The regular readers of this blog know that I’m the consummate Big Ten guy. On the football side, I’ve been quick to point out that the Big Ten’s recent problems in BCS bowl games are more due to having to play USC and SEC teams on their respective home turfs than anything about the quality of the conference overall. However, there’s only so much that I can defend the state of Big Ten basketball. Somehow, the conference enters into the week of the Big Ten Tournament with a legitimate chance to send 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament since each of its 5 bubble teams have solid numbers and key victories on paper. (Northwestern still has an outside chance for a potential 9th Big Ten bid, but put itself on death’s door with a loss in a winnable game at Ohio State yesterday.) While this could indicate to the naked eye that the conference has strong depth overall, it’s masking the fact that the level of play is simply not up to snuff compared to the Big East and ACC. Michigan State has the only reasonable chance of making the Final Four out of the Big Ten this year. Purdue and Illinois might get to the Sweet Sixteen if everything falls into place. Everyone else, though, has been the beneficiary of beating each other up as good-but-not-great teams that make the RPI and other computer numbers seem strong even though anyone that has been watching the games would know otherwise. The Illinois-Penn State game in Champaign on February 19th, with a 39-33 final score in favor of the Nittany Lions, was the single worst sporting event involved people purported to be upper level athletes I have ever witnessed in my entire lifetime. (I’ll spare you any comments on the choke job the Illini performed in the second tilt between those two teams in State College last week in order to avoid beating my computer with the house-full of bricks put up by Illinois in the last 5 minutes of that game.) That game wasn’t the mark of two good defensive teams. Instead, it was the result of two horrific offenses.
In fact, Loren Tate wrote a column a couple of weeks ago indicating the difficulty that the Big Ten has had in attracting top-level recruits. This is not a suprise whatsoever, as better athletes these days seem to enjoy playing in systems that emphasize running offensive schemes that would make Mike D’Antoni quiver in delight. Conferences usually adapt to the styles of play of the teams that have had the most consistent success. In the ACC, that means that schools have emulated Duke and UNC, which run extremely fast-paced offenses. The same has occurred in the Big East, where teams have loaded up to keep pace with UConn. It’s no wonder that those two conferences have been filling up the top ten all season since the styles of play in those leagues are being dictated by teams that are perennially Final Four contenders.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s style of play seems to have been dictated by Wisconsin, with its emphasis on using nearly all of the shot clock on offense. Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa, and Minnesota also have emloy deliberate offensive sets, which means that nearly half of the conference is in slow-down mode. Certainly, it has been admirable that Bo Ryan has been able to produce a consistently winning program while using middle tier recruits from places like Waukesha and Eau Claire. However, this isn’t a great trend for the conference overall since Wisconsin is the classic “always-very-competitive-but-rarely-great” type of team that attains a gaudy regular season record and then gets rolled over by a superior athletic team in the NCAA Tournament. Today’s superstar high school players might not have cared 10 or 20 years ago about this (i.e. the old saying that Dean Smith was the only person that could hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points per game), but it’s evident that they certainly do today. As Tate points out in his column, not a single one of the 24 of this year’s McDonald’s All-Americans will attend a Big Ten school. In contrast, North Carolina will enroll 4 alone, while Duke adds 2. While some college basketball fans may scoff at how the McDonald’s All-Americans are chosen or say that they don’t really matter, history says otherwise. The last Big Ten team that made it to the national championship game was the 2007 Ohio State team that boasted 4 McDonald’s All-Americans (Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, and Ivan Harris). The 2005 Illini team had Dee Brown as a McDonald’s All-American along with Deron Williams and Luther Head being top-rated recruits.
I’m not arguing against the old adage that defense wins championships. Clearly, a team needs to be a solid defensive team in order to win the national championship. However, at the college level, it appears that having a great offense and a good defense is the winning combination (while an NBA team is better off with a great defense and a good offense). At the same time, athletic ability means more in terms of winning at the very top level of basketball compared to any other sport. As a result, the Big Ten’s relevance is going to depend upon attracting the best athletes over the long term. Hopefully, the highly-rated recruiting classes anticipated to be coming in for Illinois and Ohio State over the next couple of years (along with the jack-up-threes-at-will John Beilein sets at Michigan) will turn the Big Ten away from the Wisconsin-style of play and into a league that has more open court offenses that will be more attractive to the nation’s top-level players.
(Image from USA Today)
2 thoughts on “The Linear Regression of Big Ten Basketball”
You make some good points Re: the ACC adapting to match UNC & Duke’s uptempo styles of play, as well as the Big East adapting to UConn. But while Michigan State is the Big Ten’s only real Final Four contender (and they’re a long shot at that), I don’t see Purdue or Illinois as Sweet Sixteen caliber teams. I honestly think that Michigan — if they’re fortunate enough to get an NCAA Tournament bid — may have a better shot at the Sweet Sixteen than either Illinois or Purdue (in theory, obviously — once brackets are announced, we’ll be able to look at potential match ups and better predict teams’ ultimate prospects).
Give Bruce Weber and his staff all the credit in the world: Illinois gets the award for overachieving team of the year. The Illini aren’t very talented or very deep. They’re a very solid defensive team and they always (minus the game at Minnesota) play hard. But outside of Demetri McCamey, they don’t have guy who can get his own shot. Mike Davis gives you some nice scoring at the “swing 4”, and Mike Tisdale has his moments as a natural high post center who has to make due under the basket (when he doesn’t have somebody muscling him out of position), but Illinois is short on scoring threats. As such, they’ve had a tremendous season: they’ve been a Top 25 team for much of the year and they’re headed to the NCAA Tournament.
I expect the Illini’s 2008/’09 season to end on the first week of the NCAA Tournament. But considering the extent to which they outperformed nearly everyone’s expectations, Illinois has been phenomenal this year.
As for the future of the Big Ten, hopefully Michigan State, Illinois, Ohio State, and the like will push the tempo in the coming years. MSU should be the model for the rest of the Big Ten since they’ve always balanced a relatively uptempo, transition-friendly game with tough defense and proficient half court sets. Having that kind of versatility is a tremendous asset in the NCAA Tournament. Final Four and Championship teams always almost always have all those elements down.
If the rest of the Big Ten follows the MSU model, they’ll be fine. Of course, teams need talent to pull that off. When the talent gets thin, they have to go with the Wisconsin/’07 Illini model. Ultimately, then, it all comes down to talent & recruiting (and is, therefore, something of a circular argument).
I definitely agree with your assessment of the Illini. I don’t think that Illinois is Sweet Sixteen-caliber, but rather the Sweet Sixteen would be the absolute peak for this team where they would need some help in terms of getting favorable match-ups. The more realistic expectation would be one win at most in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. At the beginning of the season, I thought that this would be a complete rebuilding year for Illinois, so the fact that Bruce Weber has got them into the tournament is a phenomenal achievement. In particular, Davis and Tisdale made great strides in development over the offseason and the offense (at least up until the last 3 weeks) has been vastly improved over last season. I’m really looking forward to the next two seasons, where McCamey, Davis, and Tisdale have more experience and two stellar recruiting classes come in. This season has done a whole lot in resuscitating the Illini fan base’s confidence in Weber’s coaching ability, so the expectations are going to be sky high (Final Four/national championship) in the near future.