Big Ten’s collection of accomplished coaches puts it above the rest
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com November 10, 2012 12:52AM
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Indiana’s Tom Crean are among the coaches that set the Big Ten apart. | AP
2011-12 BIG TEN
Team Conf. Total
*Ohio State 13-5 31-8
*Michigan State 13-5 29-8
*Michigan 13-5 24-10
*Wisconsin 12-6 26-10
*Indiana 11-7 27-9
*Purdue 10-8 22-13
Northwestern 8-10 19-14
Iowa 8-10 19-14
Minnesota 6-12 23-15
Illinois 6-12 17-15
Nebraska 4-14 12-18
Penn State 4-14 12-20
*NCAA tournament teams
Updated: December 12, 2012 6:28AM
With five teams in the Top 25 and maybe five more that might have satisfying seasons if some pieces fall into place, this is looking like a banner year for Big Ten basketball.
It’s always tricky to make assumptions before games are played, but the Big Ten heads into a new season carrying the banner of being the best conference in the country.
Why is Big Ten basketball looking up? Look no further than the coaches.
Start with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, whose six Final Four appearances since 1999 border on Wooden-esque in the modern era. Add Ohio State’s Thad Matta, who recruits and reloads without missing a beat, and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, who consistently turns pumpkins into royal coaches, and you have a trio who have been setting a high bar for years.
Now add Indiana’s Tom Crean and Michigan’s John Beilein, who have restored programs with great traditions of excellence, and the squeeze is on for accomplished mentors such as Purdue’s Matt Painter, who’s reloading, to stay in the hunt.
And that’s just half a league in which practically every school seems to have a quality coach.
Four schools — Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State — have coaches with no more than three years on the job. Everybody else has had time to recruit and build.
‘‘When I was an assistant, I felt like the league was really good,’’ said Izzo, who worked for Jud Heathcote at a time when Bob Knight, Gene Keady, Lou Henson, Steve Fisher and Tom Davis were staring each other down. ‘‘You had incredible coaches. [But] right now, this league has the best coaches we’ve ever had.’’
Coaches often say things like that. The difference now is, there’s a lot of merit to the claim. Take Northwestern’s Bill Carmody and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, who don’t coach upper-tier teams. They might not have all the pieces they’d like, but they run good stuff that suits their situations. And they’re upgrading their talent bases.
Because Big Tens teams are going to beat each other up, there inevitably is going to be disappointment as well as success. With the quality depth the Big Ten has, though, Minnesota coach Tubby Smith predicted the conference will break its record of sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament.
‘‘With so many talented players and so many good teams, we’re going to be in a position to have more [NCAA teams] than we’ve had in the past,’’ Smith said. ‘‘I think you’ll see more teams than we have ever had in the NCAA tournament.’’
The competition often means growing pains, said Beilein, who finally got over the .500 hump in conference play last season, his fifth at Michigan.
‘‘The biggest obstacle is the other teams aren’t going away,’’ Beilein said. ‘‘When I came in, there were five or six programs that had it really going. Anybody building a program has to understand it’s difficult. People weren’t stepping back and saying, ‘Hey, let’s let Michigan have their turn.’ It’s hard to get there. But if you establish the culture and get the right breaks here and there, anything can happen.’’
Breaking into the conference this season are two newcomers, Nebraska’s Tim Miles and Illinois’ John Groce, who’s not dwelling on what it’s going to take to move up the Big Ten food chain.
‘‘If you worry about things you can’t control, you can drive yourself crazy really fast,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m more worried about how we can get better on a daily basis. I don’t get caught up in predictions; I get caught up in the journey.’’