lost to the No. 2 Wolverines and the then-No. 9 Gophers in back-to-back games. "In previous years, there may have been a few games where certain teams could go ahead and pencil in a game here and there as a win, but that's not the case anymore. Now you have to bring your best effort every night."
The Big Ten represents six of the Top 16 teams in ESPN's Power Rankings, six of the AP's Top 22 and six of the Top 18 teams in the USA Today coaches' poll. And of the teams that aren't included, there are teams lurking like Purdue that on any given weekday or weekend can beat any team in the conference the way the Boilermakers did the then-No. 11 Fighting Illini last week to open the Big Ten season.
Which forced Illini forward Tyler Griffey to admit after the loss: "(This) is a tough league. It's the best league in the country."
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They got stars (Cody Zeller, Trey Burke, Brandon Paul, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft), got "if these players were on any other team in any other league they'd probably be stars" (Victor Oladipo, Indiana; Andre Hollins, Minnesota; Terone Johnson, Purdue; Keith Appling, Michigan State), got players you haven't heard of but soon will be subject pronouns in everyone's conversation (Derrick Nix, Michigan State; Aaron White, Iowa; Sam Dekker, Wisconsin). For the first time in a long time the entire conference, top to bottom, got game.
And in almost every game this season, there will be future (if not multiple) NBA draft picks going at/against one another. Most will be potential first-rounders, a few possible lottery picks. It's like the remix of the Big East circa 2006 to 2011, when teams were getting NCAA bids damn-near to the dozen, or the recent ACC run over the past decade, when it seemed every season there would be at least five teams in contention for the conference crown. Or a 12-team version of John Calipari's past three seasons at Kentucky. By April 6 the Big Ten could be the conference that recreates just what the Big East made legend in 1985, when three-fourths of the teams in the Final Four came from the Big East. OK, maybe that's a reach, but still it's real.
Does that mean or guarantee a team from the conference will win the national championship or the conference will send three teams to the Final Four in April? Not necessarily. But this season (unlike 2006, 2008 and 2010, when eight Big East teams were invited to the Dance and they ended up underrepresenting themselves by the second and third weeks) in order to seize the ring, teams are going to have to go through "The 10" to get the crown. This season won't be like the recent past.
It also means that if/when that many (or more) teams from the conference do get into this season's final 68, Billy Packer and Dick Vitale won't have to publicly defend why the selection committee "favors" the Big Ten so much. The interleague play and battles within will justify itself. Silence all haters.
Smith explained: "I think the players make the difference, but having said that, this league also has outstanding coaches. We (the league) have been able to keep our players in the league and that is one of the keys to the success and I think that is why the league's power rating has been so high."
Also, there's the convergence of basketball pedigree: Outside of the Zeller family DNA that Cody brings to Indiana, former NBA greats Timmy Hardaway and Glen Robinson both have sons (Tim Hardaway Jr., Glen Robinson III) who play for Michigan, Memphis Grizzlies head coach and former NBA point guard Lionel Hollins' son (Austin Hollins) plays for Minnesota, former NBA and all-around basketball legend Charlie Scott's son (Shannon Scott) plays for Ohio State.
So this is not a coming-out party for college basketball's "boss" conference as much as it is an early affirmation. Although the league has won only one championship in the past two decades (Michigan State, 2000), the Big Ten's time has returned. The confidence the ACC, Big 12, Florida and Kentucky of the SEC and elite mid-majors such as Butler, Gonzaga, VCU, George Mason have exuded over the past few seasons now belongs to the conference that is still identified in many people's minds as the conference that Bobby Knight built.
Prominence. Dominance. Subject pronouns.
How long will this newfound conspicuity last? Only time, All-American recruits and the number of players who don't exit for the NBA will decide. It could easily be a conference version of a one-and done or it could be the beginning of college basketball's next era.
Who knows. But over the next three months the teams of the Big Ten are either going to provide us with a definitive answer or be the definitive answer.
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