ROSEMONT — OK, Jim Delany, if we remove the word “cyclical” from your vocabulary, how do you explain the Big Ten’s projected No. 1 ranking in basketball on the heels of a major slump in football?
Is this a basketball conference?
“First of all, there is a lot of optimism about basketball and not one game has been played,” warned the Big Ten commissioner. “The only thing more unreliable than a halftime score is no score. But it’s clear we have a lot of returning players and a lot of basketball programs in good shape.
“I’d say this is a culmination of a three- or four-year build. I met with the coaches Wednesday night and they’re feeling good about it.”
This reminds of the 1980s when the Big Ten ruled the courts. Starting in 1979, when Magic Johnson led Michigan State to the top, the conference enjoyed a run through 1989 in which eight different programs put 19 teams in the final AP Top 10. Among them were Indiana champions in 1981 and 1987, and Michigan in 1989.
Shon Morris, a center at Northwestern, graduated in 1988. He said: “You’d have to go back to the 1980s to see the conference as strong as it is now”
Will this continue? Is this simply a case where the projected 1-2 Big Ten teams, Indiana and Michigan, got a one-year break when Cody Zeller and Trey Burke declined to turn pro. Ohio State would be ahead of both if Jared Sullinger had stayed. And for all the talk, nobody has played a game.
Delany sees football as in transition.
“We have two institutions (Ohio State and Penn State) ineligible for postseason play. This creates uncertainty, although both are having good years (and playing each other Saturday).
“Six years ago, people sat around questioning where we were in basketball. I talked to (Michigan coach) John Beilein and he said six years ago the buzz wasn’t as positive. And football was perceived (as better),” said Delany Thursday.
“I don’t use the word 'cyclical' because that’s a designation without real meaning. You’ll have times when you’re up or down. If you look at the long term in both, you’ll see that we’re competitive with the best in the country. We might not be the best in either one every year. That’s the ride. But we have the resources, coaches and population base to be in the mix.
“In my 24 years, I’ve seen both. That’s the nature of the world we live in, highly competitive.
“We play 48 nonconference football games and 120 non-conference basketball games, and that’s one set of tests. Postseason is another set. Comparisons are appropriate. Twenty-five years ago, people didn’t compare conference vs. conference, but today it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue.”
Weather or not
Here’s a less articulate response.
First, let’s concede that the Big Ten tried hard to improve its football image with the last three additions: Michigan State, Penn State and Nebraska. All were perceived as powerhouses when they joined. If you’ve forgotten the Spartans, they were 8-1 in 1950, 9-0 national champs in 1951 and 1952, and won the Rose Bowl at the conclusion of their first Big Ten season in 1953.
Later, Penn State and Nebraska were brought in for purely football reasons. That said, this is a cold-weather conference and more likely to dominate in indoor sports.
For example, Big Ten wrestlers and gymnasts populate the national rankings while the golfers and baseball teams buck the weather. Big Ten depth of volleyball is such that this year’s Illini could reach the NCAA with a .500 record, but Midwestern softball teams are obliged to recruit from warm-weather states and fight an uphill battle.
Maybe it’s unsubstantiated conjecture, but we’re told that the most talented young teen-agers in Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis tend to favor basketball over football ... that is, indoors over outdoors. That’s not true in the South. In the SEC, schools like Alabama and Florida can be successful in football by recruiting their own sectors while many Big Ten schools battle long distance for their seconds.
Another factor: Many of the most highly regarded basketball coaches in the nation have migrated to the Big Ten, and that is far less the case in football. Names like Tom Izzo, Thad Matta and Bo Ryan reverberate from coast to coast. Beilein upgrades wherever he goes. Tubby Smith won a national title. Tom Crean has his Hoosiers ranked No. 1.
Up and down the line, it’s harder to win on Big Ten road courts than in any conference. And it’s harder to climb because the top teams aren’t coming back to meet you.
Leftover surprises as we enter another Saturday of Big Ten football:
— Nebraska’s turnout at Northwestern was unbelievable. NU drew 31,644 for its Big Ten opener vs. Indiana and a capacity crowd of 47,330 for Nebraska, another confirmation why the Big Ten made the Cornhuskers a conference member. Their “sea of red” turnout was estimated over 20,000, helping to drown out Wildcat signals on their own field.
— Bill O’Brien could clinch Coach of the Year honors if Penn State bumps the Buckeyes. There are those in Happy Valley who believed Joe Paterno’s stodgy offense limited the Nittany Lions, and O’Brien (1) turned Matt McGloin loose for 1,788 yards and 14 TDs and (2) made potent weapons of rookie tight ends. Freshmen Kyle Carter and Jesse James combined for nine catches at Iowa. At Illinois, Evan Wilson, Jon Davis, Eddie Viliunas and Matt LaCosse made this a “strong position,” but they have 14 receptions in seven games.
— One year ago, the nation’s top-ranked prep QB, Gunner Kiel of Columbus, Ind., decommitted from Indiana and chose Notre Dame, where he is now redshirting. Hoosier coach Kevin Wilson turned to Indianapolis sophomore Tre Roberson, who was injured in the second game. So third choice Cameron Coffman, a junior college transfer, was promoted by necessity, and the Hoosiers have scored 24 or more for a school-record seven straight games. Saturday’s game pits two QBs from the Kansas City area, Coffman and Nathan Scheelhaase.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.