By Chris Mahr
Befitting the fact that it was played on April Fool’s Day, the game between Michigan State and Wisconsin was a complete joke. A combination of smothering defense and inept offense resulted in a 19–17 halftime score. Anyone watching that game will never forget it, although they probably wish they could. I know I do.
“We’re trying to make it a game of basketball skills, not a weight-room contest,” then-Kansas coach Roy Williams later said in criticizing the brand of basketball on display that night.
Any for many years thereafter, that “weight-room” reputation of Big Ten basketball continued unabated. Defense was tantamount, and that resulted in unsightly games with winning teams scoring between 50–65 points per game to determine conference supremacy. Contenders such as Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue and (to a smaller extent) Michigan State tried clutching, grabbing and clanking their way to victory.
Mercifully, that ethos appears to be going the way of the dodo. And it’s not just the eyes of viewers that stand to benefit, but the conference as a whole.
The Big Ten can boast six teams in the AP Top 25 rankings released on Monday: No. 2 Indiana, No. 5 Michigan, No. 9 Minnesota, No. 11 Ohio State, No. 18 Michigan State and No. 23 Illinois. The Big East is the only other conference with four or more.
Offense is a big, big reason why the Big Ten is such a prominent part of the top 25. Among the six aforementioned teams, only Illinois (61st with 73.9 PPG) and Michigan State (117th with 70.3 PPG) rank outside the national Top 50 in scoring. Indiana (87.1 PPG) is the highest scoring team in the country.
The Big Ten’s best teams aren’t just scoring a lot of points, they’re looking good doing so. The Hoosiers have five players averaging double figures in scoring and are shooting an astounding 51.1% from the field as a team. The Wolverines aren’t far behind, at 50.8% shooting, and feature a squad of talented all-around players running John Beilein’s motion offense to near perfection.
Most tellingly, after years of being defined by scraps for loose balls on the floor and seemingly endless chases for rebounds, Big Ten basketball is being highlighted by plays that take place above the rim. Cases in point: Minnesota’s Rodney Williams (first video below) and Illinois’ Brandon Paul (second).
That’s how fans want to see basketball played. For the Big Ten, that’s how basketball should be played. Particularly if they want to snap a decade-long championship drought.
That 2000 Michigan State team who went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin in what could be the worst Final Four game ever played was the Big Ten’s last national champion. While four of the conference’s teams — Indiana (2002), Illinois (2005), Ohio State (2007) and MSU again (2009) — have made it to the title game since then, none have won.
It’s a self-evident concept (some would say Madden-esque), but teams that win it all are ones that score more points than their opponents. When you are as offensively challenged as the Big Ten was for much of the 2000s, that adage is a lot easier said than done.
But no longer. Big Ten teams can not only score more compared to years past, they’re also among the nation’s best at doing so. That bodes well in advance of March Madness, where recent champions have most often than not won it with dynamic, multi-faceted offenses.
“The Dynamic Offenses of Big Ten Basketball.” Unlike that unwatchable 2000 Final Four game, it’s not a joke.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Rich Barnes/USA Today Sports