The Big Ten Expansion Index: A Different Shade of Orange

The Big Ten has sent college conferences across America into a tizzy with its announcement that it will examine the possibility of expanding. Of course, the announcement was really a non-announcement – the conference has always looked at expansion issues every few years. However, this feels a little bit different this time around where it feels as if though the conference is finally starting to think about options outside of the Irish-born elephant located in the middle of the conference footprint in South Bend that always seems so stubborn (or what they would call “independent”).

A few years ago, I wrote that if the Big Ten ever wanted to expand with a school other than Notre Dame, then it ought to invite Syracuse for a variety of reasons. A lot of the same analysis still applies today, although I wanted to do a comprehensive review of the various candidates using a 100-point index (as I’ll expand upon in a moment). The conclusion is that the best available Big Ten candidate certainly wears orange, but it’s not who most of the general public is discussing (even though it makes incredible sense considering that a new school has to have a massive impact in order to make it worth it for the conference, which is the nation’s oldest and wealthiest, to split the pot 12 ways instead of 11). We’ll get to that in a bit.

I. GENERAL RULES

There are two overarching rules to examining potential Big Ten expansion candidates:

RULE #1: Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.

RULE #2: 11 + 1 = 13

The first rule is something that over 90% of the pundits (whether it’s in the “traditional” media or on blogs and message boards) violate with impunity on this subject. A massive number of sports fans see Team A vs. Team B as being a good matchup in this particular season and think that the Big Ten ought to expand solely based on that reasoning yet not even bother to address any academic requirements. Others put a high value on strict geography without even thinking about financial matters such as whether a school will add any new TV markets. Contrary to an Internet-fueled urban legend, there isn’t any rule that says that all Big Ten states much touch each other. Even if such rule existed, finding the right school completely trumps any geographic issues for a conference that looks at itself as an exclusive club. I’m going to hammer on this geography issue A LOT because too many sports fans are hung up on this when the university presidents really don’t care about it as much as being aligned with peer institutions for BOTH academics and athletics wherever they might be located.

As for the second rule, that isn’t just fuzzy math for a conference with 11 members that still calls itself the Big Ten. The reason why the Big Ten has stood at 11 members for so long is that Penn State, which has been an unqualified success in bringing an enormous amount of resources to the conference, is now the baseline standard for any type of expansion candidate. That is, a new school must bring financial, academic and fan base value to the conference that is way above and beyond what an average school would bring to the table. The Big Ten DOESN’T need 11 + 1 = 12, where all that does is add another mouth to feed without materially changing the fortunes of the current conference members. At the same time, the Big Ten absolutely positively will not even consider 11 + 1 = 11.5, where the revenue split per school would actually go down by adding a 12th member. Instead, a viable expansion candidate has to show that by becoming the 12th school in the conference that it would be the equivalent of bringing value that is above and beyond simply adding a conference championship game – essentially, the Big Ten needs 1 marquee school that is worth 2 average schools. Hence, the proper math for the Big Ten is 11 + 1 = 13.

(Note that the excellent Big Ten lawyer blog The Rivalry, Esq. borrowed a modified version of the 11 + 1 = 13 concept in its own analysis of Big Ten expansion candidates and gave a shout out my way in the process.)

So, when some columnist, blogger or message board poster starts talking about Big Ten expansion, remember those two overarching rules at a bare minimum when considering whether the writer has a financially and academically astute brain built for running conferences or a sports stereotype “What have you done for me lately?” brain. Only the former type of brain has any type of credibility.

II. EXPLANATION OF THE BIG TEN EXPANSION INDEX

As I alluded to earlier, I’ve built a 100-point Big Ten Expansion Index that evaluates the viability of each particular school’s Big Ten candidacy. There are 6 categories (Academics, TV Brand Value, Football Brand Value, Basketball Brand Value, Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit, and Mutual Interest) that receive different weights depending upon how important they are in the decision-making process. If a school were to receive a perfect score in each category, then it would have 100 points. Here are detailed explanations of the categories and how they are weighted:

Academics (25 points) – This is a zero-sum category: either a school meets the academic requirements and receives the full 25 points or it doesn’t. Casual sports fans tend to ignore this component since they just see conferences for how they perform on the field or hardwood. However, academics are heavily weighted in this analysis because membership in the Big Ten also means membership in the Committee for Institutional Cooperation (CIC). That’s not a small consideration as the Big Ten universities plus former conference member University of Chicago share research and resources among each other for academic purposes. Therefore, any expansion candidate needs to fit in with academic discussions among U of C and Northwestern faculty just as much as they need to bring prowess to the football field against Ohio State and Michigan. Membership in the American Association of Universities is preferred but not required if a school is in the upper echelon of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Tier 3 schools, however, are going to be eliminated right off the bat no matter how much they might bring to the athletic side of the equation.

TV Value (25 points) – An expansion candidate needs to either bring new major TV markets to the conference or be such a massive national name that it would overshadow a small market. Outside of the obvious school in South Bend, any school that overlaps a market that the Big Ten already has today without bringing new markets on top of that will receive 0 points – the most important point that people need to understand is that being within the current Big Ten footprint is a massive negative to the conference. Too many sports fans mistakenly think the opposite way, where they think that because School X is in the same state as Ohio State or School Y used to have a long rivalry with fellow in-state school Penn State means that they are good fits for the conference, when in reality those types of schools bring little or no value to the Big Ten because they don’t add any more TV households to the table. I’ll repeat the mantra here: think like a university president instead of a sports fan.

Another important consideration here is that the Big Ten’s future media revenues are going to be heavily dependent on the performance of the Big Ten Network. As with any basic cable channel, whether it’s ESPN or the Food Network, the Big Ten Network’s revenues and profitability are largely based upon getting into as many basic cable households as possible – pure and simple. The TV ratings for a particular school in a market don’t mean as much as whether such school has enough leverage and drawing power in a region or market to get the Big Ten Network onto basic cable there. What this means is that there’s going to be a heavy premium (if not outright requirement) that a new school delivers the largest number of cable TV households possible on top of what the Big Ten has now. On the flip side, if a school doesn’t add any new Big Ten Network subscribers, then that school is a non-starter.

Football Brand Value (30 points) – This is the most heavily weighted category as a reflection of the reality of the college sports landscape. The revenue generated from football is so massive in comparison to the other sports (including basketball) that no expansion is likely to happen in the Big Ten unless the new school is a bona fide gridiron power. It’s why the ACC was willing to water down its basketball conference with football schools like Miami and Virginia Tech a few years ago and the root of the massive unilateral pushback from the major conferences about any type of NCAA Tournament-esque college football playoff proposal – there’s so much money involved with football that there’s no rational economic reason for the BCS conferences to share it.

It must be emphasized that Football Brand Value puts much more weight on the long-term history and financial underpinnings of a program over short-term or recent success. Thus, Team A that has sold out 80,000-seat or even 100,000-seat stadiums for decades whether it wins or loses is much more valuable than Team B that only sells out a 40,000-seat stadium when it’s in the national championship race, even if Team A has had a mediocre seasons recently and Team B happens to rank in the top 3 of the BCS rankings this year. The “What have you done for me lately?” attitude of most sports fans doesn’t apply here. Instead, the proper question is the opposite: Even if the target school goes 0-12 in a season, will it still attract TV viewers and attendance? In other words, the true value of a football program is really measured by how much attention it still receives when it’s down as opposed to how much attention it gets when it’s up. The Big Ten will only consider programs that have large and real hardcore fan bases that will stick them in good times and bad as opposed to programs that have bandwagon fans that will bolt when there’s a 7-5 season.

Basketball Brand Value (10 points) – Personally, there’s nothing that would make me more delirious as a sports fan than Illinois winning the national championship in basketball. However, when it comes to conference expansion discussions, basketball simply won’t be much of a consideration, which is why the Football Brand Value category is weighted three times as much as the Basketball Brand Value category. A common argument that you’ll see on blogs and message boards is that “Team A won’t leave Conference X because Team A is a basketball school and Conference X is so much better in basketball than the Big Ten.” Once again, this is a sports fan view as opposed to a university president view. As I alluded to before, the financial value of football outweighs basketball interests by such a massive margin that every single all-sports athletic director in America will take a bad football program in a top drawing football conference over a championship caliber basketball program in the best basketball conference without hesitation.

That being said, if all things are relatively equal in the other categories, then basketball considerations could be the tipping point. In that event, this index assigns 10 points to a school that would be a legitimate marquee basketball program in the Big Ten, 5 points to a middle-to-upper middle class basketball school that isn’t quite a top program but would at least provide some depth and 0 points to a school that doesn’t bring anything to the basketball side of the equation whatsoever. There might also be a specific case where the conventional financial argument between football and basketball could be turned on its head (which will be addressed in examining how Big Ten Network distribution could work with a certain school located in Upstate New York).

Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit (5) – This is more of a “smell test” category. Does a school have existing or historic rivalries with any Big Ten schools? Is the atmosphere balancing academics and athletics at the expansion target in line with the rest of the conference? When the average sports fan looks at the conference alignment, does it seem to make sense? 5 points are given to a perfect fit across the board, 3 points are given to a good fit in some respects but maybe less so in others, while 0 points are given to anyone that simply would stick out like a complete sore thumb (with much more emphasis on the character of the school as opposed to geography).

Mutual Interest (5) – The basic question is the likelihood of whether an expansion candidate would actually accept an invitation from the Big Ten. This is relevant because Notre Dame publicly declined an official Big Ten invitation in the late-1990s, which was a drawn-out process and left a lot of sour feelings among the conference members. As a result, the conference has no desire to invite anyone unless that school has confirmed with its university president and board of trustees that it will say “Yes” without a public debate or discussion. 5 points are given to a school whose university president will be on the next plane to O’Hare and start popping champagne the moment that the Big Ten extends an offer, 3 points to a school that will give an invitation heavy consideration but could go either way and 1 point to a school that will hear the Big Ten out yet will almost certainly reject any offer.

III. EVALUATION OF THE BIG TEN EXPANSION CANDIDATES

The candidates are listed in reverse order from least desirable to most desirable. For the purposes of this evaluation, I’m assuming that the only viable expansion candidates are currently independent or members of the Big East and Big 12. For various reasons, the Big East and Big 12 have the most unstable conference situations where a move to an extremely stable Big Ten would be attractive on paper, while there is little reason for any school to leave the SEC, ACC or Pac-10 at this time (meaning suggestions that I’ve seen elsewhere that the Big Ten should add the likes of Maryland, Vanderbilt and/or Kentucky aren’t going to be examined here). I’ve placed the candidates into tiers of Pretenders, Contenders and The Only Real Choices.

A. Pretenders

CINCINNATI
Academics: 0
TV Value: 0
Football Brand Value: 10
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 0

Mutual Interest: 5
Total: 20
Overview
: This is the ultimate example of the short-sighted sports fan “What have you done for me lately?” choice based upon this particular year’s results as opposed to thinking like a university president. Cincinnati is in the third tier of the U.S. News rankings, doesn’t add any new Big Ten Network subscribers since Ohio State already has the city of Cincinnati covered for the conference (and then some) and it would be an urban commuter school in a conference that is largely composed of large flagship universities where nearly all of the students live on campus. For those that think that the Football Brand Value is too low at 10, remember that the criteria is a long history of football success as opposed to recent gains. At the end of the day, Cincinnati couldn’t sellout 40,000 seats until it was in the national championship race (which indicates a high level of bandwagon fandom), its coach couldn’t take the Notre Dame job fast enough despite being the #3 team in the country, and the school doesn’t even have a football practice facility. In contrast, Ohio State has practice facilities that put almost every NFL team to shame. Here’s my personal litmus test for expansion discussions: anyone that mentions Cincinnati as a viable Big Ten candidate loses all credibility whatsoever with me on the issue.

LOUISVILLE
Academics: 0
TV Value: 10
Football Brand Value: 15
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 0
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 40
Overview: Similar to Cincinnati, Louisville is a tier 3 school, which eliminates them off-the-bat. Elite basketball program and excellent fan base overall (even with the football team being in the doldrums lately), yet there rightfully isn’t much buzz about Louisville as a candidate.

IOWA STATE
Academics: 25
TV Value: 0
Football Brand Value: 10
Basketball Brand Value: 0
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 43
Overview: The only expansion name that gets thrown out by the pundits more idiotically than Cincinnati might very well be Iowa State. I’m not exactly sure why the Big Ten would want to take one of the least valuable schools in the BCS that is located in a small state which is already covered by the conference with a much more popular flagship. If it wasn’t for Iowa State having a halfway-decent engineering school, it would be the worst possible Big Ten expansion candidate out there. Yet, Iowa State’s name gets tossed around merely because it’s within the Big Ten footprint, which I’ve already explained is actually a massive negative mark as it doesn’t open up any new markets. Therefore, I’ll amend my original litmus test for expansion discussions: anyone that mentions Cincinnati or Iowa State as a viable Big Ten candidate loses all credibility whatsoever with me on the issue.

WEST VIRGINIA
Academics: 0
TV Value: 10
Football Brand Value: 25
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 43
Overview: On the field, West Virginia is a solid school across-the-board: excellent football program with a great traveling fan base, an upper tier basketball program and a dormant rivalry with Penn State. However, the off-the-field considerations will kill any talk about the Mountaineers – it’s a third tier school academically and the school brings very few new TV households.

B. Contenders

PITTSBURGH
Academics: 25
TV Value: 0
Football Brand Value: 20
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 63
Overview: Pitt is mentioned by a lot of pundits as a top candidate for Big Ten expansion or maybe even the very best candidate outside of Notre Dame. Certainly, there is a lot to base this upon: excellent academic research reputation, long history in football, elite basketball program, a great-but-dormant rivalry with Penn State and there’s no doubt that Pitt would accept a Big Ten offer. However, WAY WAY WAY too many people have completely forgotten about the obvious problem with Pitt: just like Iowa State and Cincinnati, Pitt wouldn’t add a single new Big Ten Network subscriber. Penn State already delivers the Pittsburgh market and much more (Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania), so Pitt’s TV value to the Big Ten is zero. It’s unfortunate that Pitt couldn’t trade locations with Rutgers – if that were the case, then Pitt would be an excellent candidate. Alas, the one thing that Pitt can’t change is its location, which means that it won’t ever receive an invite from the Big Ten.

RUTGERS
Academics: 25
TV Value: 15
Football Brand Value: 15
Basketball Brand Value: 0
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 63
Overview: Another popular name that’s being discussed in the general public and it’s almost solely based on the location of Rutgers in the New York DMA. The problem is that it’s highly debatable as to whether Rutgers has the leverage to get the Big Ten Network onto basic cable in the New York City area overall or even in just New Jersey. In fact, a lot of neutral observers would say that the Big Ten already has the most popular school in that market in the form of Penn State, so adding Rutgers wouldn’t even do much on that front. Therefore, the market of Rutgers is fantastic on paper, but its ability to deliver that market is questionable at best, which results in it only having a TV Value of 15. Without guaranteeing the NYC market, Rutgers isn’t really very attractive.

MISSOURI
Academics: 25
TV Value: 15
Football Brand Value: 15
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 3

Total: 66
Overview: As an Illinois fan, it would be fun to see the Braggin’ Rights games for both football and basketball be taken in-house. However, as someone that always wants the best for the Big Ten overall, Mizzou is more of a “meh” move. There’s some decent value on all of the fronts in terms of academics, TV markets (the portion of the St. Louis market that the Illini don’t deliver and Kansas City), football, basketball and cultural fit, so it’s not as if though there’s anything particularly bad about the school. Yet, nothing screams out that adding Mizzou is a spectacular game changing move by the Big Ten, either. As I stated earlier, Penn State is the standard for Big Ten expansion, and on that front, no one can reasonably put Missouri anywhere near that level. If the Big Ten just wants to expand just for the sake of expanding, then Missouri is a decent choice, but I don’t think that’s the Big Ten’s modus operandi. Therefore, I think that the heavy talk about Missouri going to the Big Ten is mostly coming from the Mizzou side as opposed to the Big Ten side. (Please see this interview with the Missouri athletic director, who seemed to be saying, “Please invite us to the Big Ten!” in the most diplomatic way possible.) Plus, as I’ll get to later, it’s possible that all of the Big 12 schools are up for grabs, in which case there truly is a non-Notre Dame game changer available.

NEBRASKA
Academics: 25
TV Value: 15
Football Brand Value: 30
Basketball Brand Value: 0
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 3

Total: 76
Overview
: I’m giving Nebraska the benefit of the doubt on the academics front here – its undergraduate admissions standards are significantly below anyone else in the Big Ten, but it’s an AAU member with solid graduate programs. Still, Nebraska brings maximum points in the most important category of Football Brand Value. Hypothetically, is Average Joe Sports Fan in Anytown, USA going to be that interested in watching Missouri vs. Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State or Rutgers vs. Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State? Probably not. However, Nebraska vs. Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State will get marked on the calendar by ABC for national distribution immediately an draw massive ratings year-in and year-out. Nebraska’s issue, though, is that while its national reputation is great for traditional TV contracts with ABC/ESPN, its tiny home state doesn’t help much with the Big Ten Network since the school probably won’t spur many cable providers outside of its home markets to add the channel. As a pure football move, Nebraska would be a fantastic addition, but I think the TV market issue is significant enough to keep the Cornhuskers from receiving an invite.

SYRACUSE
Academics: 25
TV Value: 20
Football Brand Value: 20
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5
Total: 83
Overview
: As I noted earlier, Syracuse was my favorite Big Ten expansion candidate outside of Notre Dame for a long time. The analysis from my original post still largely stands. If the goal of the Big Ten is to gain entry into the New York market and effectively dominate the East Coast in the same way that it dominates the Midwest, then I believe Syracuse is a much smarter addition than Rutgers. While Syracuse football probably doesn’t have the leverage to get the Big Ten Network into New York DMA households just as Rutgers, the difference-maker here could be Syracuse basketball. New York is a terrible college football town, but it’s a pretty good college basketball city, and on that front, Syracuse is at or near the top in that market. So, NYC residents may not care to get the Big Ten Network for a handful of Rutgers or Syracuse football games per year, but they may very well have enough interest in 10-15 Syracuse basketball games per year to launch the BTN into basic cable distribution there. In essence, the “football means everything in college sports” mantra could be turned on its head here with respect to New York where basketball is the driving revenue factor. I’m not saying that this logic will hold in practicality, yet at least it seems more likely to me than the thought of either football programs at Rutgers and Syracuse really having an impact for the Big Ten in the NYC market.

C. The Only Real Choices

NOTRE DAME
Academics: 25
TV Value: 25
Football Brand Value: 30
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 5
Mutual Interest: 1

Total: 91
Overview
: It’s pretty simple as of today – if Notre Dame wants to join the Big Ten, then it’s in. The national fan base of its football program is unparalleled and, frankly, it would propel the conference into East Coast markets such as New York better than pretty much any school that’s actually located on the East Coast.

Of course, it’s easy to see what’s in it for the Big Ten. However, the issue has always been about what’s in it for Notre Dame. While I personally believe that Notre Dame will continue with its current stance in favor of independence, the college sports financial landscape has drastically changed since the Fighting Irish rejected a Big Ten invite in the late-1990s. What the average sports fan doesn’t realize is that Notre Dame’s NBC contract, which is what the uninformed pundits point to as the major reason why the Irish wouldn’t join the conference, pales in comparison to what every single Big Ten and SEC school makes from their respective conference TV contracts. Notre Dame reportedly makes around $9 million per year from NBC, which was a level that made it the top TV revenue school back in 1999. In contrast, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported last week that the Big Ten is currently making $242 million per year in TV revenue which is split equally among the 11 schools, meaning that everyone from Michigan to Northwestern is taking in $22 million per year. Think about that for a second: the vaunted Notre Dame was the #1 TV revenue maker in the entire country up until just a few years ago, yet it’s now only #3 in its own home state behind Purdue and Indiana (and less than half as much of each, at that).

How did this happen? It’s the fact that the TV landscape has tipped completely in favor of cable over the past decade. Cable channels have a dual revenue stream, where they make a certain amount of money for each subscriber it has every month plus advertising on top of that. In contrast, over-the-air networks can only rely on advertising. For instance, about $3 of your monthly cable bill goes to ESPN whether or not you watch it. ESPN is in over 100 million households, which means that it’s making $300 million per month and $3.6 billion per year in subscriber fee revenue… and that’s before the network sells a single ad… and that’s not counting its revenue from ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPNU and ESPN Classic. As a result, ESPN is the single most profitable entity in the entire Disney empire, which is why the network can afford to pay much more for high profile sports events such as Monday Night Football (note that ESPN is paying almost twice as much for MNF as NBC is for a better flex option slate of Sunday Night Football) and the BCS bowls than the traditional TV networks. When Comcast bought NBC Universal last month, the main prize was the stable of profitable cable channels such as CNBC, MSNBC and Bravo. In contrast, NBC itself is bleeding over several hundred million dollars per year in losses and is the main reason why General Electric wanted to sell the entertainment unit in the first place.

While the Big Ten has ensured that its top tier games continue to be shown on ABC for football and CBS for basketball, it has taken advantage of the sports landscape by securing massive cable revenue for its second tier games on ESPN and its own Big Ten Network. The SEC has done the same via its own wide-ranging media rights deal with ESPN. Notre Dame’s issue is that it’s almost impossible for it to take advantage of these financial changes by being outside of a conference unless it moves all or most of its games to cable (i.e. Versus, which is now a sister company to NBC in the new Comcast conglomerate), which defeats the main advantage of having an independent TV contract in the first place (nationwide over-the-air NBC coverage whether you have cable or just rabbit ears). As a result, independence has turned from Notre Dame’s greatest financial asset into possibly its greatest long-term financial liability.

Therefore, the “Notre Dame makes way too much money as an independent with the NBC contract to ever join a conference” argument is simply not true anymore. For the first time in a century, it may very well be in the rational economic interest of Notre Dame to join the Big Ten. The academics and faculty in South Bend already strongly supported a move to the Big Ten in the 1990s because of the CIC research opportunities and now the financial people might be on board. Of course, this type of logic doesn’t necessarily apply to Notre Dame alums (no offense intended for the Irish fan readers of this blog – I sincerely mean it in a positive way that describes the special passion that alums have for the school) – it’s “independence or die” for them. As I’ve thought about this issue more, this longstanding mentality might actually be as much of a roadblock for the Big Ten as it is for Notre Dame. On one side of the ledger, you have school that has spent most of its history protecting itself and profiting from independence. On the other side, you have the nation’s oldest collegiate conference where most of its members have dealt with each other for over 100 years, share everything equally and have a legitimate “all for one and one for all” mentality. Ohio State truly understands that what’s best for the Big Ten overall is best for Ohio State individually. Could Notre Dame ever adopt that type of worldview? It might be impossible, which could lead to a lot of heartburn down the road.

As a result, it would behoove the Big Ten to look toward another powerhouse university where there appears to be much more mutual interest than the pundits are generally acknowledging. This is a school that the Big Ten could add as a 12th member and unequivocally never think about Notre Dame again…

TEXAS
Academics: 25
TV Value: 25
Football Brand Value: 30
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 3
Total: 96
Overview
: You’re not seeing a misprint – the University of Texas-Austin is the single best possible addition for the Big Ten and the Longhorns are a whole lot more open to it than what the public seems to realize. The average sports fan that has been raised to view college conferences in a regional geographic context probably believes the notion of Texas going to the Big Ten is weird, crazy, upsetting and will never happen. However, as I stated under the Notre Dame overview, the college sports landscape has completely changed from a decade ago where national TV contracts and cable channel distribution now rule the day.

Putting aside any geographic concerns for the moment, Texas is a perfect fit in almost every possible way from the Big Ten’s perspective. The academics are top notch where Texas is one of the nation’s top 15 public universities in the latest U.S. News rankings and its graduate programs are right alongside Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin as among the elite for public flagships. The football program in Austin was just ranked as the most valuable in all of college football by Forbes magazine (#2 is… Notre Dame) and, unlike Nebraska, the Texas basketball program is playing at an elite level, as well. As I’m writing this blog post, both the Texas football and basketball teams are ranked #2 in the country. At the non-revenue sport level, Texas would completely put Big Ten baseball back on the map. Finally, the value of the Big Ten’s traditional TV deals and Big Ten Network revenue would skyrocket with the addition of the #5 (Dallas-Fort Worth) and #10 (Houston) TV markets in the nation plus the entire state of Texas (the country’s 2nd most populous after California). While it’s questionable whether Syracuse or Rutgers could really break the Big Ten into the New York area, there’s absolutely no doubt that Texas would deliver the Big Ten Network to every single cable household in the Lone Star State. The market impact is incredible – the Big Ten, which already has the largest population base of any conference, would further increase such base by over 1/3 with Texas to over 90 million people. When you start thinking about Texas as a possible Big Ten candidate, the thought of inviting Missouri, Syracuse or Rutgers feels like a inconsequential move.

It’s clear why the Big Ten would want Texas. So, why on Earth would Texas want to join the Big Ten? Well, the financial implications are massive. As I stated earlier, the Big Ten receives $242 million per year in TV revenue to split evenly among its 11 members, which comes out to $22 million per year for every single school. In contrast, the Big 12 receives $78 million per year in TV revenue that is split unevenly among its 12 members based on national TV appearances. That comes out to $6.5 million per year for the average Big 12 school. Even Texas, which is a beneficiary of the Big 12’s unequal revenue distribution model since it receives a large number of TV appearances, received only about $12 million in TV revenue last season according the interview with Missouri’s AD that I linked to earlier. In other words, every single Big Ten school makes $10 million per year more than Texas does on TV revenue whether such school is on ABC 12 times or the Big Ten Network 12 times. Remember that the $10 million difference is more than what Notre Dame receives from its vaunted NBC contract. If Texas were to simply bring enough to the Big Ten to maintain the status quo of per school revenue, that would be an 83% jump in TV revenue for the Longhorns immediately off the bat. Considering that the addition of Lone Star households to the Big Ten Network’s distribution would yield an even greater increase in revenue, Texas would easily see in excess of a two-fold increase and maybe even close to a three-fold increase in TV revenue whether it wins or loses.

The average sports fan will look at those numbers and retort, “It’s not all about the money. It’s about rivalries and the passion.” That’s a fair enough point. However, consider that Texas has only been in the Big 12 for 15 years, compared to the original Big 8 members like Nebraska and Oklahoma that have been together for nearly a century. Texas cares about playing Oklahoma (which was a non-conference rivalry for decades up until the formation of the Big 12 in 1994) and Texas A&M. After those two schools, the general consensus among Texas fans is that they could care less about Texas Tech, Baylor and virtually everyone from the Big 12 North (who are all old Big 8 members). Similar to how most of the schools in the East (particularly Big East schools) consider Penn State to be a rival yet the Nittany Lions don’t reciprocate that feeling, all of the Southwestern schools think of Texas as their main rival while the Longhorns simply don’t care about them. Also note that outside of the states of Texas and Colorado, the Big 12 is a decidedly Midwestern conference, only those Midwestern states pale in population size compared to the Big Ten’s Midwestern base. What this means is that the Texas ties to the Big 12 are fairly loose and not ironclad at all in terms of history while the geographic factor really isn’t that important considering how many Big 12 schools are in the Midwest. If Texas maintains its rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the non-conference schedule, the Longhorns keep their two most important regional rivalries alive while opening themselves up to the entire nation during the conference schedule.

Speaking in terms that the average sports fan in Texas ought to understand, think of the Dallas Cowboys. When the NFL realigned its divisions in the 1990s, it strongly considered moving the Cowboys to the NFC West. It made geographic sense and, at the time, the Cowboys were in the middle of its run of great games against the San Francisco 49ers, so there was some emotional juice that could’ve been taken to a higher level with those teams in the same division. However, Jerry Jones completely insisted that the Cowboys stay in the geographically-challenged NFC East. Why? Because the Cowboys wouldn’t be able to continue being “America’s Team” by playing teams in the South and West Coast. In order to obtain a national fan base, you need to play in the major markets in the East. If Texas were to move to the Big Ten, it would break out from being a school with a strong regional fan base into one that could be the equivalent of the NFL Cowboys with a national fan base by playing in a disproportionate share of the largest markets in the country located East of the Mississippi River.

Academics are also an extremely important selling point for Texas. The issue with the academic standards in the Big 12 is that there are no academic standards in the Big 12. Texas is the highest ranked Big 12 school in the U.S. News rankings tied at #47 (the Big Ten schools ahead or tied are #12 Northwestern, #27 Michigan, #39 Illinois, #39 Wisconsin and #47 Penn State) while every single other school in the Big 12 except for #61 Texas A&M is ranked lower than every other Big Ten school (the lowest ranked are Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa tied at #71). No one else in the Big 12 comes even close to the academic research abilities of Texas. The potential entry of Texas into the Big Ten would include membership in the CIC, which opens up a whole new level of academic research opportunities for the school that simply doesn’t exist in the Big 12. The first general rule that I mentioned about discussing Big Ten expansion was that people need to think like a university president as opposed to a sports fan. If moving to another conference would (1) make more money for the athletic department AND (2) improve the academic standing of the university, you’ve made quite a powerful argument to the Texas university president.

Finally, there’s a CYA aspect to all of this for Texas. Please take a look at this discussion about expansion options on Barking Carnival, which is my favorite Texas blog. I was shocked to find very few “BIG TEN FOOTBALL SUX”-type comments and instead saw a whole lot of consternation about the long-term viability of the Big 12 overall. Here’s something that I didn’t think about before: if Missouri were to hypothetically leave the Big 12 for the Big Ten, then the Big 12 could end up imploding (i.e. Colorado would bolt for the Pac-10) or at least be severely weakened. The reason is the subpar Big 12 TV contract that I mentioned earlier. St. Louis and Kansas City are decent markets and Missouri is a decent state for a conference like the Big Ten, but none of them have much of an impact when the conference already has Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and the entire states of Ohio and Michigan. In contrast, St. Louis and Kansas City are respectively the 4th and 5th largest markets for the Big 12 (and more importantly, respectively the 2nd and 3rd largest markets outside of Texas) and Missouri is by far the largest state in the conference other than Texas. Therefore, the loss of Missouri would cause the currently bad Big 12 TV contract to get even worse since no possible replacement school from, say, the Mountain West (i.e. BYU, Utah, etc.) would come close to replacing those markets and households. In turn, all of the Big 12 schools might be sent scrambling for new homes. While that might be a doomsday scenario, Mizzou leaving for the Big Ten would severely damage the Big 12 at the very least.

So, if all of the Big 12 schools could be theoretically up for grabs, why the heck would the Big Ten go after a minnow (Missouri) when it could get a whale (Texas) instead? Why the heck would the Big Ten take Missouri or even Nebraska and let Texas possibly walk off to the much less financially powerful Pac-10? Why the heck would Texas just let a middle tier school like Missouri leaving for another conference put its future in limbo? Simply put, if a decent-but-not-great school like Missouri leaving could have that much of a potential impact on the Big 12, then that’s clearly evidence that the conference is unstable and maybe a powerhouse school like Texas will understand that it needs to start evaluating more stable options (if it hasn’t already). This presents a monster opportunity for the Big Ten to swoop in and solidify its place as the nation’s most powerful sports conference.

Sports-wise, the Big Ten has a reputation of being staid and conservative. In terms of overall conference management, however, the Big Ten is quite forward looking and thinks outside of the box. It’s easy to say that the Big Ten Network is an obvious cash cow for the conference as of today, but at the time of its formation, it was a massive risk considering that it could’ve easily taken a massive traditional rights deal from ESPN in the same manner as the SEC without the pain of a year of fighting for basic cable distribution in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. It now looks like the Big Ten is going to benefit from that risk. Similarly, I’m convinced that the Big Ten isn’t going to make a “meh” move simply to get to the 12 teams needed to stage a football conference championship game. The new school has to be strong enough where if Notre Dame all of the sudden decides that it wants to join a conference in 10 or 20 years, the Big Ten can comfortably say “No” and not have buyer’s remorse about the 12th member that it added. I don’t think that Missouri, Syracuse or Rutgers would come close to meeting that standard, but Texas hits the mark and even more. Therefore, there’s one task for the Big Ten over the next year or so:

Hook ’em.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

UPDATE #1 (1/4/2010) – Tons of great feedback on this post, so I’ve addressed some additional issues in Big Ten Expansion Index Follow-Up #1: Superconferences, Conference TV Revenue and More Reasons Why Texas to the Big Ten Makes Sense.

UPDATE #2 (1/8/2010) – Confirmation that the Big Ten “contiguous state” rule is a myth, responses to blogs and message boards from across the country and, most importantly, the views of Texas fans in Big Ten Expansion Follow-Up #2: Nationwide and Longhorns Fan Responses on Texas to the Big Ten.

UPDATE #3 (1/20/2010) – More on the financial gap between the Big Ten and Big 12, how Notre Dame almost joined the Big Ten and thoughts on the East Coast schools and fallout in other conferences in Big Ten Expansion Follow-Up #3.

UPDATE #4 (2/1/2010) – Why the “Pitt Joining the Big Ten” Rumors are False.

UPDATE #5 (2/11/2010) – Newspaper reporting that the Big Ten has entered into preliminary discussions with the University of Texas.

UPDATE #6 (2/17/2010) – Template for Shooting Down Every Argument Against Texas Going to the Big Ten

UPDATE #7 (2/21/2010) – Explaining why the “initial list” of 15 Big Ten candidates is an examination of who would join WITH Texas and/or Notre Dame (NOT instead of them).

UPDATE #8 (3/2/2010) – What’s the purpose of the Big Ten leaking a study of Notre Dame, Missouri, Rutgers, Syracuse and Pitt?

UPDATE #9 (3/6/2010) – How Rutgers could work in the Big Ten (as long as another national marquee name also comes along)

UPDATE #10 (3/9/2010) – Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick leaves an opening for the Irish to join a conference.

UPDATE #11 (3/19/2010) – Rumors that the Big Ten is looking to add Boston College, Notre Dame and Rutgers.

UPDATE #12 (3/24/2010) – How the Pac-10 could affect Big Ten expansion.

UPDATE #13 (3/29/2010) – Notre Dame’s AD runs his trap again.

UPDATE #14 (4/6/2010) – Big Ten considering a 16-school conference.

UPDATE #15 (4/12/2010) – How a multi-phase expansion could be a good idea for the Big Ten.

UPDATE #16 (4/19/2010) – The value of expansion candidates to the Big Ten Network.

UPDATE #17 (4/25/2010) – Getting krunk on expansion news (or lack thereof).

UPDATE #18 (5/2/2010) – Rumors about a 5-team expansion with Nebraska, Missouri, Pitt, Rutgers and Syracuse.

Remembering the Worst Call in the History of Sports

Scottie Pippen Hue Hollins Hubert Davis Foul

With all of the issues with NBA officiating these days, J.A. Adande and ESPN.com just had to rip off a longtime scab with this 15th anniversary retrospective of the worst officiating call I have ever witnessed in any sport (notwithstanding the claims of Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville) and it happened to come against one of my teams: the phantom foul call by Hue Hollins on Scottie Pippen, who as you can see from the picture above was about 80 feet away on the other side of the court from Hubert Davis.   I will go to my grave believing that the 1994 Bulls without Michael Jordan would have at least made it to the NBA Finals if not for that inexcusable call.  The fact that this loss was to the archrival Knicks made it all the more infuriating.  Psychologists believe that our brains essentially lock in the traumatic moments in our lives where we can recall every single vivid detail around them many years later, which would explain why I start immediately ranting about how far away Pippen was from Davis on that play every time that this story gets brought up (such as today).  Just don’t get me started on the 2000 Illinois-Michigan game.

(Image from NBA.com)

When the NCAA Tournament Becomes Less Fun

chester-frazier-illinois-fighting-illini

There are essentially three types of people that watch the NCAA Tournament. The first set of people consists of the ones that don’t pay attention to college basketball the entire season but then rabidly fill out brackets at work and get engrossed by the tournament. Just like how most Americans don’t watch an iota of swimming or track and field except for two weeks every four years during the Olympics, these people don’t know the existence of college basketball other than for three weeks in March every year. There’s certainly nothing wrong with these short-term basketball watchers (as many of them are some of my best friends and I don’t mind dishing out well-intentioned gambling advice on Selection Sunday that invariably turns out to be wrong), but they are able to approach the NCAA Tournament purely as an entertaining reality television event in the same manner as American Idol and thus aren’t invested in its outcome in an emotional sense (it might be a different story financially).

Then, there’s the second set of people that are fans and alums of schools where simply making the NCAA Tournament is the end goal. These could be teams from tiny conferences whose only time in the national limelight every year is to get smashed by a #1 seed in the first round (for example, despite my continuing interest in studying the locations and conferences of every possible college out there, I have to admit that this year was the first time in my life that I had ever heard of play-in game winner Morehead State) or schools from large conferences that are largely devoid of any basketball success (I’m looking at you, Northwestern). While these fans have some more emotional investment in the tournament than the first set described above, they also can walk away from their respective teams’ losses with the comfort of knowing that they were playing the role of the proverbial Cinderella and thus look back at the tourney experience itself with some fond memories.

Finally, there’s the third set of fans and alums that are from schools where the NCAA Tournament is an expectation as opposed to an aspiration and satisfaction doesn’t come unless there’s at least a Final Four appearance and ultimately a national championship banner. While these people may participate in brackets and other gambling pools as much or more than anyone else (I’m looking at myself in the mirror), there’s also a sense of dejection and emptiness when your team loses that is a bit harsher than any other sport because everyone else around you that’s emotionally detached from the situation is still partying up and enjoying the tourney (especially in the first two rounds when games are constantly going on). The best comparable situation is the feeling of watching your favorite football team play the Super Bowl (the main sports event other than the NCAA Tournament that draws in a disproportionate number of non-sports fans) and they are getting killed on the field (or, in my case, Rex Grossman is chucking deep balls into triple coverage) – 99% of America is having a great time downing beer, nachos, and pizza at parties, while you’re part of that 1% that is swearing unmercifully at the television screen and questioning why you ever started watching sports. That’s what it feels like if you’re a fan of a basketball program that’s expected to actually advance in the NCAA Tournament and they end up losing, with the crucial difference being that your favorite NFL team probably doesn’t make the Super Bowl very often (if ever), so that lonely feeling is rarely or never experienced (except for those poor Buffalo Bills fans of the 1990s – how cruel is it for those people to now have the NFL openly nudge that franchise toward Toronto), while a fan of a top tier basketball school has to deal with this type of loss in the midst of a national party nearly every single year.

You have probably figured out that I’m in the third set of NCAA Tournament watchers. When Illinois lost in the 2005 National Championship Game to North Carolina, I couldn’t even watch that season’s “One Shining Moment” montage for several months (and I’m telling you in all seriousness that I hadn’t missed a “One Shining Moment” film since I was cognizant of the existence of the NCAA Tournament as a young child – this was like me ignoring Christmas for a year or not bringing up the John Tesh’s Roundball Rock and the 1990s NBA on NBC intros at every available opportunity on this blog). The pain from that day was so horrid for Illini fans that it was even encapsulated in a Nike Jumpman commercial that’s been running during this year’s tournament.

So, why would anyone be willing to deal with the type of constant dejection that I just described? The reason is that this emotional investment has a pay-off unlike any other in sports when it all goes right. When your team is on the winning end of one of those crazy games or buzzer-beaters and you see your school’s jersey in the “One Shining Moment” montage, it’s a direct connection that doesn’t quite exist to the same extent in other realms. Any person can wake up and decide to cheer for the Bears, Packers, White Sox, or Cubs, but there are only a finite number of people in the world that attended the University of Illinois, so there’s a certain sense of ownership when the Illini come through. I’ve been blessed enough to witness all three of my favorite pro sports teams – the Bears, Bulls, and White Sox – win world championships in my lifetime in dramatic fashion, but there’s only one sporting event that is on both of the DVRs in my house so that I can watch it at any moment on any TV: the 2005 NCAA Tournament Chicago Regional Final. The 15-point comeback by Illinois in the last 4 minutes of that game against Arizona was the most exhilarating experience that I’ve ever had (and probably ever will have) as a sports fan (even more than Michael Jordan’s brilliance in the last 41 seconds of the 1998 NBA Finals, which is a reel that I’ll show my future children over-and-over again as to how a perfect basketball player can take over a game by using explosiveness to drive to the rim to make an easy lay-up, come back down the floor and use defensive intelligence and anticipation to straight-out strip the ball from arguably the greatest power forward in the history of the game, and then dribble right back the other way and nail the iconic jumper in textbook form from the top of the key to win the NBA title – I have broken down those final 41 seconds more than Oliver Stone has watched the Zapruder film, yet it’s still just behind the 2005 Illini comeback as my favorite sports moment) where I honestly didn’t sleep that evening from shaking so much and how excited I was that we had made the Final Four in a way that it would be shown on ESPN Classic in perpetuity.

This year’s Illini squad obviously didn’t have anywhere close to the expectations as the 2005 team that made it to the national title game. In fact, Seth Davis pronounced Western Kentucky as the winner of the first round matchup between them and Illinois before the South Region bracket was even fully announced on Selection Sunday. It didn’t surprise me that Davis would engage in his typical Duke-baggery prognostications, but it REALLY irritated me when essentially every pundit in the country (other than Erin Andrews, who I will say is the only pundit that matters) also picked WKU and its nightmare fuel of a mascot. While it was certainly understandable that this would be a somewhat trendy 12-over-5 upset pick, I felt as if though Illinois was getting slammed for its high profile 33-point clunker against Penn State in February, yet no one was giving the Illini credit for hammering fashionable pick (and eventual Elite Eight participant) Missouri by 26 points (and the game wasn’t even that close – it would have been a 40-point spread if Bruce Weber hadn’t called off the dogs) on a neutral floor in the Braggin’ Rights Game, soundly beating another fashionable pick (and eventual Sweet Sixteen participant) in Purdue both at home and on the road, and finishing in second place in a resurgent (if not quite great) Big Ten. Bruce Weber picked up on this national media swarm, as well, and I thought for sure that Illinois would come in with the “nobody believed in us” card and frothing at the chance to kick Cinderella to the curb.

Alas, the national media turned out to be correct on this one, although I firmly believe that it was because Illinois played its worst game of the season (outside of the aforementioned Penn State game) as opposed to Western Kentucky’s play (which was spotty other than two separate two-minute spurts where they couldn’t miss from the three-point arc). I thought that we would miss the presence of Chester Frazier to a certain extent, but the way that we were able to handle a run-and-gun Michigan team (another trendy pick at the beginning of the tournament that was able to win its first round game) a week prior to that on a neutral floor in the Big Ten Tournament gave me a bit more confidence that we could at least get through the first round without him. (I must say that Frazier turned into one of my favorite Illini players of all-time and wish that he could get a fifth year of eligibility.  He endured such unfair criticism and catcalls last season from the Assembly Hall home crowd when he was thrust into a role he should never have been in when the Eric Gordon situation went down, yet he didn’t complain and came right back to solidify himself as the heart and soul of this team this season.  By the end, Illini fans couldn’t imagine this team without his leadership and defensive intensity as he played through.  While Frazier will never be in the discussion as one the best Illinois players in history from a pure talent standpoint, he may very well be the toughest.)  Of course, this is why I write this blog for free as opposed to being paid as a coach that supposedly knows what the hell he is talking about. After I was ready to swear off the team when it was down 17 points with four minutes left to go, Illinois charged back to within a possession provide me with some thoughts that this could be another 2005-like comeback that would live on in Illini history. However, it was the old “too little, too late” story, where the Hilltoppers hung on to win a sloppy game. As most others in the bar where I was watching the game were merrily finishing up their drinks and wings after a marathon opening day of the NCAA Tournament, TK, the other Illini fans in attendance, and I sat around wondering how this team could have come out so flat after talking about all week how they weren’t being respected.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that back in October, I didn’t think Illinois would even get a sniff of the NIT this season, much less the NCAA Tournament. So, logic should have put me and the rest of Illini Nation into the second set of fans this year, where we should have been just happy to be invited to the dance. However, while Illini fans were pretty realistic for the most part about the limitations of this year’s team, there’s a residual bad taste in the collective mouth for having ended the season on a downswing. At the same time, I’m not sure if there’s any fan base in the country that has a dying need to win the National Championship more than us. Illinois is almost always at or near the top of discussions of “the best programs that have never won the National Championship”, which is a dubious distinction that we want erased as soon as possible. We came about as close as you can get to the pinnacle without having actually reached it in 2005, so every entry in the NCAA Tournament that doesn’t end up at that pinnacle is another opportunity lost.

Still, the beauty of college sports is that players don’t get signed to 10-year $200 million contracts unless they attend Florida State or UConn. New blood turns into new hope, where Bruce Weber appears to have reversed his prior recruiting issues and secured elite classes for the next couple of years. At the same time, current sophomores Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale showed a great deal of improvement this season and will all be returning, and hopefully Alex Legion will be able to live up to his hype once he’s able to spend a full season with the team.  All of this means that expectations in Champaign are going to be ramped up more than ever when Midnight Madness comes around in October, which in turn leads to even greater scrutiny next March. We just ask that there will be one year in our lifetimes where we actually get to celebrate on the first Monday in April.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

The Linear Regression of Big Ten Basketball

Wisconsin Northwestern Basketball

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)

Roundball Thoughts and Frank the Tank’s NFL Conference Championship Game Picks

mike-tisdale-illinois-fighting-illini

It has been a pretty good week for basketball in the world of Frank the Tank.  The Illini beat Michigan for program win number 1,600 and face the next test on their brutal start to the Big Ten season by heading to East Lansing to play Michigan State (which has improved over the past month to shape up into the conference’s one true national title contender).  Frankly, it’s a bit much to believe that Illinois will come out of there with a win, but I actually have a pretty good feeling about the game overall (particularly with how they played Purdue on the road in the Big Ten opener).  Meanwhile, the Bulls continue to confound me by beating probably the best team in the NBA in the Cavs (and without question the best player in the league in LeBron James – the man has been maniacal on the floor this year).  I’m in the process of putting together a complete analysis of the Bulls roster (hint: I like one guy a lot and the rest can pretty much suck it), so you’ll be seeing that come through over the next week.  (At least Vinny Del Negro has figured out one correct move in his player rotation, although me and 99.9% of other Bulls fans could have told him this back in training camp in October.)  In the meantime, here are some quick picks for NFL’s conference championship games (home teams in CAPS):

  • NFC Championship Game: Philadelphia Eagles (-4) over PHOENIX CARDINALS – I’ve done pretty well with the underdogs so far this postseason, but it has got to end at some point.  While I’m not enthralled at all about the prospect of taking a road favorite of over a field goal, it’s tough for me to fathom Philly handing over a multitude of turnovers and allowing Larry Fitzgerald run amok in the same manner as the Buzzsaw’s last two opponents.  The question is really whether the Eagles will provide its fans with a soul-crushing bombing this weekend or in the Super Bowl.  I’m thinking that it’s going to be the latter.
  • AFC Championship Game: PITTSBURGH STEELERS (-6) over Baltimore Ravens – I have a problem with the Steelers having to lay 6 points against an all-world defense, but if the general rule of gambling is that you shouldn’t bet on an underdog that you don’t believe you can win, then I’m for Pittsburgh all the way.  If the crowd noise at Heinz Field is as loud as it appeared to be last week (even my wife mentioned how great the Steelers fans were, although I wonder if this might partially due to the sound technicians at CBS Sports since the crowd noise on their SEC telecasts seem to have the same prominence), then I have a hard time believing the Ravens will be able to do much considering that they were still in prime position to lose last week even with every single possible thing going their way.  For as great as the Ravens defense might be, I still think that the Steelers can run the ball and can open up the passing game a bit with Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward.  On the other hand, the Steelers have almost as good of a defense at the Ravens and get to face a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco in a hostile environment.  I like the Steelers to cover here.

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 3-1
Playoffs Overall: 5-2
Bears Games for the Season: 3-10-1
Overall Season: 26-24-3

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

A Year Ahead of Schedule: Illini Basketball Mid-Season Report

demetri-mccamey-illinois-fighting-illini

As Illinois anihilated Indiana by 31 points on Sunday, I felt a certain amount of vindication with the plight of the Hoosiers.  My hatred of the Indiana Hoosiers has been well-documented on this blog over the past couple of years with the actions of Satan’s Spawn – I want these guys get pummeled more than any other team in all of sports, including the Packers and Duke.  The tough thing going forward, though, is that I have a massive amount of respect for new IU coach Tom Crean, particularly with how he was always able to produce extremely competitive teams in the Big East at a Catholic school in Marquette that doesn’t have a football program to supply loads of revenue (unlike the horrific first 4 years of DePaul in arguably the toughest basketball conference in the nation, which I’ll be writing about in a separate post shortly).  Despite that, I can guarantee you that I’ll never get over the way Indiana completely bent Illinois over in the Eric Gordon situation – when one of your biggest rivals takes steps to completely fuck over your program in the long-term, you can never forget.

Fortunately, this season for the Illini has been more than a fantastic surprise on my end.  Back in October, I was basically counting down the days until Alex Legion could be activated and looked at it as a rebuilding year overall.  In fact, I thought that Illinois would look a lot like last year’s team and be hard-pressed to receive a bid to the NIT, much less the NCAA Tournament.  Instead, the Illini have proven to be a pretty good (not great) team in a revitalized Big Ten and would easily be in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today.  Assuming that we don’t end up taking conference’s automatic bid in the Big Ten Tournament, winning on the road at Purdue and the blowout of Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights Game are already excellent entries on our NCAA Tourney resume.

There are a few key items that I’ve noticed as we get into the heart of conference play.  First and foremost, the Illini can finally score again with regularity after two straight seasons of anemic Bears-like offensive output.  Four Illinois starters are averaging double-digit scoring each game and the team’s overall free throw percentage is over 73% (compared to a Shaq-esque 60.8% last season).  Even though Illinois lost at Michigan a week ago (which will hopefully be avenged on Wednesday night in a quirk in the Big Ten schedule having to play the Wolverines twice in the first four conference games), I was actually refreshed to see the Illini keep up with the frenetic three-pointing ability of scUM up until the last few minutes of the game.  If last season’s Illinois team were on the court, Michigan would have crushed us by over 30 with that type of long-range shooting performance.

The offensive balance has impressive with Trent Meacham and Demetri McCamey both drastically improving their outside shooting and Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale becoming consistent presences in the post.  That balance was something that didn’t exist at all last year, when if the ball didn’t get into Shaun Pruitt, the Illini were pretty much dead in the water.  Just as important is that Chester Frazier has been able to finally get placed into the role that fits him, which is to concentrate on bringing defensive intensity to the floor.  He was unfairly subjected to more booing than anyone last season from the Assembly Hall crowd mostly because he was thrust into a spot where Eric Gordon should have been, meaning that Frazier was being to asked to perform tasks (particularly on the offensive end) no one should have reasonably expected.

Speaking of Frazier’s defense, the rest of the team has performed an excellent job overall on that end of the floor, as well (as characteristic of Bruce Weber-coached squads).  The one concern that I have is that we will have issues with teams that have more athleticism (as exposed by Michigan and will be seen even more so against Michigan State on Satruday) – Illinois has shown to be a better than average running team, but they are more suited to agressive half-court sets throwing down to Tisdale or Davis for short baskets or kicking out to McCamey or Meacham when the buckets in the paint aren’t there.

This year’s Illini feel like the 2005 Ohio State team that happened to upset a perfect Illinois regular season, where Buckeye fans were initially looking forward a year to the incoming Greg Oden/Mike Conley recruiting class but were pleasantly surprised by the quality play of that veteran-laden team.  Similarly, most Illinois fans (including me) were focused on the excellent recruiting classes that will be coming to Champaign over the next couple of years, yet these Illini are making everyone take notice a year ahead of time.  I’m just thrilled to see Illinois safely back on the Bracketology projections again.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

A Defense of Big Ten Football

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When I wrote this post on the “Conference Pride Paradox” a little over two years ago, Big Ten football was at its zenith with 2 BCS bowl victories during the prior season and its premier rivalry (which, in my opinion, is also the best rivalry in all of sports) of Ohio State vs. Michigan was being hyped for weeks as the Game of the Millennium with a #1 vs. #2 matchup for the first time.  After the Ohio State won that classic game, the national debate was centered around how Michigan deserved another shot at the Buckeyes in the National Championship Game.  Thinking back about those days that really weren’t very long ago at all, it’s amazing how far the national reputation of Big Ten football has fallen.  With Ohio State’s loss last night to Texas (albeit one that could have been prevented had the Buckeyes just kept a safety or two back in the secondary to make a tackle), the Big Ten has now lost 6 straight BCS bowl games (2 in each of the last 3 seasons).

There’s no doubt that the nation has a right to be skeptical about the prospects of the next Big Ten invitee to a National Championship Game (and frankly, no one should be surprised if Ohio State is right back in that mix next year with the players that they have coming back).  However, with Big Ten bashing becoming so fashionable among college football fans, I believe that the performances of the conference over the past 3 seasons need to be into context.  Please note that the following comments aren’t excuses – if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best at anytime anywhere, and the Big Ten teams that have gone to BCS bowls have failed miserably on that front.  It’s just that when one looks at who and where the Big Ten has played in its recent BCS matchups, it becomes apparent that the only ones that have the right to say anything are USC and the top tier of the SEC (as much as I loathe them).  Everyone else that is piling on the Big Ten (i.e. Big East, ACC, and Big 12 fans, Pac-10 schools that aren’t USC, Mountain West Conference bandwagoners riding a hot Utah team, etc.), though, need to STFU since they all likely would be in the exact same position of the power Midwestern conference if they had to play the same games.

Here are the Big Ten’s BCS opponents over the past 3 seasons:

  • USC in the last 3 Rose Bowls in Pasadena
  • Florida in the 2006 National Championship Game in Arizona
  • LSU in the 2007 National Championship Game in New Orleans
  • Texas in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl in Arizona

Look at that list of teams – it’s complete murder’s row of marquee national programs without a single breather.  The Big Ten didn’t get to play the likes of Wake Forest, Louisville, Cincinnati, or Hawaii, who were BCS participants in other bowls during this period.  Unlike the conferences that are participating in Thursday night’s National Championship Game, the Big Ten didn’t lose to non-BCS conference teams in the manner of the Big 12 (the Boise State-Oklahoma gem in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl) or the SEC (last week’s stunning Utah beat-down of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl – there was nothing fluky about the Utes in that game).  Yet, those conferences haven’t been indicted in their entirety even though their marquee teams failed to beat smaller schools whose stadiums have fewer amenities than the average SEC weight room.

The one true horrible loss for the Big Ten was Florida’s thrashing of Ohio State in the 2006 National Championship Game, where the Buckeyes had been ranked #1 nearly the entire season and were strongly favored to win the game.  After that, though, note that two 2nd place Big Ten teams (Michigan in 2006 and my alma mater Illinois in 2007) along with this year’s Penn State team got to play USC in de facto Trojan home games right outside of Los Angeles.  How many champions from any conference, much less 2nd place teams like the Big Ten has sent, are going to beat USC head-to-head in Los Angeles?  Anyone that has even a smidgen of knowledge about college football knows that this is a monster task in a sport where home field advantage is a huge deal and nowhere near the same as playing Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl or Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.  The Big Ten doesn’t have a Rose Bowl problem or a Pac-10 problem – it has a USC problem.  Of course, every other conference would also be “exposed” as having a USC problem if its champion or 2nd place team had to play the Trojans in LA every year.  (Please note that I wouldn’t trade the Big Ten’s relationship with the Rose Bowl for anything in world since it’s the one BCS bowl outside of the National Championship Game that people actually care about.  My trip to Pasadena following the Illini last year was one of the greatest sports experiences of my life, with the exception of that game thingy.)  If USC didn’t crush its Pac-10 competition every season (outside of the annual obligatory game where they don’t show up against a ridiculously inferior team, which ruins their national championship chances) where some other team from that conference would get to the Rose Bowl, then there likely wouldn’t be a Big Ten drought in that game.

Similar to the USC situation, LSU arguably received an even greater home field advantage with last year’s National Championship Game being played in New Orleans.  Once again, would any team from any other conference have won essentially a road game at LSU in that situation?  SEC fans have earned the right to crow here, but any other conference that throws stones at the Big Ten has to realize that if they had sent a representative to that game, they also would have been crushed.  West Virginia would have received the honors to get thrashed if they had taken care of business against a pathetic Dave Wannstedt-led Pitt team while Missouri would have been the victims if they had beaten Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game on the last weekend of the regular season.  None of that happened, so Ohio State, whose resume by the end of that weekend consisted of doing to the least wrong of any of the BCS conference champions that season, backed that ass up into the right to play in the title game on the road where they were guaranteed to be huge underdogs.

Finally, Texas was heavily favored to crush Ohio State in last night’s Fiesta Bowl but the Longhorns only salvaged a win because of a Buckeye defensive meltdown in the last 2 minutes of the game.  (By the way, it was fascinating to witness Jim Tressel use the reverse-Tebow technique of using Todd Boeckman to spot Terrelle Pryor at quarterback, where the intent was actually to bring in a traditional pocket passer for one or two plays at a time in order to change the pace from having a running quarterback.  The increasing reliance on spread or spread-esque offenses isn’t necessarily the greatest trend for college football overall, particularly for young QBs that want to reach the NFL, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Once again, I’m not saying that the Big Ten’s performances in BCS bowls have been anywhere near satisfactory.  The Big Ten receives a ton of perks for having teams that draw huge television ratings (the only BCS bowls that have had over a 10.0 rating outside of the National Championship Games since the ACC-spurned conference realignment in 2003 are all of the games that have featured a Big Ten team) and the most national and wealthiest fan base of the BCS, which includes placement in the Rose Bowl (the highest profile bowl) and the other BCS bowls salivating over taking one of the conference’s other teams for an at-large bid.  With that elevated position, the Big Ten is justifiably going to receive more scrutiny when compared to USC or teams from the SEC and the conference’s teams will need to start performing.  I have faith that the Big Ten will bounce back soon enough since conference performance is cyclical, which is often hard to remember in a “What have you done for me lately?” world.  Earlier this decade, the SEC and Big 12 were the conferences being criticized as being weak and without depth.  The Big East was hailed as being back as a power conference two years ago but now is facing calls of not deserving an automatic BCS bid.  The old cliche of “what goes around comes around” is very true in college sports, so the haters out there won’t have the Big Ten to kick around much longer.

(Image from Arizona Republic)

Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 11/15/2008

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Here are this week’s parlay picks for Ohio State Week for the Illini (the mighty battle for the Illibuck) and Packer Week for the Bears (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) Purdue Boilermakers (+18.5) over IOWA HAWKEYES

(2) MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (-3.5) over Northwestern Wildcats

(3) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (+9.5) over Ohio State Buckeyes

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 0-3

Illini Games for the Season: 4-5
Overall Season: 16-16-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (-4) over Minnesota Vikings

(2) Arizona Cardinals (-3) over SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

(3) Chicago Bears (+3.5) over GREEN BAY PACKERS

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-2

Bears Games for the Season: 3-51
Overall Season: 14-13-3

Have a great weekend and, as always, Go Illini and Go Bears!

(Image from fightingillini.com)

Good Things For You and I

Fear not, Chicago baseball fans.  We have two saviors to get us through Saturdays…

… and Sundays (at least when we’re playing Detroit).

Juice and the Neckbeard carpet bombed the Detroit Metro area for a combined total of 765 yards of offense this past weekend, leading the Illini and Bears to thrash Michigan and the Lions by a collective score of 79-27.  With Illinois tossing its Bo Schembechler voodoo doll for the first time since I was a senior in college and the Bears putting together its first complete game since the season opener (granted, the Lions will do that to you with or without Matt Millen), I can’t be too down on the White Sox elimination.  (Cubs fans deserve to be pissed, though.)  More thoughts are coming later this week.

(Images from Chicago Tribune)

Well, I’m Glad it’s Football Season – Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 10/3/2008

It will be another short parlay post this week as I’ve got wedding duties for a good friend.  In short, this ought to be one of those banner sports weekends in theory, with the local football scene moving from Pennsylvania to Michigan with Illinois-Michigan on Saturday and Bears-Lions on Sunday, along with both the White Sox and Cubs trying to stave off early eliminations from the playoffs (ugh).  At least as a Sox fan, this playoff appearance is a bit like playing with house money at this point since absolutely no one has any expectations for this team compared to the others in the American League.  Plus, I didn’t expect much with Javy Vasquez yesterday – the next three guys in the White Sox rotation are going to give us much more of a chance to win.  I’m not sure if there’s much I can say to Cubs fans right now to make them feel better, other than Fox executives are flipping out just as much. (Note in that article the MLB executives have politically correct quotes talking about some great storylines for small markets, while the Fox sales exec straight-up says, “It’s all about the Cubs right now.”)  Anyway, let’s hope both baseball teams and the Illini turn it around (along with my horrid handicapping as of late after a pretty good start), with the strange feeling of the Bears being the overachievers of the past week.  Here are the football picks (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) Ohio State Buckeyes (-1.5) over WISCONSIN BADGERS
(2) Florida State Seminoles (+2.5) over MIAMI HURRICANES
(3) Illinois Fighting Illini (+3) over MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (Michigan played possibly the worst first half in terms of self-inflicted wounds that I’ve ever seen from any football team but came back to win.  Still, I feel strangely good about the Illini in this game, which probably means that I’m going to be crushed by Muck Fichigan for the 959th time in life.)

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-2

Illini Games for the Season: 1-2
Overall Season: 7-7-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) BALTIMORE RAVENS (+3) over Tennessee Titans
(2) DENVER BRONCOS (-3) over Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(3) Chicago Bears (-3.5) over DETROIT LIONS (Will I get a Bears game correct this season? I feel like the Susan Lucci of the sports book.  If anything, this is empirical evidence that you should never ever gamble on a team that you are emotionally invested in.)

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 0-3

Bears Games for the Season: 0-31
Overall Season: 4-7-1

(Image from ESPN.com)