Big Ten Expansion Hits the Ice

After around two decades of speculation and proposals, Penn State will be announcing today that it’s adding a Division I hockey program.  Now, as someone that attended Illinois, which only has a club hockey team, I have a fairly rudimentary understanding the hierarchy of college hockey that’s a bit different than the worlds of football and basketball.  (Note that the woman that cuts my hair lived in Grand Forks up until a couple of years ago, so I do at least have a monthly discussion about North Dakota hockey.)  Still, this is an important story from a Big Ten and national perspective since Penn State’s new program is going to have massive implications on the hockey world, and by extension, the overall athletic programs of a whole slew of universities.

Make no mistake about it: there WILL be a Big Ten hockey conference.  There is no “if” here.  A large contingent of college hockey fans want nothing to do with the concept and are trying to talk themselves into thinking that Penn State will simply be satisfied in joining the CCHA or that Minnesota politicians will intervene a la Texas pols with the Big 12, but that’s just wishful thinking on their part.  We can talk all day about North Dakota’s and Denver’s rivalries with Minnesota and Wisconsin in the WCHA and how the smaller Michigan-based schools financially depend upon getting annual visits from Michigan and Michigan State every year, yet it will be of no use because (a) Penn State wouldn’t be adding a very expensive sport if it didn’t have assurances that a Big Ten hockey league (and the TV opportunities and ticket sales that come with it) would come to fruition and (b) pretty much all of the powers that be in the Big Ten except for maybe Minnesota wants the league to form BADLY.  Last year, the Big Ten actually had discussions with Miami, Bowling Green and Western Michigan about becoming hockey-only affiliate members.  Think about that for a second: considering how much we concentrated on how only elite and financially viable football programs could justify Big Ten expansion in that sport, Jim Delany and company have been so interested in forming a hockey league that they were considering to add MAC schools in order to make it happen.  That’s a pretty clear indication of the Big Ten’s modus operandi with respect to hockey.  I’m sorry WCHA and CCHA partisans – the loyalties of all of these schools are to the Big Ten first and foremost.

The Big Ten Network is certainly an important factor in the Big Ten’s desire to form a hockey conference sooner than later.  Unlike Big Ten-sponsored sports, the television rights for hockey games are controlled by the various hockey conferences (in terms of relevance to the Big Ten, the CCHA and WCHA) and individual schools can negotiate their own TV packages.  This is a pretty good deal for a school like Minnesota, which is the dominant school in a hockey-crazed market and where the Gophers have a lucrative deal with Fox Sports Net North, but it hasn’t been great for the availability of hockey games on the Big Ten Network.  (I’m going to talk about Minnesota a lot in this post since that’s the Big Ten school where hockey is arguably the most important while having very strong WCHA rivalries.)  Hockey is the clear #3 TV college sport in Big Ten markets after football and basketball, yet the lack of control over hockey TV rights means that there’s only a smattering of games on the network every year.  By forming the Big Ten hockey conference, all of those TV rights would be under control of the Big Ten and the conference can place more games on the Big Ten Network and even sell more widely distributed packages to outlets like ESPN.

Hockey is fairly valuable programming for the Big Ten Network.  Unlike baseball as of now, the hockey programs in the Big Ten are national powers and have fan bases that generate revenue and TV eyeballs in solid amounts.  Hockey games will almost certainly fill Friday prime time slots every week (when football and basketball games in the Big Ten are never played, anyway) and fill out an array of Saturday and possibly even Sunday time slots.  Also, in terms of subscriber revenue, hockey is going to provide more leverage for the BTN to garner higher rates in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from cable providers in the future.

(EDIT: In addition, and maybe most importantly, hockey is critical for the Big Ten Network in terms of building its online platform.  While all conference football and men’s basketball games are shown on television, most hockey games will likely end up streamed over the web, so that sport will become the primary driver for the BTN’s online content.  College hockey is actually a great vehicle for selling online streaming packages because it has a “sizable niche” audience – small enough where it doesn’t make financial sense to put every single game on TV, but large and passionate enough that the BTN can still make money selling those non-TV games online.)

Is hockey power Minnesota going to like giving up its local TV deals and WCHA rivalries?  Probably not, but the Gophers are going to get ZERO slack when their football program, which just suffered an embarrassing loss to South Dakota, is making literally tens of millions of dollars per year off of the backs of Ohio State and Penn State.  A school like Penn State risked a whole lot of local TV opportunities for football which dwarf regional hockey deals in order to support the Big Ten Network, so the expectation is the very least that Minnesota could do is allow the Big Ten leverage the one sport where the Gophers have a legit marquee team.

Now, the long-term hope is that a Big Ten hockey conference could spur other schools with high-level club programs such as Illinois and Indiana to create Division I programs, as well.  In fact, the Gopher hockey beat writer of the Star Tribune pointed out that Illinois in particular is being named as a potential hockey school.  As someone that loved going to club hockey games in Champaign (although I’m pretty sure the rink was constructed at some point right before the downfall of the Roman Empire), the prospect of an Illini varsity hockey program is spectacular.  Granted, it will be difficult enough to raise enough money for new facilities and enough scholarships to satisfy both the hockey team itself and additional women’s sports in order to comply with Title IX, but having a Big Ten hockey conference in place was the only way that adding hockey could even conceivably be an option for Illinois.  Neither Illinois nor any other Big Ten school is going to lay out all of that money so that it can play a bunch of games against the Ferris States of the world – they all need Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to come to town annually to make it worthwhile.

The flipside is the potential fallout in the WCHA and CCHA when the Big Ten teams leave.  Dave Starman of USCHO has a better evaluation of the possible domino effect than I could ever put together, so be sure to check him out.  (The one caveat is he’s still holding out the possibility of Penn State joining the CCHA, which I see as a futile discussion.)  Can a school such as Lake Superior State survive without home dates from the Big Ten schools in the CCHA?  Could this be a preview of Notre Dame’s ultimate intentions for other sports, where it has a choice of staying the Midwest-based CCHA, head west to the WCHA, maybe head out to Hockey East to give it an East Coast presence, or create a entirely new conference altogether?  (How about a conference headed up by Notre Dame, Boston College, North Dakota and Denver?  That would be an extremely strong contender to the Big Ten.)  The possibilities are as endless as all of the permutations put together of BCS conference alignments in the blogosphere over this past year.

Still, the ultimate upshot is that college hockey is going to get a massive boost in exposure when the Big Ten forms its league and elevates the sport across its TV platforms.  Kudos to Penn State for taking a leap into Division I hockey that is going to open up opportunities for Illinois and other Big Ten schools.

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

(Image from You Hoser)

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)

Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 11/21/2008

sweet-sioux-tomahawk-trophy-illinois-fighting-illini-northwestern-wildcats3

Back in 2002, Illinois followed up a BCS bowl berth in the previous season with a medicore and underachieving year where they needed to beat Northwestern in the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk game just to have a chance to get a lovely post-Christmas trip to Detroit for the Motor City Bowl.  The Illini looked they were were ready to pack it in for Thanksgiving and got trounced by the Wildcats, even though it was clear that Illinois had much more talent with pro prospects such as current Bears wide receiver Brandon Lloyd.  Hmmm… to paraphrase Yogi Berra, it’s deja vu all over again.  The similarities between that Illini football team and this year’s squad are uncanny and I’m not holding my breath for a different outcome this time around.  (Meanwhile, I’m somewhat mortified that the Illinois basketball team has started to give me some hope that they might actually do something this season with their win at Vanderbilt last night.  Sure, Vandy might be a rebuilding team right now, but any win on the road against a BCS school is a great one, especially for Bruce Weber’s young lineup.  I was more than ready just to accept this whole season as a reconstruction project.  Now, I feel my brain beginning to cultivate expectations, which are probably all unfounded, particularly with Alex Legion joining the team next month.  This isn’t good for my stress level.)  Anyway, here are this week’s parlay picks (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) LSU TIGERS (-4) over Mississippi Rebels

(2) MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS (+6) over Iowa Hawkeyes

(3) NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (+3) over Illinois Fighting Illini

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

Illini Games for the Season: 4-6
Overall Season: 17-18-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) New England Patriots (+1) over MIAMI DOLPHINS

(2) ARIZONA CARDINALS (+3.5) over New York Giants

(3) ST. LOUIS RAMS (+8) over Chicago Bears

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

Bears Games for the Season: 3-61
Overall Season: 16-14-3

Have a great weekend and, as always, Go Illini and Go Bears (even if they don’t deserved to receive any adoration)!

(Image from nusports.com)

Double Goose Egg and Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 10/17/2008

I was on a blissful vacation last weekend, which means that I thankfully didn’t have to watch a horrific couple of days of football from the Illini and Bears.  Therefore, I’ll direct you to Illinitalk and Blog Down Chicago Bears for their respective rants.  Onto this week’s parlay picks (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) NAVY MIDSHIPMEN (+2.5) over Pittsburgh Panthers – I have few rules in life, but one of them is that a Dave Wannstedt-coached team is not allowed to be ranked for two weeks in a row.

(2) Miami Hurricanes (-3.5) over DUKE BLUE DEVILS – The mighty might have fallen a bit in Miami, but they’re still light years ahead of Puke football.

(3) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (-15.5) over Indiana Hoosiers – The bookies are absolutely KILLING me with another double-digit spread in favor of Illinois for the second week in a row (and we know how that turned out against Minnesota), especially with the Hawaii-style defense (as in no defense) that the Illini appear to be utilizing lately.  Still, WTF was I thinking in picking Indiana last week after they put up an embarrassing performance against Iowa?  I should have known better than to choose those Satan’s Spawn enablers.  Let’s hope that the Minnesota game was the equivalent of the Iowa game last year – a Zookian brain fart against an inferior team.

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

Illini Games for the Season: 2-3
Overall Season: 11-9-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) GREEN BAY PACKERS (+2) over Indianapolis Colts – The bookies have essentially made the Packers into my anti-Illini for gambling purposes this year, where I’m pretty sure every spread involving Green Bay so far has been within a field goal.  They’re way too enticing again, especially at home against an Indy club that largely running on reputation this season.

(2) CAROLINA PANTHERS (-3) over New Orleans Saints – You know that the spreads are FUBAR this week when I’m including this game, which involves two scarily inconsistent teams.  I’m still in denial that we are entering a world where the Dolphins are a favorite against the Ravens and Vegas is spotting double-digits to Brian Griese versus a Mike Holmgren-coached team.

(3) CHICAGO BEARS (-3) over Minnesota Vikings – The fact that the Bears have the same record as the Vikings right now is a complete abomination.  The New York Times pointed out that the difference between the Bears being 6-0 as opposed to 3-3 is a swing of a total of 8 points in an aggregate of 4 minutes at the conclusion of their 3 losses.  Meanwhile, the Vikings needed a questionable pass interference call to pull out a win against the pathetic Lions.  This really ought to be a double-digit spread for the Bears on paper, but Vegas correctly recognizes that there are still plenty of ways that we can pry defeat from the jaws of victory in the fourth quarter.

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

Bears Games for the Season: 1-41
Overall Season: 6-9-3

FIRST BULLS RANT OF THE SEASON

On a final note, if Larry Hughes starts another Bulls preseason game instead of Derrick Rose (yes, I’ve been watching preseason basketball – there’s some serious b-ball withdrawl on my end), I will personally see to it that Vinny Del Negro’s rims are ripped off his car and sold off on Maxwell Street next Sunday.  In a remarkable turn of events, Stacey King actually stated something worthwhile on Tuesday’s broadcast by noting that the rest of the Bulls need to adjust to Derrick Rose’s game as opposed to the other way around.  My gawd, I think he’s got it!!!  There will be a justifiable fan mutiny if we continue to hear crap that Rose needs to be coddled into the lineup.  I agree that all observers need to temper expectations for production out of 19-year old rookie point guard, but he needs as much time on the floor as possible since this team needs to be built around his talent and skills instead of trying to wedge him into a rotation with 18 other undersized guards.  The regular season hasn’t even started yet and the presence of Larry Hughes is already making me twitch – this isn’t a good sign.  At the very least, I need to be able to take in the sight of two of my man crushes in Rose and Deron Williams going at each other in a special exhibition game at the Assembly Hall in Champaign on Friday night – I’m officially getting all tingly right now.

Go Bulls, Go Deron, Go Illini, and Go Bears!

(Image from ESPN.com)

Team Chemistry and Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 10/9/2008

I’m off to Napa Valley for the weekend, so the truncated parlay posts continue for at least one more week.  For your enjoyment, here’s a nasty dunk from last night by Celtics rookie Bill Walker:

While I was impressed with the dunk when I caught it on SportsCenter last night, what got me to rewind my DVR numerous times was the fantastic sight of the entire Celtics bench, particularly superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, going absolutely bonkers for a rookie to the point where they had to hold each other back from spilling onto to the court (in a preseason game, no less).  If you’ve read my blog for the past several years, you’ll know that I’m of the general opinion that winning creates team chemistry more than the other way around.  However, there’s something to be said for how tight the Celtics appear to be as a team – Kobe Bryant has posterized opposing players hundreds of times in the same manner as Walker but the rest of the Lakers are usually too busy hitting on the flavor of the month actress sitting courtside to notice.  At the same time, the sight of Andres Nocioni and Kirk Hinrich going nuts on the bench for a Tyrus Thomas dunk would be only slightly less awkward than this piece of history.  Anyway, here are this week’s football picks (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) INDIANA HOOSIERS (+6) over Iowa Hawkeyes
(2) MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (+2.5) over Vanderbilt Commodores (It’s time to cash in your Vandy chips)
(3) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (-12.5) over Minnesota Golden Gophers

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

Illini Games for the Season: 2-2
Overall Season: 10-7-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) Green Bay Packers (+2.5) over SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
(2) DENVER BRONCOS (-3) over Jacksonville Jaguars
(3) Chicago Bears (-2.5) over ATLANTA FALCONS

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-0-2

Bears Games for the Season: 1-31
Overall Season: 5-7-3