Saturday, March 1, 2003

Big 10: Underdogs?



By Terry Hutchens
The Indianapolis Star

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany used an interesting word this week to characterize his conference's plight heading into the 2003 NCAA men's basketball tournament: Underdog.

Delany didn't suggest the Big Ten wouldn't fare well in the upcoming tournament. But he did admit conference teams could be in a unique position this month.

"It will be fun to play as the underdog conference," he said, "a role that teams in this conference rarely get a chance to experience."

In the last four years, the Big Ten has won 47 NCAA tournament games, the most by any conference in the country. The Atlantic Coast Conference is next with 35.

But the Big Ten is down this season. There is no elite team favored to make a long NCAA tournament run.

Illinois, at No. 18, is the lone Big Ten team ranked in the top 25. The Illini are also the highest ranked Big Ten team in the RPI at No. 25. The conference has four other teams in the top 40.

Overall, the Big Ten ranks fourth in conference RPI ratings, behind the No. 1 Southeastern Conference, the Big 12 and the ACC.

That's a significant drop from both 1999 and 2001, when the Big Ten was the top-rated conference. In 2000, the conference was rated No. 2.

So what has happened to the Big Ten? Is it just a cyclical problem that all conferences encounter, or is it more than that?

Illinois coach Bill Self cites youth. To date, the Big Ten has had a total of 347 freshman starts this season, the most since the 1997-98 season.

"We had some early losses in the league that I guarantee wouldn't be losses if the games were played in January," Self said. "We're just a young conference overall."

That may also explain why Big Ten teams have had troublewinning on the road. Experience can be a huge factor when playing on the road in raucous conference venues.

The top seven teams in the Big Ten have combined to go 43-3 at home in conference play this season. Those same teams are a combined 14-32 on the road in league play.

Self said he thinks it's tougher than ever to win in the Big Ten.

"There's not a dominant team in our conference," Self said. "But parity means mediocrity in the minds of a lot of people and that gives the appearance that our conference is not as strong."

All of which brings about serious questions regarding how many Big Ten teams will qualify for the 2003 NCAA tournament, and just how high any of those teams will be seeded.

In the 24 years that the NCAA has seeded the tournament field, the Big Ten has never failed to land one of the top 16 seeds.

Could this year be the exception?

"I can't imagine that the best team in our league would ever be lower than a four seed," Self said.

Eight conference teams could wind up getting consideration for the NCAA tournament, Delany said. That would mean everyone except Michigan (which is not eligible for postseason play), Penn State and Northwestern.

Historical precedent

Since 1985, the Big Ten has sent a minimum of five teams to the NCAA tournament annually.In the last five years, 14 of the Big Ten's 29 NCAA representatives have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas isn't certain the Big Ten will garner a top 16 seed.

"I just don't think it matters that much this year," Bilas said. "After the first couple of seeds you're not going to be able to tell the difference.

"There's going to be a lot of head-scratchers in this tournament because the seeding is going to be difficult to get right."

The Big Ten has had its share of puzzling story lines this season.

Indiana opened the season at 8-0 and catapulted to a No. 6 ranking nationally Dec. 16., only to be out of the top 25 by early February. A back injury to leading scorer Bracey Wright and a subsequent stretch where the Hoosiers lost six of seven games took care of that. IU is currently 16-10 and on the NCAA bubble.

When Purdue opened conference play with a 7-1 record, the Boilers looked like a team ready to join the elite category. But a stretch of four losses in five games, and a two-game road swing to end Big Ten play has Purdue in danger of finishing in the middle of the pack, too.

Some teams have struggled because of NBA defections. Michigan State could have had a national title contender this season. But Marcus Taylor, Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph all left early to make themselves eligible for the NBA draft.

"You hate to make excuses but it's tough to recover from that kind of thing," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "Indiana experienced it this year with (Jared) Jeffries going to the NBA early, too."

For the Big Ten, the combination of youth and loss of veteran players are factors that will likely prevent the conference from having a top 10 team in the final regular season poll for the second season in a row. Only four times in the last 30 years has that happened.

CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer said on a national television broadcast Sunday that he expected the Big Ten's run in the NCAA tournament to be "short and sweet."

"Billy Packer's not on the committee, thank God," said Purdue coach Gene Keady. "He hasn't seen us play. He doesn1/2minute3/4t know. To say the Big Ten is down or has not a chance to play far into the NCAAs remains to be seen."

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Call Terry Hutchens at 1-317-444-6469 or e-mail terry.hutchens@indystar.com




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