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Published: Sunday, 3/23/2003

Big Ten proves to be half (court) good

INDIANAPOLIS - The Big Ten whitewashed its discolored image in the first round of the NCAA Tournament even though its flagship, Illinois, went down in a sea of 3s in the RCA Dome yesterday.

All five of the conference's NCAA Tournament representatives won first-round games, contrary to a lot of logic. That was before the Fighting Illini ran into a Notre Dame team that couldn't miss a 3-pointer (11 of 16 in the first half) while Illinois couldn't make a layup, missing nine point-blank shots.

Outright champion Wisconsin, a distant second to Illinois in regard to overall talent, was nearly eliminated by Tulsa last night before winning 61-60 at the buzzer.

The Big Ten has suffered all season from a merited lack of respect, its overall talent pool no more than ankle deep.

When Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was asked about his conference's humble repute before the tournament started, he said it would be nice to go into the NCAA Tournament as an “underdog conference.”

If there was any question about the Big Ten's overall mediocrity, let its own postseason tournament be Exhibit A.

We watched Purdue score a tournament and school-record low 12 points in the first half against Michigan State. That included four more turnovers than points and 15 percent shooting in a 54-42 loss.

Purdue coach Gene Keady tried to make light of the very dark situation, saying, “When I go out and get in the car, my wife will say, `It's your fault, you recruited them.'”

No, it couldn't possibly get any worse, and it didn't ... until the next day. That's when Michigan State all but duplicated the Boilermakers' deficiencies with 17 first-half points. That included no points in the paint and a total of three field goals and nine turnovers in an eventual 55-54 loss to Ohio State.

And how about Wisconsin going over seven minutes in the second half without a point in a 58-50 loss to the Buckeyes?

All of those losers were supposed to be among the Big Ten's major demos.

But maybe we should allow history to teach us a lesson.

The erstwhile defense when the Big Ten gets ordained as being ordinary is that it's a coaches' conference, whereupon the naysayers will retort, “Then let the coaches suit up. It couldn't hurt.”

But the argument has merit.

The Big Ten is a half-court conference. Its 90-foot dash time can be measured with the minute hand. It doesn't have enough bona fide athletes to make blatant speed an issue.

But in the half court, where patience is the elementary virtue, Big Ten teams can be very productive. Their perseverance often frustrates opponents who excel at velocity.

While the Big Ten has been anything but the conference of choice in recent years when it comes to basketball, we must be mindful that it has sent six teams to the Final Four in the last four years. The conference's 47 NCAA Tournament victories over that same time span leads all conferences. The ACC was next at 35.

Still, it seems that at the end of every season in recent years, the Big Ten has had to justify its mere existence by performing well in the NCAA Tournament.

Athleticism has its obvious virtues, but so does good coaching and the response it derives.

Illinois coach Bill Self admitted yesterday, after his team lost to the Fighting Irish 68-60, that if his guys had advanced to the second weekend of this tournament (Sweet 16) he would have considered it “remarkable.”

With three starting freshmen, maybe it was already remarkable.

After today, the Big Ten could well be 6-4 in this tournament, adverse seeding about to catch up with Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue.

The Big Ten's string of four consecutive Final Four appearances will likely end. The Hoosiers should be no match for second-seeded Pittsburgh, No. 1-seeded Texas will steam-clean the Boilermakers and Michigan State won't be able to keep up with Florida, also a No. 2 seed.

But it will be too late to lambaste the Big Ten again. It has already acquitted itself.



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