Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
The Big Ten is better than people who link to me say it is
#2 in a series of last-day posts

I'm certainly not one of those crude unlettered souls that judges "power" conferences based solely on their performance in the tournament.

Oh, wait. (Crude grunt, unlettered scratch.) Yes, I am. Sometimes....

SEC (11-4)
Pac-10 (10-6)
Big Ten (9-6)
Big XII (6-4)
Big East (7-6)
ACC (7-7)

Behold the ACC, at the bottom of the heap and without a Final Four participant now for two years.

So why no crisis headlines from Tobacco Road? Why no navel-gazing? Why no irritably defensive quotes from coaches?

Because the ACC doesn't feel that its intrinsic worth is in play with every tournament. They can have a bad year and they're still "the ACC." No big thing.

Not so the Big Ten. When silly headlines appeared after the first weekend this year (headlines that, goodness knows, were not out of place last year), the hue and cry was instantaneous, familiar, and plaintive: oh, my goodness. The Big Ten only has one team into the Sweet 16, and that thanks to a non-call (or, more precisely, a possible mis-call on what could have been an intentional foul).

OK, Wisconsin losing to UNLV was disappointing for Big Ten believers, but was the performance of the conference as a whole really such a shock? Three of the Big Ten's six tournament teams were seeded in the 7-9 range, those three teams went 3-0 in the first round (against Gonzaga, Arizona, and Marquette), and every one of those three teams failed to advance past the first weekend (against UCLA, Florida, and North Carolina). Wow, who could have seen that coming? Well, anyone, pretty much.

I've faulted the Big Ten on aesthetic grounds this year and I know from the email I receive that some readers don't take kindly to that. So let me be clear:

The Big Ten happens to play at a slow pace. So did Georgetown this year
slower than any non-Northwestern team in the conference. And they got to the Final Four. My problem is not with slowness. If it works, do it. John Thompson III, I salute you.

But when every team in the conference plays the exact same speed (and nine of 11 teams play pretty much the same system at the same speed) the resulting homogeneity in style has the potential to do every conference team a disservice in the postseason. They just haven't seen enough variety to be prepared for what the tournament, by definition, throws at them: the best teams in the country. (Yes, if you have Ohio State-in-2007 or Illinois-in-2005 talent, you can work around this. Duly noted.)

Fans who like faster games tend to see defense as the culprit here. I, on the other hand, think teams that don't have confidence in their offense tend to go slower. You can have defense and eat your speed cake too, I dare say.

The larger point as it relates to the worth of the Big Ten, however, is that, while you may not care for the style, the conference's top teams did indeed play that style very well, losing to Florida by just seven and to UCLA by just five. I just happen to think those results can be matched and indeed exceeded by varying styles and picking up the pace a bit.

And there's even a hopeful example close at hand: those aforementioned Georgetown Hoyas. They achieved a nice level of success this year and, what's even more encouraging, a good many people seemed to understand that they did so at a slow pace. That is, observers were able to distinguish between style of play (which may not be one's cup of tea) and success within that style (which no one could, or did, doubt that Georgetown did in fact achieve).

That's all any team can ask. At any speed.


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