Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Big Ten basketball falling short of reputation this season

Gannett News Service

Maybe we'd better sit down. The sports pages have become a little disorienting.

A guy who weighed in at 193 pounds - it'd take being handcuffed to a Stairmaster for me to get to that number - just won a heavyweight championship.

The greatest trophy in sailing went to Switzerland, where they need a passport to get to the nearest ocean.

Turns out Anna Kournikova may have already been married and divorced. And we never even got to see the wedding dress. Not even on a calendar.

A pitcher for the New York Yankees denounced his own autobiography before it even hit the first shelf. Apparently, David Wells hadn't realized how much the Yankees would mind hearing one of their perfect games might fail a Breathalyzer test.

I didn't know a guy that big could backpedal that fast. Which proves again the old proverb, if you can't take the heat, stay out of the book business.

And now, here's Big Ten basketball, needing to be hawked like damaged goods.

The commissioner wants you to know the Big Ten is not that bad. Jim Delany has reason to worry.

There is not a conference team ranked in the top 10. Just like the Sun Belt and Ivy League.

The highest name on the RPI power ratings is Illinois at No. 22. There are five Big 12 teams better than that.

Michigan State was picked to win the league but lost a game the other day 70-40 and has struggled to stay above .500 in conference games.

Wisconsin is in first place but still was beaten by Penn State, a team that not only is 1-13 in the league but also lost to Yale.

Purdue has not won a road game in a month. Indiana has won three games in six weeks. Iowa has sputtered. Ohio State has been hurt.

The conference is 2-7 against the Big 12, 1-5 against the Big East.

The league has fine players, many of them freshmen. But the biggest star in the Big Ten area plays at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron.

"If we're not there, I think it's a news story," Delany said of no Big Ten names among the upper tier. "I think it's a reason to ask questions."

He issued a statement last week. He followed with a teleconference Monday.

"My thought was there had been discussion about the Big Ten being down," Delany said Monday. "My reaction was, I don't think we're down.

"My only point was, hey, I've got a voice. Why not use it?"

It is time-honored damage control. When the critics get too noisy, talk about balance. Delany wants the overall depth of his league noted. He wants it remembered how the conference put a team in the Final Four the past four years. He wants it admitted that after Arizona and Kentucky, who really knows about anybody?

"When you don't have a marquee team that is not one of the top five or six teams in America, people tend to think you're not very good," Ohio State's Jim O'Brien said. "We have a lot of good teams ... it's just that everybody's kind of in the same boat."

Only one thing can save the season. A big bang in the NCAA Tournament.

Delany's statement mentioned the league would enjoy marching in March as the underdog.

He recalled that Wisconsin was in the Final Four as a No. 8 seed in 2000. And Indiana made the championship game last spring as a No. 5.

"I wouldn't sell them short," he said of his flock.

But first, his teams have to get invited.

So the Big Ten commissioner is on a sales trip, hoping that a week from Sunday, the NCAA Tournament committee is buying.

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