Best Big Ten Season Ever?
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
The Big Ten took center stage again this week as the nation’s premier basketball conference when top contenders Indiana and Michigan State did battle Tuesday at the Breslin Center.
The game lived up to the billing – except for a few unnecessary delays with referees gawking at TV monitors, but we won’t get into that here.
The Hoosiers proved once again to many, including me, that they are Crimson and Cream of the crop, but you have to admire the pluck and balance displayed by the Spartans, who have improved from very good at the beginning of the season to the fringe of elite.
It’s been an impressive showing from start to finish for the Big Ten in 2012-13, and, if nothing else, has hushed up the SEC football dominance discussion, at least for a few months.
Going into this week, seven league teams were receiving votes in the polls, Indiana was atop The Associated Press version (as well as the USA Today coaches poll), Michigan State was No. 4 in AP, Michigan No. 7, Ohio State No. 18, and Wisconsin No. 19 (and No. 17 in the coaches poll).
Illinois has shaken off a midseason swoon and is back in NCAA Tournament position, Minnesota is trying to hang onto the ledge and Iowa is beginning to tiptoe out onto it.
The latest Joe Lunardi bracketology has all of those teams squarely in the Big Dance except for Iowa, which would need a couple landmark wins to enter the discussion.
Lunardi actually had eight Big East teams currently in the NCAA field, but, of course, that league has a numbers advantage. Plus, all RPI-like data and well as public sentiment hails the Big Ten as the best conference for hoops this season.
There is star power up and down the league with the likes of All-American candidates Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke, Brandon Paul and Deshaun Thomas as well as eye-opening campaigns from veterans such as Derrick Nix, Ben Brust, Tim Hardaway Jr., Andre Hollins, D.J. Newbill and Branden Dawson. Plus, the Big Ten is littered with impact newcomers such as Gary Harris, Nik Stauskus, Glenn Robinson III, Yogi Ferrell, Sam Dekker and A.J. Hammons.
The stars are playing like stars, the second-tier players are becoming highly productive and the newbies are making their presence felt immediately. The Big Ten is big-time.
Anyone notice Dick Vitale is making regular trips to the Midwest and lauding the Big Ten even when he’s courtside at other games? Anyone notice that CBS and ESPN are hyping a Big Ten matchup just about every week and are reaping high ratings for the effort?
Attendance is soaring as well, and on Thursday the league office announced that the Big Ten Tournament set for March 14-17 in Chicago already is sold out.
About the only disappointment is that a couple preseason All-Big Ten candidates were lost when Penn State’s Tim Frazier and Northwestern’s Drew Crawford suffered season-ending injuries during nonconference play, but even that has seemed to work in Jim Delany’s favor.
With the Nittany Lions and Wildcats declawed, Nebraska also unable to compete with top teams, and Purdue stuck in a transition year, the conference has eight impressive combatants making the league look as top-heavy as it’s ever been.
Not A Slam Dunk
Prior to calling the Indiana-Michigan State game on ESPN this week along with Mike Tirico and Vitale, Magic Johnson was asked if he’s ever seen the conference as strong as it is this year.
“Yeah,” said the former MSU superstar. “Back when I played.”
It’s an important point. Johnson led the 1978-79 Spartans to a date with destiny as they took down Larry Bird and Indiana State in the national championship game, a game that is still celebrated today and entrenched Midwest basketball.
That same March, Indiana slipped past rival Purdue in another terrific game to win the NIT crown. Remember, only 40 teams comprised the NCAA field then, and looking back it’s safe to say Indiana and Purdue were as good as half of them. Iowa did make the more prestigious tourney that year as a four-seed.
The league was loaded with future NBA talent and was as competitive as I’ve ever seen back then. I remember as a kid goofing around on the Nerf hoop in my room – and driving my parents crazy – pretending there was a Big Ten all-star game in years like 1979 and ’80.
That way I could have Magic, Greg Kelser, Herb Williams, Kelvin Ransey, Clark Kellogg, Isiah Thomas, Randy Wittman, Phil Hubbard, Mike McGee, Kevin McHale, Trent Tucker, Ronnie Lester and Joe Barry Carroll all on the same floor together. (I was stumping for a Big Ten Tournament in my youthful mind only I didn’t know it.)
In case you are wondering, yes, all of those guys went on to play in the NBA and several reached perennial All-Star status.
Magic, of course, became the first pick of the 1979 NBA draft and went on to win five rings and attain Hall of Fame status with the Los Angeles Lakers. McHale and Thomas also won multiple NBA titles and now are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Magic was the top of pick of the draft one year after Mychal Thompson, his future NBA teammate, was the No. 1 overall pick out of Minnesota. Thompson was acquired by the Lakers because of his ability to defend his old college teammate McHale, who up until that point was a Laker killer. McHale was the No. 3 pick of the 1980 draft; Carroll was first. In ’81 Thomas was selected second behind Mark Aguirre after “Zeke” led IU to a decisive run through the NCAA Tournament and a national championship.
Purdue reached the 1980 Final Four, as did Iowa. Indiana was a year away from winning the title, and I still believe the 1979-80 Ohio State team was one of the best in school history, or at least is one of the most underappreciated outfits in program history.
The Buckeyes had one of the best starting fives in the country: a backcourt of Ransey and Carter Scott, Kellogg at the three, and Jim Smith down low with Williams. They played one of the toughest schedules in the nation, had to play at Indiana at the end of the regular season and lost in overtime after a couple questionable calls. They were shipped out West for the NCAA Tournament and forced to face Arizona State before losing to eventual runner-up UCLA. The starters of all of those teams played in the NBA.
So unless Cody Zeller becomes an unstoppable NBA post player, Thomas continues to light it up on the next level, and Oladipo revolutionizes the game, it’s hard to believe anyone will be remembering the current era of Big Ten basketball the way my generation recalls the 1978-81 block.
Other Great Eras
Plus, I probably should mention two other more recent eras of Big Ten greatness and high-level excitement – the late 1980s and the 1992-94 clip.
The 1989 Big Ten basketball season was perhaps unmatched in terms of high-quality games and late-season heroics. The “Flyin’ Illini” of Illinois were a sight to behold with Kendall Gill, Steven Bardo, Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle zipping past defenders. They made the Final Four and staged an epic national semifinal with Michigan. The Wolverines – who boasted the talents of Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills and Loy Vaught – won it all that year.
Four league teams were in the top 14 of the final AP poll that year and Minnesota also made the NCAA tourney field. Ohio State surely would have joined them if not for the unfortunate neck injury suffered by Jay Burson that winter.
As for the early 1990s, Indiana and Michigan made the Final Four in ’92 and the Buckeyes were one errant Chris Jent shot away from replacing the Wolverines. The Fab Five, of course, set college basketball on its ear and returned to the national title game the following year, only to lose in the final moments to North Carolina.
The league was absolutely rife with topflight talent in 1992 – Calbert Cheaney and Alan Henderson at Indiana, Jim Jackson and Lawrence Funderburke at Ohio State, Chris Webber and Jalen Rose at Michigan, Acie Earl at Iowa, Shawn Respert at Michigan State, Deon Thomas at Illinois, etc., etc.
The very next season, Glenn Robinson became eligible to play for Purdue and became the best Big Ten basketball player I ever watched in person as a reporter.
Webber was the top pick of the ’93 draft and Robinson went No. 1 the following summer.
Still Some Work To Do
This has been a phenomenal season of Big Ten basketball, and the entire script is nowhere near complete.
Indiana (24-3, 12-2) still has a trip to Minnesota upcoming and closes the regular season at home against Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan. Michigan State (22-5, 11-3) next hits the road to face Ohio State and Michigan before finishing up at Breslin with Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Therefore, the regular-season title chase has some drama remaining.
As for bubble teams, Minnesota (18-9, 6-8) looked listless at Ohio State Wednesday and lost by more than 20 points for the second straight time. However, the Golden Gophers played well at IU back in January and have an opportunity to turn their fortunes around when they host the Hoosiers Feb. 26. They also have very winnable games vs. Penn State and at Nebraska and Purdue after that.
Illinois (20-8, 7-7), winners of four straight heading into Thursday night’s home tilt with doormat Penn State, has a rough finish ahead with roadies against Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State. However, there’s also a home game with Nebraska and it’s hard to believe UI would be denied a bid with, say, 22 wins and several of quality.
Iowa (17-9, 6-7) may have to pull a rabbit out of a hat and do something like win at Indiana March 2, but stranger things have happened.
Plus, it’s worth noting that the Sagarin ratings released at the beginning of the week read thusly for the Big Ten’s top eight teams: 1. Indiana, 4. Michigan, 7. Michigan State, 12. Wisconsin, 13. Ohio State, 16. Minnesota, 32. Illinois, and 33. Iowa.
So revel in the power of the conference, soak up the excitement, and enjoy the wonderful March ahead, Big Ten fans. I know I will.
If you want to claim this as the best season ever for roundball in the conference, go ahead, I suppose. An unprecedented eight NCAA Tournament teams certainly would be a bragging point. Even if that number is reduced to six or seven, it’s clear the Big Ten is taking a backseat to no other league this year.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.
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