I’ll get to my thesis soon enough, but first a couple of disclaimers:
1. There are maybe five things in my life that I love more than Big Ten basketball. It’s been shoved down my throat since birth, to the extent that I was brainwashed into believing Brian Evans’s 1995–96 season at Indiana was the greatest individual campaign in college basketball history. (To be fair, averaging 21.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game is pretty nuts.) I could write a dissertation on Brian Cardinal versus Kirk Haston that would only serve as a foreword to the tome I could write about Chad Austin versus A.J. Guyton. If either Indiana or Purdue was playing when I was growing up, my ass was in front of a TV watching. And if those teams weren’t playing, my ass was still in front of a TV, probably watching some other Big Ten game. So, fellow Big Ten fans, when I get to the part you know is coming, please remember that it’s coming from a place of love.
2. I can’t think of anything that’s dumber in college sports than conference pride. I understand all of the reasons fans cheer for teams from their favorite conference during March Madness, and why people agonize over which conference is the best like they’re analyzing the Shroud of Turin. But all of those reasons are dumb. Just cheer for your own team, and when it gets eliminated from national title contention, try behaving like a normal human being would: Hope that every gym in the country is burned to the ground before a champion can be crowned.
I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t prefer one team over another when watching an important game as a neutral fan. I’m just saying that cheering for a rival program is absurd, and the idea that Duke winning a national title would be good for Wake Forest just because both are in the ACC is preposterous. Conferences really only exist as a way for the NCAA ruling class to get us peasants to fight with one another so that we’re too distracted to notice the schools are making billions off athletes who can’t even accept a free donut.
OK, with that out of the way, let’s get to the point: Big Ten basketball is absolute trash. It’s horrible, it’s not good, and it barely resembles basketball anymore. It’s also very, very bad.
Last Sunday, Maryland played at Wisconsin in a CBS game that featured two of the top three teams (Purdue being the other) in the Big Ten standings. If there is such a thing as a marquee Big Ten matchup this season, this was supposed to be it. The Terrapins took a six-point lead into halftime before the Badgers stormed back and used a late 8–0 run to put away a 71–60 win, giving Wisconsin its first victory all season over a Big Ten counterpart that had a conference record above .500. Of course, I gained this information from reading a recap because I, lifelong Big Ten basketball fan whose livelihood relies almost exclusively on watching college basketball, couldn’t muster the patience required to finish a game in which there were more fouls (48) than made field goals (43), in which there was only one more assist (22) than turnover (21), and in which the winning team went 2-for-12 from deep.
The most passionate Big Ten supporters will tell you Wisconsin-Maryland was an anomaly and that the conference still puts out a good product. The real issue, they’ll say, is that people don’t appreciate good defense these days, or that casual fans don’t understand that being efficient is far more important than having a fast-paced, high-scoring offense. Whether you prefer advanced statistics or the eye test, though, this is clearly bullshit. Tempo isn’t what makes people think Big Ten basketball is unwatchable; Villanova, Baylor, Arizona, and Oregon all play slow as hell, too, yet you don’t hear many complaints about those teams being boring. People think Big Ten basketball is unwatchable because the league’s teams aren’t as efficient, its players aren’t as skilled, and its coaches aren’t as smart as its supporters would like to believe. It’s to the point where I’m more interested in figuring out which Big Ten school has the least-terrible rap video (spoiler: It’s not Purdue) than which has the best basketball team, and things are likely only going to get worse in the NCAA tournament.
With two and a half weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has seven Big Ten teams projected to make the NCAA tournament, which feels like at least seven too many. This ties the conference for the second-most representatives in Lunardi’s field, a figure that far from tells the whole story. The highest-seeded Big Ten team in the tournament will likely be Purdue, which is projected to get a no. 4 seed despite being in position to win the league’s regular-season title. (This comes on the heels of 2015–16 Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana getting a no. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.) Potential cochampion Wisconsin is listed as a no. 5 seed, according to Lunardi, while Maryland is a no. 6 seed and the four other Big Ten teams in the projection are seeded anywhere between no. 8 and no. 10. This means that if the tournament were to start today, Purdue would be the only Big Ten team expected to make the Sweet 16, which isn’t exactly reassuring considering that I wouldn’t trust Boilermakers head coach Matt Painter to make me a sandwich — let alone lead a team with obvious flaws to two tourney wins. Meanwhile, most NBA mock drafts list Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges as the Big Ten’s only projected 2017 first-round draft pick (or at least the only one who has seen the court in the past month, as Indiana forward OG Anunoby suffered a season-ending knee injury in January), leaving NBA fans with little reason to care about the conference either.
Indiana, ranked no. 3 in the AP poll in November, will likely miss the NCAA tournament and just might close the season on a nine-game losing streak. Michigan State, which was ranked in the preseason top 15, has been plagued by injuries and hampered by inexperience and could still somehow make the NCAA tournament despite being a truly terrible basketball team. Wisconsin and Maryland boast impressive records (22–5) that become less impressive once you realize that they have zero combined wins over top-20 opponents. Michigan’s defense is horrible, Minnesota’s offense is worse, Illinois is bad at everything, and Ohio State finishes every game by finding a new way to shoot itself in the dick. The only saving graces to this Big Ten season are Caleb Swanigan, a favorite for national player of the year who is averaging 18.9 points and 13 rebounds and singlehandedly makes Purdue respectable, and Northwestern’s pursuit of its first NCAA tournament bid. I’m tempted to say this is the worst Big Ten basketball season of my lifetime, but that title will (hopefully) forever belong to 2003–04, when three teams made the tourney, only one advanced to the Sweet 16 (and immediately lost by 10 points), and Kim Kardashian’s husband of 72 days led the conference in both scoring and rebounding as a freshman.
So, how did we get here? How did one of the most storied conferences in college basketball get so bad? The Big Ten game has long had a reputation of being plodding and conservative, perhaps because football philosophies that had to account for inclement Midwestern weather were brought to the court in the early days of the league. It’s possible that style has been slow to evolve, even as the rest of the basketball-playing world has learned to embrace pace-and-space tactics. But the conference’s problems over the past two seasons go beyond that. Fans in denial think the Big Ten is made up of squads that look like Virginia at its best; the truth is the average conference game devolves into a sloppy mess of turnovers, fouls, and missed shots that people only care about because of the names on the front of the jerseys.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: The Big Ten hasn’t produced a national champion in basketball since Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State beat Florida in 2000. As someone who claims to be adamantly against the idea of conference pride, it’s become increasingly difficult to hear about that drought and convince myself that I don’t care. Making things all the more frustrating is the fact that six different Big Ten programs — Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Wisconsin — have lost in the national championship game over the past 15 years. A rational person might recognize how rare it is for so many of the league’s programs to come that close to a title. But college basketball fans are anything but rational, which is why people all over the country are laughing at the Big Ten while those of us in the Midwest are desperate for someone — ANYONE — to finally win the damn thing and shut everyone up.
That’s what makes this recent stretch sting so badly. We’re only four years removed from the Big Ten’s incredible 2012–13 campaign, when six different teams cracked the top 10 of the AP poll and the regular-season title came down to the final shot on the final day of conference play. A Big Ten national title seemed imminent then, if not in the 2013 tournament then certainly in the immediate years to come. Now, coming off a tourney in which the league’s champion got blasted in the Sweet 16 and its best team lost to a no. 15 seed, the Big Ten could fare even worse in 2016–17; its only hope of remaining in title contention by the end of the tournament’s opening weekend could hinge on Purdue, a team that blew a 14-point lead with five minutes to play against Arkansas–Little Rock in the first round of the 2016 tournament. And early signs suggest next season won’t be much better, as Wisconsin will lose at least four starters, Swanigan and Bridges are expected to leave for the NBA, Indiana and Illinois should be in a state of turmoil, Ohio State’s roster will be nearly identical to the one that’s churning out abysmal results, and only one McDonald’s All American (Jaren Jackson) has committed to enter the conference. (Maryland fans would like you to know that the Terps should bring back most of their roster next season, though. Make some noise if you’re excited to see one more year of the Maryland-fans-versus-advanced-metrics rivalry!)
Alas, I’ll worry about the national championship drought later. For now, I just want to watch a Big Ten game without feeling like I’m watching a completely different sport than the rest of the country is playing. I want to see the best basketball recruits start coming back to the Midwest. (The last ESPN top-five recruit to sign with a Big Ten program was Jared Sullinger in 2010.) I want Big Ten officials to have some idea of what the hell they’re doing. I want the notion that any team in the Big Ten can beat any other team in the Big Ten on any given night to signify that all of the conference’s teams are good, not that the league has become a giant clusterfuck of suck. I JUST WANT BRAD STEVENS TO COME HOME AND COACH INDIANA, GODDAMMIT. IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?