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The Big Ten’s Dumb Experiment Produced a Thrilling Conference Tournament

Just because a bad idea works doesn’t mean that idea was actually good

Carsen Edwards, Jim Delany, and Moritz Wagner Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the Big Ten announced in December 2014 that it would hold its 2018 men’s basketball tournament in New York City, the public reaction varied between “this is a really dumb idea” and “this is the single worst idea that I’ve ever heard.” The details didn’t matter. The notion that the Big Ten—an institution that’s more Midwestern than four tubs of ranch dressing playing Euchre in a cornfield—was willingly moving its premier, all-encompassing event away from the heartland made no damn sense. And that was before factoring in that the 2018 tournament would have to be played a week earlier than usual, because Madison Square Garden already had a contract in place with the Big East, or that the Big Ten would have to condense its regular-season schedule to accommodate the earlier start date. When taking those two things into consideration, what was already viewed as a colossally bad decision seemed like full-blown pants-on-head idiocy.

On Sunday, the same tournament that so many Midwesterners had spent three and a half years groaning over came to an end, with Michigan winning its second consecutive title by beating Purdue 75-66 in the final. This same tournament also produced tons of compelling story lines. Wisconsin put up a hell of a fight and momentarily had me believing that the Badgers juuust might pull off the impossible and keep their 19-year NCAA tournament streak alive. (Spoiler alert: They did not.) Rutgers guard Corey Sanders looked so incredible that Bill Raftery busted out the sacred Kemba Walker comparison; Michigan’s Moritz Wagner showed the world that he loves his mother almost as much as Tony Carr hates Ohio State; and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards provided the GIF of the college basketball season. Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ path to the championship required four wins in as many days, including an overtime victory against Iowa and two upsets of teams (Michigan State and Purdue) that have been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll for the past two months. Madison Square Garden provided the first Big Ten tournament sellout in four years, and only three of the 13 games were decided by double digits, with two of those having 11-point margins. All told, what was supposed to be a disaster instead turned out to be the most memorable Big Ten tournament in recent memory.

And that’s an absolute bummer, because an important point needs to be made: Just because a bad idea works doesn’t mean that bad idea was actually good.

I don’t mean to be a wet blanket here. The 2018 Big Ten tournament was a blast for all sorts of reasons, chief among them that it’s impossible to have a boring college basketball event in Madison Square Garden. Everyone from the players and coaches to the media and fans raved about the Garden’s atmosphere, to the extent that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who attended and didn’t think the tourney was an overwhelming success. That the Big Ten competition was the only power-conference tournament taking place over the weekend also allowed people to tune in when otherwise they might not have (assuming they have Big Ten Network, of course). Nonetheless, I want to make something clear on the off chance that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is reading this as he starts to formulate plans for the future: Having the Big Ten tourney played a week early, in a state with no Big Ten schools, is still an unbelievably shitty idea that should never be repeated.

That’s my biggest fear going forward. It feels like the Big Ten just liquidated all its assets, spent every dime it owned on lottery tickets, and miraculously hit the jackpot, which is awesome and should be celebrated accordingly. But it doesn’t mean the smart play for the conference is to spend all of its jackpot winnings on even more lottery tickets. I know that Delany already has declared that he won’t play the tournament a week early again, but he also made that statement before this season’s tourney tipped off, when everyone anticipated it being a train wreck. Now that the Big Ten suits are going to need rotator cuff surgery after patting themselves on the back so much, I’m terrified that he might change his mind. I mean, what happens if the Big Ten gets two teams to the Final Four? If a Big Ten program wins a national championship for the first time in 18 years and the head coach insists that this extra week of rest was a huge help, how confident are you that Delany will stick by his claim that he’ll never stage an early conference tournament again?

Exalting the tradition of college sports is the easiest way to out oneself as a curmudgeon, so I’m well aware of how this is probably coming across. I just can’t believe we’ve reached a point when three of the six power conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12) have their tournaments in states that aren’t home to any of their member schools. Think about how absurd that is. At least Kansas City and Las Vegas are sort of in the geographical centers of the Big 12 and Pac-12, respectively. The only reasons to theoretically have the Big Ten tournament in Madison Square Garden are to tap into the New York market (read: make a shit ton of money), give the East Coast schools like Rutgers and Maryland an advantage they’d never enjoy if the event were always held in Indianapolis or Chicago, and provide a unique experience for players, coaches, and fans. That last reason is the most noble, but it’s also limited to those fans who can afford to travel to a destination conference tournament, and it’s easy to satisfy outside of a conference tournament setting. There are tons of other ways for Big Ten programs to experience the Mecca of basketball, from the preseason and postseason NITs to one-off games such as January’s Ohio State–Minnesota clash. Meanwhile, I’m not buying that moving the tourney’s location matters much in terms of competitive balance. After all, as someone who has watched every Big Ten tournament game Indiana has ever played in, I can assure you that the Hoosiers stink in the tournament just as much when it takes place in Indianapolis as when the games are in New York or Washington, D.C.

In other words, as anyone with a brain already concluded long ago, the rationale behind moving the 2018 Big Ten tournament to New York was always about money. And that in and of itself is fine. It’s not a great look for the gray hairs of college sports to fatten their pockets just so they can afford even more gold toilets on their yachts while the athletes who make the event special are supposed to be satisfied with what is basically store credit to their schools. But the undeniable truth is that college sports are big business, and because of that, decisions will always be driven mainly by cash. Still, the line has to be drawn somewhere. Or at least I hope it does. Because if the Big Ten continues making decisions with only dollar signs in mind, there’s nothing preventing it from eventually putting the conference tournament in Los Angeles. Hell, given the number of Big Ten alumni that are scattered across the country, the league’s tournament could conceivably be placed in any major American city and still draw a decent crowd.

And that brings me back to the original point: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The 2018 Big Ten tournament was a rousing success that will likely be remembered for a long time. Michigan’s run to the title was as impressive as it was enjoyable, and the same could be said of the various side stories that popped up throughout the weekend. But trying to replicate this model’s success on a regular basis seems like a fool’s errand. Beyond that, it could prompt an identity crisis. The 2018 tournament was a ton of fun, but it felt like a cool event that involved Big Ten teams more than the Big Ten’s own tournament. That distinction may be irrelevant to most observers, and perhaps I’m placing too much emphasis on a tradition that’s only 20 years old. Still, Midwesterners are nothing if not a loyal group of people who value staying true to their roots, which is why it’s unnerving to see the Big Ten’s shot-callers make decisions contradicting that sentiment.

Despite whatever concerns the public might have, Delany will keep doing as he sees fit. For now, the Big Ten tournament is set to return to Chicago and Indianapolis for the next four years, while Delany has said that he hopes to have an 80-20 split between Midwest and East Coast host sites after that. I suppose that wouldn’t be a terrible compromise, if that indeed holds true. But you’ll have to forgive me for being skeptical. The Big Ten’s decision to move its tournament was motivated by profits and came at the cost of tradition, player logistics, and common sense, and now it’s being widely hailed as successful. It’s the type of decision that probably warrants closer examination given everything else happening across the sport, and the type that will surely be made again. And again. And again.

As much as I want to believe that the Big Ten’s spiritual home will always lie in the heart of middle America, the past five days seem like the latest step in one of college basketball’s most storied conferences drifting away from its roots. It shouldn’t be surprising in the era of realignment, massive TV rights deals, and bag men, but the Big Ten tournament’s powers that be may have been permanently blinded by the bright lights of the big city.