Monday, April 06, 2009

Big 10 gets no credit for Sparty's success.

With Michigan State and North Carolina facing each other for the NCAA Championship tonight it would seem that the joke is on the mighty Big East. All of the experts spent the last two months of the season lauding the Big East and convincing the rest of us that the Big 10 and the ACC weren’t all that good. OK. Never mind the fact that the Big10 and the ACC faced the Big East head-to-head and won convincingly, and lets not carp over the fact that the Big East is home to half the teams in college basketball and logic would dictate that a few of them would be pretty good; the fact remains that the Big East did send two teams to the Final Four. That’s impressive. Seriously, it really is.

And while the Big 10 isn’t exactly playing tether ball, it’s tough to watch conference play. Michigan State is a tough team because they won a conference that seems to view basketball the way Jim Naismith did when he invented it: as a way to keep footballers in shape. Players routinely get mauled in the Big 10 and it results in ugly slugfest games with really low scores. It also creates the illusion that the Big 10 isn’t talented enough to face quality opposition deep in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State, regardless of the outcome tonight, has proven that theory invalid.

Of course that doesn’t mean that the Big Ten should pat itself on the back for a job well done. I’m a Big 10 fan. That is to say that I was pulling for Michigan State the whole way. I wanted that rest of the Big 10 to do well too, but I really like Tom Izzo and I felt that a deep run in this tournament would finally get him the national recognition he deserves. The guy is a great coach and deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino and Coach K. By advancing to the championship game, Izzo accomplishes that. I hope he wins it all, but that’s just icing on the cake. Michigan State’s got a lot to be proud of.

The Big 10, doesn’t deserve Tom Izzo. Fans don’t deserve the Big 10. Tough play is one thing, but that doesn’t mean the games should be tough to watch. The Big 10 needs to revamp its officiating crew and do something to open the games up. Against UConn Michigan State ran. Nobody knew that Izzo’s team could run the floor that way but the Spartans used the fast break to gain an edge over UConn. The Huskies seemed confused by it, the announcers were impressed and the analysts were dumbfounded. Where did Sparty get his jets?

It’s not that Michigan State couldn’t run, for some reason it doesn’t happen in the Big 10. Not enough. Officiating crews seem to give defenses the benefit of the doubt so teams get away with the physical plays (fouls) that other conferences frown on. Moreover, the offense doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt on traveling, screens and pick and roll plays. There seems to be a conspiracy afoot to keep scoring minimal and the pace of the game slow. So the Big 10 regular season is like an 18 game boot camp. It’s the reverse of everywhere else in sports where rules are tweaked to increase offensive production.

I enjoy college basketball but I don’t watch much regular season play and I rarely bother with the Big 10. I keep track of the box scores and read the game recaps, but I have trouble watching. It’s just so boring. I’ve heard people say that it’s real basketball because teams play tough zone defense and there’s a lot of half court action, but that’s just something people say. It’s inferior basketball and people shouldn’t feel obligated to watch it.

It’s not just the officials. Schools like Penn State, Northwestern and Wisconsin aren’t talented enough to play more the more up-tempo games. They just don’t recruit the kind of players who can run up and down the court night after night and average 80 points per game. So those teams have to resort to brute force. Tom Izzo joked that he blames Woody and Bo for the “Three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality that permeates the entire conference. It was funny, but had a ring of truth.

Perhaps the answer isn’t in tweaking the officiating, but maybe some thought should be given to eliminating more of the conference games. Why should Michigan State have to play Iowa and Penn State twice? Drop a few of those games off the schedule and let the more competitive teams in the conference schedule more non-conference games.

That’s not to say that all of the Big 10 players are inferior, they’re just forced to play that way most of the year. Now that they’re out from under the suffocating blanket of Big 10 officiating, Michigan State is flying high and has a chance to win a title. North Carolina will be a tough test, but it’s going to be fun to watch, mostly because you can’t be sure what to expect out of Michigan State. That’s how they beat UConn and Louisville, neither one of those teams was ready for the incarnation of Michigan State that took the floor against them.

There are Big 10 apologists who would turn that logic back on me and ask why the Big 10 would want to change if their tactics helped Michigan State fool the field. It’s a fair point, but too often it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes the Big 10 is caught flat-footed and unable to keep up with running teams. Let’s not forget that while Michigan State is enjoying a great run, a number of other Big 10 entries failed miserably. Notably, Ohio State looked lethargic in their first round game against a smallish Siena team and even if you could point to consistent tournament success you’re still stuck with the snooze factory that is the regular season. Is it really worth the empty seats and dwindling television audiences?

Perhaps it would be if the Big 10 made more Final Four appearances or tucked a few more titles under its belt, but most of the time the Big 10 falls short of achieving the benchmarks that would mitigate that way its regular season games are played.

It’s something to think about tonight. If Michigan State wins I’m going to be mad at the Big 10 for stifling them all year, if they lose I’ll wonder if they would have fared better had they been able to run a little more during the regular season. The Big 10 can’t win. I only hope that Michigan State can.