Tough, Top to Bottom

Jan. 4, 2006

Steve Alford said as much all summer and fall: The Big Ten was going to be a bear. And, today, thanks to, there’s confirmation of that very fact. Here’s the start to a feature written by Jeff Shelman. Click HERE for the full story.

It has become something of an autumn ritual.

The Big Ten men’s basketball coaches sit around a hotel ballroom on Halloween weekend and talk about how much better the teams in the conference are going to be in the upcoming season. It’s almost immediately followed by a nonconference season that includes bad losses to low- and mid-majors, a loss in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and a brutal record against the other BCS conferences.

Once conference play begins, the league’s coaches spend much of January and February explaining that the Big Ten isn’t down, that it’s filled with difficult places to play and that the league deserves six or seven invitations to the NCAA Tournament.

Never mind the fact that from 2002 through 2005, the Big Ten finished sixth, fifth, sixth and sixth in the Ratings Percentage Index.

Iowa’s defense might even be better than Illinois’. The Hawkeyes are giving up only 55.1 points per game and allowing opponents to shoot only 35.9 percent. And if you think the pace at which Iowa plays is a factor, think again — the Hawkeyes lead the nation in points allowed per 100 possessions (a staggeringly-low 76.6).

This fall’s gathering in suburban Chicago was no different. The league was going to be better. No, the league hasn’t been down. Blah, blah, blah.

Admittedly, there was more of a reason for optimism this season. Aside from Illinois, nearly every team in the conference returned several key players from last season. But, at the same time, the ACC has been consistently better top-to-bottom and there was tons of talk that the new Bigger East had the potential to be the deepest and best college basketball conference in the galaxy.

When the Challenge ended with the annual ACC victory, the Big Ten figured to be about what everyone thought. It was a good league, it was improved and there was good depth. But, at the same time, the Big Ten was probably the third-best league in college basketball.

And then something strange happened — Big Ten schools stopped losing.