Each year college basketball fans await the start of fall practice with each universities rendition of Midnight Madness. At schools like North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Indiana, fans line up hours ahead of that fateful hour when the doors to their favorite school’s gyms open. And then the festivities begin.
ESPN, CBS and SI all unveil their top teams in America, their top players and top coaches and so on and so forth in the days leading up to the first regular season game in the first week of November. But the biggest debate comes when that one guy throws out the question, “Which conference is the best?”
This year one need not look too far to find the best conference in basketball. It’s the Big Ten. From top to bottom the Big Ten is stacked with talented players, experienced coaches and some of the toughest places to play in the country. To examine the Big Ten’s power one need only look at the latest RPI rankings, which the NCAA Selection Committee uses to select and seed the field of sixty-eight on Selection Sunday.
As of February 12, the Big Ten boasts five teams in the top twenty four of the RPI, beginning with Michigan and including Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State. But don’t stop there, because it gets better. Checking in at #26 is Illinois, followed shortly after at #31 by Wisconsin, the latter two which own wins over the team currently at the top of the AP Top 25 polls, Indiana.
It’s not that the other conferences are regressing. The Big East is wide open again and with its fifteen members should put at least seven of those members in the Big Dance. The Pac-12 crown is up for grabs as well with teams such as UCLA, Arizona and Oregon vying for their league title at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. And the SEC and the conference formerly known as the Big-12 each boast two teams that have shared time in the top five of both major polls in Florida and Kansas. But after these aforementioned teams the parity drops off. Outside of Kansas losing at TCU, and Florida losing at Arkansas, these conferences show a noticeable gap in talent which the Big Ten does not. Would you rather be Kansas going to Texas Tech or Michigan State going to Iowa, a school that owns a win over Wisconsin and pushed Indiana to the final buzzer before losing 69-65?
Michigan coach John Beilein, who has been in the Big Ten for six years now, was quoted as saying, “Last year we were a co-champion with a 13-5 record. That record, even 12-6, may be a Big Ten title winner.” In the last three years, there has been only one outright regular season conference champion and by the looks of things this year, that seems more and more unlikely as the year progresses.
Credit should also go to the coaches as well. Of the coaches in the Big Ten, all but two have won an NCAA Tournament game. Two coaches, Tubby Smith and Tom Izzo, have won championships. And the coaches have a combined record of 131-82 to go with eight coaches that have made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Needless to say coaching is a strong suit in the Big Ten.
Finally comes players. Since 2000, thirty two members from Big Ten schools have been drafted in the First Round of the NBA Draft. Ten of those were drafted in the top ten. Clearly the Big Ten has no trouble drawing top talent to their conference.
Yet there is one problem with the Big Ten. The conference has not won a National Championship since 2000 when Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans beat Florida 89-76. If this conference truly is the best in basketball, and many national analysts agree that it is, then the conference will have to get over that hump. Indiana and Michigan are two teams that are believed to the best in basketball, but Michigan State is knocking right on the door as one of the favorites to cut down the nets in April. Whatever happens the rest of the season, it’s clear that all the eyes of the college basketball world will be squarely on the Big Ten.