Rock-solid Big Ten basketball starts with the guys in the suits
BY HERB GOULD For Sun-Times Media December 28, 2013 12:42AM
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo (center) certainly isn’t the only coach in the Big Ten who can provide a crucial X-factor. | Eric Gay/AP
• Chicago State at Creighton, 4 p.m.
• Indiana at Illinois, 2 p.m.
• DePaul at Georgetown, 4 p.m.
• Loyola at Indiana State, 2:05 p.m.
• Wisconsin at Illinois, 6 p.m.
• UIC at Valparaiso, 7 p.m.
• DePaul at Marquette, 1 p.m.
• Penn State at Illinois, 1:15 p.m.
• Chicago State at Idaho, 9 p.m.
• Missouri State at Loyola, 3 p.m.
Updated: January 30, 2014 6:33AM
The gaudy 117-26 record won’t last when Big Ten teams start knocking each other around this week.
But the quality play, moments of glory and sheer entertainment value have a chance to go on and on.
In short, this is shaping up as a very good year in Big Ten basketball. With three teams in the nation’s top five, it might even be good enough for the league to crack its national championship drought. Amazingly, Michigan State’s 2000 title is the Big Ten’s only winner since Michigan in 1989.
No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 5 Michigan State lead this year’s fast break.
But the next tier also is armed and dangerous. No. 22 Iowa seems poised for its best season in many corn crops. Minnesota also is off to a good start.
And clip and save: Any league where Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Purdue are under the radar is seriously good.
All four have flaws to be addressed. They are breaking in some new faces, learning new roles. But they also are capable of maturing into very difficult-to-beat squads, especially Michigan. Three of the Wolverines’ four losses have been to Arizona, Duke and Iowa State. Those are three teams that are going to win a lot of games — say, 75 or 80.
Don’t go to sleep on Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Purdue. Teams that do that will be at risk.
This will mean difficult seasons for likely tail-enders Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State. But even those three have reason for optimism. Like everyone ahead of them, they have solid coaches who are good fits.
That might be the most remarkable point about Big Ten basketball as it heads into 2014 conference play: Every program has a coach who, all things considered, looks like the right guy.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Ohio State’s Thad Matta and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan are among the nation’s elite coaches in every way. They preside over programs with the resources to be successful, and they have outstanding records of consistent top-tier success. Ryan might even exit from that ‘‘best coach who hasn’t gone to a Final Four’’ discussion this season.
Beyond that trio, Fran McCaffery has built expectations that Iowa could enjoy the kind of success that hasn’t been seen since the days of Dr. Tom Davis.
With last year’s Final Four run and his recent recruiting success, John Beilein has made it clear that Michigan will continue to be a serious contender. He’s meshing his at-times-unorthodox schemes with a program of great potential.
Illinois fans have good reason to like the way John Groce, in his second season, has started coaching and recruiting. And while Indiana, which lost last year’s core to the NBA, and Purdue, which has lost its buzz the last couple of years, aren’t looking like 2014 contenders, Tom Crean and Matt Painter are proven commodities in a basketball-obsessed state.
The Nebraska and Penn State basketball programs never have known the success of their football teams and aren’t likely to start. But Tim Miles and Patrick Chambers are energetic mentors who give them a chance to be respectable.
Like Northwestern, which believes Chris Collins can improve its situation, Minnesota has taken a flyer on a young coach, Richard Pitino, who brings a surname buzz. If both need to prove themselves, both have served quality apprenticeships.
They’ll need to recruit, and mold their talent, to be successful. That won’t be easy in a league with proven masters such as Izzo, Ryan and Matta and several top-notch coaches capable of elbowing their way into that group.
But that’s why the Big Ten is well-positioned for a big year.