The Big Ten: The Way it Ought to Be.
by Michael Ermitage
Big Ten fans, allow me to save you $6.99. That’s the $6.99 you were going to plunk down at the local 7-11 to pick up the latest Street and Smith’s/Athlon’s/Sporting News/Dick Vitale’s Guide to Everything Duke and College Basketball magazine. Well, chances are that you’ve already burned through that money, and perhaps a little more trying to get a handle on the upcoming season. I know exactly what you got – no matter what preseason mag you decided to buy – a cookie-cutter preview. A, “hey, we looked at last year’s standings and player subtractions/additions and made a lame prediction” analysis. It probably looked a little something like this:
1. Michigan State: Well, they lost probably their best player but we’ve been putting them up here for so long, it just seemed right.
2. Indiana: The Hoosiers made the National Final last year, and even though we still think that was a fluke, we have to rank them here.
3. Minnesota: This is where the mags get fashionable. You probably read things about Rick Rickert as a potential National Player of the Year candidate. He’s a nice player, but that’s about as likely as John Chaney and John Calipari going on vacation together.
4. Illinois: They still have Brian Cook right? Yeah, that’s enough.
5. Wisconsin: Now we know that the Badgers won a share of the Big Ten last year with virtually the same group of players, but there’s no way that can happen again!
6. Ohio State: We can’t really find any reason to put the Buckeyes this high, but we want to pay at least a little bit of respect to Coach Jim O’Brien.
7. Purdue: Ditto as Buckeyes, except insert Gene Keady for Jim O’Brien.
8. Michigan: Lots of talent equals little results… again.
9. Northwestern – This may be the best Wildcat team in many years but no one is insane enough to rank them any higher than ninth.
10. Iowa: Player defections, arrests, failings etc. leave wonderboy Steve Alford with little to work with.
11. Penn State: Welcome to the 10th year of the Penn State rebuilding process.
The truth is that it is nearly impossible to accurately predict a college basketball season. There is too much turnover and too few games. One bad stretch and a conference season is lost. One unheralded freshman pouring it on and a conference championship is had. So, I have made my own rankings. Not of how the upcoming season will finish, but instead on how each school places in total picture. I’m talking basketball history, and perhaps a few other odds and ends.
1. Indiana University:
It should come as no surprise that the Hoosiers top the list of any Big Ten basketball analysis. The school is steeped in college hoops lore, from Branch McCracken to Bob Knight, from Larry Bird (he briefly attended IU) to Isaiah Thomas. Even the movie “Hoosiers,” while about Indiana high school basketball, still somehow remains an homage to the Crimson and Cream. Tack on a nice campus, a great student body and alumni base and voila’ you’ve got the best team in the Big Ten.
Favorite Former Player: Neil Reed. C’mon, the guy cried at the free throw line he was in so much pain. A gamer.
Favorite Former Coach: Of course, the walking sound byte Bob Knight
Other observation: IU has perhaps the worst warm-ups in college basketball. No one looks good in red and white pinstripes.
2. Purdue University:
Basketball begins and ends in Indiana. And if it weren’t for that pesky NCAA tournament, the Boilermakers might be held as highly as the Hoosiers. While Purdue has won more games than any other Big Ten school, and has won more Big Ten championships than any other school AND has a winning record against every other school in the conference, it has failed miserably on a national level. Furthermore, the non-state name, which is most identified with retail chicken, has not helped matters.
Favorite Former Player: Hmmm, this one is tough. I’ve got to go with a tie between Brian “the Animal” Cardinal and John Wooden.
Favorite Former Coach: Lee Rose. Coached two years at Purdue, brought them to the Final Four and then left them for South Florida???? They’ve been trying to get back to the Final Four ever since.
Other observation: There are more guys at Purdue than the inside of the Augusta National locker rooms.
3. University of Illinois:
Much like the Boilermakers, the Fighting Illini have done everything short of winning a national championship. Final Four teams, colorful coaches, great players have all represented the University. Yet, they remain short of accomplishing the ultimate goal. The most frustrating part about the Illini is that no school in the conference is more setup for success. The only in-state competition from the conference for recruits is Northwestern, which is really no competition at all. Furthermore, the school has the large alumni base three hours north in Chicago, and is supported by its television networks, radio stations and newspapers. The Fighting Illini have all the resources to be a national recruiter and powerhouse, it just has never happened.
Favorite Former Player: Lucas “I wish I was Brian Cardinal” Johnson and Kenny “Check out my ‘fro” Gill
Favorite Former Coach: Lou “the Do” Henson.
Other Observation: Students, alumni and all Illinois residents should be ashamed if they ever rid the University of The Chief, one of college’s greatest traditions.
4. Ohio State University:
I would have to say that prior to Bob Knight’s arrival at Bloomington, that the Buckeyes could potentially claim itself as the conference’s most successful college hoops school. Despite being overshadowed by its football program, the Buckeye teams of the 1960s were legendary, getting to four Final Fours and winning a National Championship. Recent times have been good, with a recent Final Four appearance.
Favorite Former Player: Michael Redd
Favorite Former Coach: Gary Williams
Other observation: Someone told me that Columbus is the largest city in Ohio, larger than Cleveland and Cincinnati. Can you believe that? Maybe the Bengals would have better luck as the Columbus Bengals.
5. Michigan State University:
The hiring of Tom Izzo has turned Michigan State into one of the most respected programs in the nation. Really, this school is a couple Final Fours short of being the Duke of the North. Prior to that, Jud Heathcote did a fine job, grabbing a National Championship behind the play of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Yet, despite Sparty’s success, the Fab Five and Michigan Football still overshadow it.
Favorite Former Player: Jamie Feick because his name spawned months of Dan Patrick saying “Get the Feick out!” after every blocked shot on SportsCenter.
Favorite Former Coach: Jud. By the way, why the hell does Jud support Gonzaga more than MSU… its strange.
Other observation: Upon visiting the campus and asking for directions, I was instructed to take a “Michigan Turn.” That’s a maneuver making me turn right and then U-turn in order to go left to us English-speaking folk.
6. University of Michigan:
Let’s get one thing straight… the Fab Five didn’t win anything! They didn’t win the Big Ten, they didn’t win the National Title. The shame is that with all the hype of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and those two other guys, the press forgot that Michigan won the 1989 title. Unfortunately for the University, Michigan basketball will always be associated with the Fab Five and the ensuing scandals that followed.
Favorite Former Player: Glen Rice – smooth, baby, smooth.
Favorite Former Coach: Bill Frieder – any man that stands up to Bo Schembechler has my respect.
Other observation: I always found it odd that one of the most prestigious academic schools in the U.S. could have such stupid athletes.
7. University of Iowa:
There isn’t a lot to do in Iowa. And you’d know it the minute you went to an Iowa sporting event. Whoa, they have some of the most die-hard fans you’ll ever see. They’ve had some good basketball through the years, particularly under Dr. Tom Davis. There isn’t a whole lot on the trophy shelves, but the hiring of Steve Alford showed a commitment by the University to establish its basketball program.
Favorite Former Player: Jess Settles. This guy would score a hoop, take the ball as it was falling out of the net, and then throw it off the opposing player who was set to inbound the ball. Then, he’d grab the ball and put it in the hoop again. When the ref blew the whistle, he’d throw his hands up in disbelief. Classic.
Favorite Former Coach: Dr. Tom Davis. Nothing is cooler than the long bounce pass and the fake three-pointer alley-oop.
Other observation: The bar age is Iowa City is 19, like some other college towns across the nation. It gets ugly.
8. University of Minnesota:
It is going to take quite an effort by new coach Dan Monson to erase the memories of Clem Haskins. Buried in NCAA violations, the Haskins era will not be remembered for his 1997 Final Four run. Prior to Haskins, however, the Gophers had a decent basketball history, including a nice career by Kevin McHale.
Favorite Former Player: McHale. You thought Kevin looked awkward in Boston, check out his college days. What an awesome player, though.
Favorite Former Coach: Not former yet, have to go with Dan Monson as favorite
Other observation: I love any arena where the players have to actually step up to get on the court.
9. University of Wisconsin:
Pre-Dick Bennett, there wasn’t much to talk about hoops-wise in Madison. But the lifelong Wisconsin coach did the improbable and put the Badgers in the Final Four. When he left burned out on the job, it looked like the program was headed back to the cellar. But then Bo Ryan – the Vince McMahon lookalike – did an even more improbable feat, he won the Big Ten.
Favorite Former Player: Mike Kelley – best defensive guard I have ever seen.
Favorite Former Coach: Dick Bennett. A class act.
Other Observation: It seems like Barry Alvarez did a better job coaching that football team from the booth…
10. Penn State University:
Clearly, moving to the Big Ten has not helped the Nittany Lions hoops team. Well, it can be argued that the University is attracting a better crop of recruits, but it is still unable to compete year-in and year-out, even for an NCAA berth. The team’s recent Sweet 16 appearance seems to be more of an aberration than a stepping stone.
Favorite Former Player: One of those Crispin brothers… pick one.
Favorite Former Coach: Bruce Parkinson
Other Observation: As long as JoePa is around, and that could be another decade, football will rule Happy Valley.
11. Northwestern University:
I hate to put the Wildcats last, for they are the closest Big Ten school to my home. But facts remain facts and Northwestern has NEVER played an NCAA tournament game. That’s bad. And without Evan Eschmeyer, the school has little hoops history.
Favorite Former Player: Kevin Rankin – He was the center that preceded Eschmeyer and nearly led the Wildcats to the tourney.
Favorite Former Coach: Ricky Byrdsong. The late coach did everything to inspire the hapless Cats including wearing awful Purple suits and taking a seat in the stands in the middle of a game. And let’s not forget Kevin O’Neill, who once said of making freshmen ineligible “If they make freshmen ineligible, I’ll have to play with the same horseshit team I had last year.”
Other Observation: Until the school renovates ancient Welsh-Ryan arena, it stands no hope of competing.
Of course, past history has nothing to do with this season’s standings. But I’d be willing to wager that my list above is about as accurate as any pre-season mag you read.