As droughts go, it’s not exactly epic.
But it is historic.
It’s been 16 years since the Big Ten last produced a national champion in men’s basketball — the longest gap of consecutive seasons without a crown since 1961-75, when Purdue alum John Wooden’s UCLA teams were a nation-state unto themselves. It’s also the longest stretch in Big Ten annals since the very first NCAA Tournament was hosted on a league campus — Northwestern’s Patten Gymnasium — in 1939.
Now the conference has been close, with a member school reaching the title game six times since Michigan State won the whole shebang in 2000. But from Indiana to Illinois to Ohio State to Wisconsin, nobody could quite finish the job.
In the 21st century, dynasties have been supplanted by difficulties. Traditional bottom-feeders such as Penn State and Northwestern have bolstered their rosters and cut in to the number of so-called “cannon fodder’ squads chasing the Badgers’ and Boilermakers’ tails. Rutgers, Nebraska and Minnesota have seen better days, granted, but when it comes to easy marks, it’s a short list.
So as the season tips off in earnest this weekend, the slate isn’t short of potential potholes. Or subplots. Michigan State isn’t returning a double-digit scorer for the first time in a decade. In Bloomington, star guard Yogi Ferrell is out, Josh Newkirk is in.
Purdue has a wealth of good pieces but questions at point guard. Maryland has Melo Trimble at the point and questions just about everywhere else. Is Iowa rebuilding or retooling? Are we sleeping on Ohio State and Michigan?
The Big Ten is still trying to get the taste from the 2016 Big Dance — a bracket that saw the second-seeded Spartans dumped by Middle Tennessee — out of its collective maw. The league went 8-7 in Bracketville, but only four teams made it out of the round of 64 and only three survived the first weekend.
So the Big Ten isn’t just deep. It’s due.
Greg Gard’s No. 1 problem: Too many good players, not enough good minutes. Heck of a problem to have.
If the backcourt can stabilize, the sky’s the limit.
Long deep, and hungry. One question: Who gets the rock in the backcourt for that one shot when the game’s on the line?
3b. Michigan State
Banged up and young is a bad combination, even in November. But if anybody can mold green parts into a cohesive whole in the months to come, it’s Tom Izzo.
1. Ohio State
The top six scorers return, but its postseason fate probably depends on the hands — and guts — of point guard JaQuan Lyle.
The depth raises eyebrows. The starting lineup doesn’t.
With no NCAA tourney bid since 2013, Illini coach John Groce needs to start making it rain in Champaign again. If nothing else, there’s a new athletic director to impress.
1. Thomas Bryant, C, Indiana
The lead dog (11.9 ppg last winter) at the head of a loaded front court, pulling the sled.
2. Caleb Swanigan, F, Purdue
Eight double-doubles as a freshman, but how will the paint look with no A.J. Hammons there taking up space?
3. Nigel Hayes, F, Wisconsin
Talks a good game. Plays a better one. Will the socially conscious and outspoken senior be able to turn his focus more on the schedule and not on the latest headlines?
1. Which team will opposing schools most not want to be play come March?
Michigan State has the highest potential ceiling and perhaps the largest growth curve, given all the new faces on the roster. But Wisconsin has about six ways to beat you, including a sleeper Player of the Year candidate in 6-foot-8 forward Ethan Happ (12.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg 1.8 spg as a freshman).
2. Is this the year Northwestern FINALLY makes the Big Dance?
As the talent level rises under coach Chris Collins, Duke Lite keeps inching closer and closer. The non-conference schedule this time around has less of last winter’s dead weight, but the Wildcats should still struggle to post that elusive winning record in league play. More galling: All it took former coach Bill Carmody was one year away from Evanston to finally return to a Big Dance, steering Holy Cross to the NCAA tourney in his first season.
3. Hotter seat: Rick Pitino Jr. or Tim Miles?
The rise and fall of #Nebrasketball has been one of the more curious Power Five narratives of the past five years, and it’s amazing how quickly all that momentum and goodwill in Lincoln has evaporated for Miles. That said, Pitino’s tenure has felt like one long, dark tunnel — 25 wins to 18 to eight — and precious little light since that NIT title in 2014. If the number of off-court player incidents ends up topping the number of conference victories (the Gophers were 2-16 in 2015-’16), the temptation to blow things up and start over from scratch will be hard to resist.