Tournament a sore spot for Big Ten

Tournament a sore spot for Big Ten

Perhaps the Big Ten's problem is too much promotion, not enough production.

The league worries too much about how many teams it can get in the NCAA tournament, not how those teams fare.

Lately, Selection Sunday has been a quick fix. The buzz wears off in less than a week.

The Big Ten has qualified 11 teams the last two years. It has won three games, not once making it past the first weekend. March Sadness.

Like the shady car salesman hawking the shiny Cadillac on the corner lot – the one that blows an engine a week after purchase – the Big Ten no longer can be trusted.

Not in the NCAA tournament.

"We're definitely aware of the reputation," Illinois forward Bryant Notree said. "We want to kill that little thing right there. Whoever gets in from the Big Ten has got to represent."

To its credit, the league has not ignored the problem.

It introduced a conference tournament, presumably to expose teams to the rigors and pressures a playoff atmosphere presents (and to make a little money, too).

It lured two coaches from rival conferences (Dick Bennett, Lon Kruger) who have won an NCAA tournament game or two.

It has called games a bit closer, trying to cut down on the physical play that in the past has gone undetected in Big Ten arenas but has drawn whistles on the neutral courts of the NCAA.

Still room to improve

But the first conference tournament's a year away, Bennett and Kruger still are coaching players they didn't recruit and the elbows are as sharp as ever. Especially in Wisconsin.

So is this the year the Big Ten sheds its image as a tournament flop?

Probably not.

Minnesota, of course, could change all that.

The Gophers are a talented bunch. They work hard on defense, run a careful offense and listen to every word the coach says. They are undisputed Big Ten champions, highly ranked and in line for one of the four No. 1 seeds when pairings are announced next Sunday.

They are everything the last three Purdue teams were.

Which is why the Gophers won't last past regional television coverage of the tournament.

Like Purdue, Minnesota has thrived because of guile and guts.

That combination works well in the Big Ten, where raucous crowds and simmering rivalries evoke emotions that turn an average player into an All-American every so often.

But on the cold, hard courts of NCAA play, where three-fourths of the fans don't care who wins, where the rims are tight, the officials are unfamiliar and the public address announcer isn't on your side, talent often is the overriding factor.

The Big Ten's last five Final Four teams were of National Basketball Association fabric.

Michigan of 1992 and '93 had the Fab Five. Indiana of '92 had Calbert Cheaney, Greg Graham and Alan Henderson. In 1989, Michigan and Illinois had Glen Rice, Nick Anderson, Terry Mills, Kendall Gill, Loy Vaught, Marcus Liberty, Rumeal Robinson, Kenny Battle, Sean Higgins and Stephen Bardo.

Guards give league a chance

Don't shortchange the Big Ten – there are future pros on this season's rosters. In this season's backcourts.

Never has the Big Ten been so blessed with quality guards, the league's top seven scorers working on the perimeter. Kiwane Garris, Andre Woolridge, Bobby Jackson, Chad Austin ... each can win a game with little assistance.

Good for an NCAA opener. Bad for NCAA longevity.

Last year, Kentucky become the first team since 1987 to win an NCAA title with a guard (Tony Delk) as its leading scorer. UCLA (Ed O'Bannon), Arkansas (Corliss Williamson), North Carolina (Eric Montross), Duke (Christian Laettner twice), UNLV (Larry Johnson), Michigan (Rice) and Kansas (Danny Manning) played its stars closer to the basket.

This season, only three Big Ten teams – Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin – are led in scoring by someone other than a guard.

But if Steve Alford can shoot Indiana to a title – he dominated the 1987 tournament – perhaps a Garris or a Woolridge or a Jackson can do the same.

Probably not.

Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.