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November 7, 2007
Big Ten Preview

by John Gasaway


It should be painfully apparent at this point that Big Ten member institutions from the state of Michigan should not open their sports seasons by playing non-Division I teams whose names end with "State." Past that, it's up for grabs this year.

Much of the change that will hit the Big Ten in 2008 will be readily apparent. In its players, its coaches, its schedule, and even in the way its games are televised, the conference will present a new face in the coming year. The Big Ten' i also changing in still another way, no less fundamental but perhaps somewhat less visible. The conference's basketball games, already the slowest of any major conference, are growing even slower.

New Players

Last year, the Big Ten bid farewell to fully 40 percent of its starters, including five of the six players selected as first-team All-Big Ten in 2007 by the conference coaches or by the media. Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Alando Tucker, Carl Landry and Adam Haluska are all gone. The lone first-team returnee this season is Drew Neitzel of Michigan State, this year's preseason Big Ten POY. So while Michigan State and Minnesota each return all of their starters, every other team will look more (Michigan) or less (Penn State) new this season.

New Coaches

Three of the conference's coaches will be Big Ten rookies this year:

  • Tubby Smith, Minnesota. Smith won a national championship at Kentucky in 1998, but was criticized by Wildcat fans in recent years for allegedly unsatisfactory recruiting. Smith replaces interim coach Jim Molinari who, in turn, stepped in for deposed head coach Dan Monson early last year.
  • Todd Lickliter, Iowa. Lickliter led Butler to the Sweet 16, where his team lost by eight to eventual national champion Florida. He then walked away from a returning cast that will feature leading scorers A.J. Graves and Mike Green and came to Iowa City to replace Steve Alford, who took the job at New Mexico.
  • John Beilein, Michigan. Beilein replaces Tommy Amaker (now at Harvard) and presents arguably the most interesting story line of any of the Big Ten's new coaches. He's the archetype of the coach who's crafted and refined an innovative scheme whereby his overmatched teams can compete with more talented opponents. The paradox of that particular archetype is that if the coach's scheme is good enough, as Beilein's has been, he's rewarded with a job where on most nights his players are better than those of the opponent. What happens then? Can a system designed to compensate for having less talent benefit from having more talent? We're about to find out. Beilein was lured away from West Virginia, where he led his team to an NIT championship, to take over in Ann Arbor.

Note that, if the recent past is any indication, the Big Ten may well see more threes attempted this season. Both Lickliter and Beilein have been known to coach teams that fire away from beyond the arc.

New Schedule

The effects of football-fueled conference expansion have of course been felt in many sports, particularly basketball, in the form of the perpetually lamented "imbalanced" conference schedule. In this respect, the Big Ten has actually been fortunate. In two of the last three seasons the conference has seen a team emerge--Ohio State last year and Illinois in 2005--whose dominance rendered any scheduling imbalance largely moot.

Still, dominant teams don't happen every year. So it's understandable that this past April the conference moved to redress the imbalance ever so slightly, going from a 16- to an 18-game conference schedule for both its men's and women's basketball teams, effective this season. This is indeed an improvement. If the ideal is a full home-and-away round-robin, the Big Ten with this change has gone from 80 to 90 percent of the ideal. For the record the schedules of the various "power" conferences now look like this:

Conference schedules: % of "ideal"

Pac-10           100
Big Ten           90
ACC               73
Big 12            73 
SEC               73
Big East          60

The Pac-10 regular season champion is unquestionably a team worthy of our esteem, at least with respect to other Pac-10 teams. The Big Ten regular-season victor will now be just a little less worthy than the Pac-10's.

New Network

The new Big Ten Network will carry more than 100 games involving conference members this season, including more than 50 conference games. Repeat: more than half of all Big Ten conference games this year will be available exclusively on the Big Ten Network. If you're a DirecTV customer you can see all these games. If not, then it gets more interesting.

When BTN launched at the end of August, it had not yet signed agreements with any of the largest cable carriers within the eight-state Big Ten "footprint." Now, some 70 days later, it still hasn't signed any such agreements. The sticking point, as you may have heard, is that BTN wants to be placed on a carrier's "basic" package. The largest carriers, however, have refused, wanting instead to put BTN on an optional sports tier. The deadlock doesn't appear likely to be broken anytime soon, but BTN has still accomplished two very important things in its young life. First it has reached agreement with enough mom-and-pop operators that, in addition to viewers from DirecTV and from AT&T's new U-Verse service, the network can claim with justice that it's a going concern and not merely some ESPNU-like oubliette where sporting events go to disappear, forever unseen by human eyes. Second, and even more importantly, BTN has largely won the PR battle with the large cable carriers.

It's likely that BTN's impact on people's attitudes toward their cable companies is likely to be less pronounced than its influence on other major conferences' attitudes toward their own product. What was written about as recently as three months ago as a risky and even foolish gambit by the Big Ten is now pretty self-evidently the template for other "power" conferences to follow. Vertical integration, the likes of which were last seen in the Hollywood studio system 70 years ago, is the new business model. Once again, stars are scouted, recruited, signed, groomed, touted, lionized, kept under contract, dispensed with and forgotten. Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan and Thad Matta run their cloistered autocracies the way Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford and William Wyler once did. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is the new Louis B. Mayer. The Big Ten Network is the local Orpheum Theater. What once was old is now innovative.

New Pace...Or Not

In each of the past three seasons, Big Ten conference games have been slower than those of any other major conference. Last year the relative tempos looked like this:

Average possessions per 40 minutes, 2007, Conference games only

ACC             68.3
SEC             67.4
Big 12          67.1 
Big East        65.3
Pac-10          63.7
Big Ten         61.5

Not only are Big Ten games slower than those in other conferences, they're getting slower with each passing season. Note for example that Big Ten games last year decelerated markedly from their 2006 tempo of 64 possessions per 40 minutes.

So it will be interesting to see what happens to the pace of the league this season. The Big Ten has long prided itself on what's reputed to be its "brand" of basketball: physical, defense-oriented, fundamentally sound. Aren't all of the above still possible at a slightly quicker pace? What happens to recruiting if the conference becomes still more of an outlier with respect to other major conferences where speed is concerned?

New Predictions

It's ironic that in the first season of the Big Ten's newly expanded 18-game conference schedule, luck of the draw may play a larger role in determining the regular-season champion than it has in years. Wisconsin and Ohio State both get huge breaks this year, likely at the expense of Michigan State and Indiana. The Badgers don't have to play a game in East Lansing this season. The Buckeyes don't have to play a game in Madison. So I've bumped both Wisconsin and Ohio State up a game above where I'd otherwise have them.

As for the Spartans and the Hoosiers, it comes down to which of the following you believe is more likely to be dispositive in the conference race: Michigan State's potential improvement in holding on to the ball, or Indiana's potential improvement inside the arc on both offense and defense. I believe the former is more likely--Hoosier freshman Eric Gordon excels in areas where his team already excelled last year--and have ranked the teams accordingly.

Lastly, predicting that an achingly young--qualitatively as much as quantitatively--Michigan team will flirt with .500 should be seen solely for what it is: an expectant vote of confidence in the ability of John Beilein. That confidence is based on what he accomplished with an achingly young West Virginia team last year.

            2007 Pythag    % Returning       2008 
Team            Wins*        Minutes      Prediction
Michigan St.    10.4           92.3          13-5
Wisconsin       12.6           58.7          13-5
Indiana         11.1           56.3          12-6
Ohio St.        13.2           38.0          12-6 
Illinois         9.2           65.8          10-8
Purdue           9.2           54.0           9-9
Michigan         7.7           41.4          8-10
Iowa             8.1           65.8          7-11 
Penn St.         3.0           80.0          6-12 
Minnesota        2.8           86.0          6-12
Northwestern     2.1           63.7          3-15

* Based on a 16-game schedule

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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