Big Ten Basketball is Fine, Actually

In what is obviously some kind of mistake, I received an email today granting me permission to post on this site. So I wanted to try to get a post in before this gets corrected.

As it happens, Big Ten basketball is a topic of conversation today, thanks to Mark Titus and his post at “The Ringer” entitled “Big Ten Basketball is in a No Good, Very Bad Place.” The general thesis is right there in the title, but here’s his more specific complaint:

The Big Ten game has long had a reputation of being plodding and conservative, perhaps because football philosophies that had to account for inclement Midwestern weather were brought to the court in the early days of the league. It’s possible that style has been slow to evolve, even as the rest of the basketball-playing world has learned to embrace pace-and-space tactics. But the conference’s problems over the past two seasons go beyond that. Fans in denial think the Big Ten is made up of squads that look like Virginia at its best; the truth is the average conference game devolves into a sloppy mess of turnovers, fouls, and missed shots that people only care about because of the names on the front of the jerseys.

Missed shots I’ll grant you, for this year at least, but turnovers and fouls? The Big Ten? Not really. Last year the Big Ten’s overall turnover rate was 16.9 %, fourth-lowest among all conferences, and the lowest among high majors. This year it is up a bit, to 18.2 %, but that’s still middle of the pack (16th) overall and significantly better than the mighty Big 12 (19.2 %). As for fouls, the Big Ten had the second-lowest free-throw rate last year, and still has the sixth-lowest rate this year. (All stats from kenpom.com.)

So Titus’s specific complaints don’t really withstand scrutiny. What is true is that the Big Ten has no great teams this year, and has fewer than usual really good teams likely to make a deep tourney run. Coming off a year where no Big Ten team made it past the Sweet 16, it’s reasonable to question whether the conference may be in decline.

But, so far, there’s really not much evidence of that. Even if you look solely at post-season results, with an appropriately wide perspective it’s pretty clear that the Big Ten is doing fine. Titus laments the lack of championships since 2000. But, as he notes, the Big Ten has produced six teams that went to the finals since 2002, and all but one of those teams—Indiana in 2002—were championship-level teams. Only the ACC has sent more teams to the finals since 2002, and it is just one more (7). Basically, the Big Ten has been very unlucky not to produce a champion in this period: by my calculations, using Kenpom numbers, the chances of the Big Ten failing to produce a national champion in this period are less than 10%.

In that same period, the Big Ten has sent a total of 11 teams to the Final Four, which is the most of any conference (tied with the “Big East”—though only three of those Final Fours belong to a team still in the conference with that name). Even if you focus only on this decade, the post-season numbers for the Big Ten are fine: 21 Sweet Sixteens (most) and 6 Final Fours (again tied with the Big East for the most). Heck, even if you look at just the past two seasons, the Big Ten is one of only two conferences (ACC being the other) to produce multiple Final Four teams.

But what about the future? Titus mentions the lack of incoming McDonald’s All-Americans, potential coaching turmoil at Indiana and Illinois, and loss of stars elsewhere. But things are hardly dire. Minnesota, Penn State, Northwestern, and even Rutgers are on the rise, which has really shored up the bottom of the conference. Michigan State and Indiana have been plagued by injuries and will most likely return to their mean program performance. Maryland should be as good or better next year. Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan, and Ohio State, I predict, will abide. I see little sign of a permanent sea change in the Big Ten’s overall quality, at least not a negative one.

So what’s going on here—why is Titus so hyperbolic about the future of Big Ten basketball? Beyond just a standard overreaction to a down year, I have two theories.

First, Titus is an Indiana fan by birth and an Ohio State fan by matriculation. Indiana and Ohio State suck this year. Notably, Indiana is 13th in the Big Ten in turnover rate, and dead last in opponent’s free-throw rate. Ohio State is below average in both categories as well. So it seems likely that at least part of this is Titus extrapolating his favorite teams’ flaws on to the conference at large.

Second, Titus is media now, not just a fan. As he says, his “livelihood relies almost exclusively on watching college basketball.” You’d think this would be great, but in practice it means that you find yourself forced to watch games whose outcome doesn’t matter to you. I watch a lot of college basketball, but I hardly ever watch a game without having some kind of rooting interest—even if it’s something very remote and stupid like, “a loss here by Akron would be sweet because it would rob some teams of an undeserved RPI Top 50 win.”

Without the inherent tension created by caring who wins, it can be a real slog to watch a college basketball game—any college basketball game. If you’re in that situation, what do you want to see? You just want to be entertained.

Titus probably just isn't finding himself that entertained by the Big Ten games his current job is forcing him to watch. Despite his insistence to the contrary, a big part of that is likely the “plodding and conservative” style for which the Big Ten is known.

As a Wisconsin fan, I’m completely inoculated to this kind of criticism. Looks like the rest of the Big Ten is going to have to get used to it as well.