Who took the jelly out of Joe Sheehan's donut? Well, apparently it was Jim Delany:
I'll just state this up front: I think the Big 11 is entirely unimpressive after Michigan State and Purdue. You have to give bids to five or six Big 11 teams, but if the conference gets more than that, it's a mistake. The middle of this conference is larded with mediocrity, not parity, with records inflated by the 1-17 team at the bottom (of the muddled middle, only Michigan was denied two free wins over the marginally Division I team) and some execrable performances by the three "good" teams when playing those teams.
Yikes. Now, it would be easy for me, being the aw-shucks Midwesterner that I am, to just dismiss this as coastal bias. Joe Sheehan is just the Yankee-lovin', Big East followin', alumnus of a private school out in Los Angeles whose bench players are more famous than its stars. But I think Joe's piece, at the very least, highlights the fact that the Big Ten has an image problem. Because a lot of Joe's criticisms are ones that he holds back for teams outside of the Slow Conference. For example, when discussing Ohio State, Joe is highly critical of the Buckeyes' scheduling:
Their worst loss is Northwestern, although they didn't exactly challenge themselves in nonconference. A tip for the future: leave the state more. The Buckeyes played one true road game prior to January.
This fact is equally applicable to Florida, Providence, Notre Dame (not technically - they opened conference play on the road at DePaul on New Year's Eve, but you get the drift), Kansas State, and Kentucky, but Joe didn't see fit to mention that. Maryland actually had zero non-conference road games, which you would expect to draw his ire, but it didn't.
Joe continues with his analysis of the Ohio State/Wisconsin matchup:
Again, the winner Friday is in, the loser sweats. I give a slight edge to Ohio State's profile because of the Butler win and the lack of a bad loss (Wisconsin has one top-100 loss, at Iowa). I can't put excessive weight on the head-to-head matchup because of the lack of a return game. Hey, Big 11, here's an idea: instead of everyone playing two Horizon/MAC teams, play a full round-robin.
Well Joe, that criticism applies to all of the power conferences outside of the Pac-10. But Joe saves his harshest words for Penn State:
They went 10-8 in the Big 11, and they did so while playing the full complement of games against the top three teams and winning at two of their houses. So why does this candidacy cause me to grate my teeth? Well, Michigan State tried to beat the Nittany Lions without Raymar Morgan and failed. Illinois hosted Penn State and tied the record for fewest foul shots taken (zero), losing a game in which they allowed as many field goals, 13, as they forced turnovers. (The Illini also went scoreless in the last 3:52 in their game at State College in a 64-63 loss, going 2-for-7 at the line along the way. That's two made foul shots in 80 minutes of basketball. When I make cracks about the Big 11's class project in bid maximization, this is why.) Penn State's other road wins? A two-point win against the worst team in the ACC, a ten-point win against the worst team in the Big 11, and a 12-point win against a middling Ivy League team.
Illinois had a full 80 minutes of basketball to get the Penn State monkey that's been on its back since 2006. It didn't happen. Bruce Weber's team had every reason to be motivated for both of those games, but they failed. As for the free throw attempts, well, the Illini were dead last in all of Division One in FT Rate this season - maybe it's not a conspiracy. I'm sure Illini fans still burn red every time they hear the words "33 points," "Talor Battle," or "Ed Hightower," but frankly, 80 minutes is plenty of time to overcome a couple miracle shots and missed calls.
As for Michigan State, well, Raymar Morgan was absent for most of the conference slate - even when he played, he was a mere ghost of his former self. But that didn't stop Izzo's team from dominating in conference play. Moreover, does this mean that UNC's win over the Spartans was a fluke, given Goran Suton's absence?
Just 36 teams played a worse nonconference schedule than Penn State did, and the Lions lost to the only two remotely good teams on that schedule, Temple and Rhode Island. I know it's hard to leave out a 22-11, 11-9 team from the Big 11, but if that's where Penn State is come Friday night, it will absolutely be the right thing to do. The two wins separating them from oblivion just aren't good enough, and if your "eye test" doesn't catch that, it's time for LASIK.
Well, he's got a point here. It's something we've pointed out quite a bit (and something John Gasaway has been hip to as well) - Penn State has been outscored by its opponents in conference play, yet sits above .500. Call it luck, call it clutch, call it DeChellis, but it's a part of basketball and it's not going anywhere. Maybe we ought to pay more attention to scoring margins, I can see the argument there. But as of right now, those aren't the rules everyone signed up for. If that was on the table, I gaurantee you that Talor Battle wouldn't have sat for 8 whole minutes in each of the Towson and N.J.I.T. routs. Moreover, I think we'd need to talk about this whole "automatic bid" business. Maybe that's the right thing to do, but Penn State is hardly the poster team for opening that discussion.
I like Joe. I happen to think he's a pretty smart guy too, and a much better writer than I'll ever be. But I also suspect that Joe, in some ways, is your typical college basketball fan. He gets his coverage from ESPN, hears all the preseason debates about whether or not UNC will run the table, or whether the Big East will receive 11 bids, or who this year's Michael Beasley/Kevin Durant will be. He sees Illinois score 33 points at home, Wisconsin drain 34 seconds of clock before scoring, and he also sees UNC absolutely tear apart the Big Ten's best on a semi-home court. I'm not sure he sees much more than that. The truth is, the six point margin in Minnesota's win over Louisville makes it seem closer than it was. And while it was on their home floor, Michigan State absolutely shredded a Kansas team that has been dominant in the Big 12. And Illinois pasted Missouri in St. Louis (by the way, Missouri also played zero true road games before January).
The Big Ten is better than Joe gives it credit for. But perception is reality, or at least it can be, and I have a feeling there are a lot more Joes out there than Joshes. So yes, the Big Ten has a PR problem. Thankfully, the remedy is only a couple weeks away. Make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, and I think Joe's column looks a lot different next year.