IOWA CITY, Iowa — In the Big Ten’s pre-expansion era, protecting basketball rivalries generated discussion only when the Purdue-Indiana series was limited to one game annually in a 2-year cycle.
The topic has gained momentum with Nebraska joining the Big Ten in 2011, then Rutgers and Maryland in 2014. When the 11-member Big Ten played 18 conference games, every team faced eight opponents twice and two foes once. Now with 14 teams and 18 conference games, there are only five double-plays and eight single-plays during the season.
In recent years the issue garnered modest interest among the league’s athletic directors, but it never developed into any proposals. This year, reports Mike Carmin of the Lafayette Courier & Journal, Purdue has shoved the topic to the forefront.
“The next step — and what we agreed to do — was push that back to the scheduling folks here in the league and have them take a look at it,” Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski told Carmin at the Big Ten Joint Group Meetings in mid-May.
It makes sense for Indiana-Purdue and Michigan-Michigan State to play twice each season. Those games are in-state rivalries with decades of tradition. But the issue is less clear for other schools, which is why the subject rarely gained traction.
Based on proximity, one could make the case for Illinois-Northwestern as a permanent rivalry. However, Illinois’ tradition dwarfs Northwestern’s history. The Illini have 30 NCAA Tournament trips to the Wildcats’ one — which, of course, took place this spring. Likewise, Illinois’ series with Iowa, Indiana and Purdue at times were must-see events.
There are other road blocks that make this debate more difficult to maneuver. It’s natural to want to protect Minnesota-Wisconsin, but the Gophers have played the Badgers 201 times and Iowa 198 times. On the rivalry importance scale, the disdain is spread evenly among the three schools.
Iowa and Ohio State are challenged in this debate. Among Big Ten teams, Iowa’s most important historical rivals are Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes and Fighting Illini were like the Big Ten’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys in the 1980s and 1990s. Both squads recruit Chicagoland hard. They share a past filled with recruiting espionage, top-10 battles, great comebacks and high-flying superstars.
The Gophers are Iowa’s most-played rival in a series that began in 1902. Madison and Iowa City are located less than 3 hours apart, and the Badgers lead that series, 83-80. All of the border battles matter and most Hawkeye fans wince when trying to cut a rivalry version of Sophie’s Choice.
If the Hawkeyes were iced from the above three as permanent rivals, then relative newcomer Nebraska probably fills that role. While Iowa-Nebraska has the potential to develop into a strong basketball series, it lacks the century-plus history of the others. The Hawkeyes have three Final Four appearances and have won 29 NCAA Tournament games. The Cornhuskers have seven NCAA appearances without a victory.
The Buckeyes are in a similar position. Ohio State views Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana as its primary basketball rivals. Those three programs have other series that rate as slightly greater priorities. That might shove the Buckeyes into a permanent basketball rivalry with Penn State — which is uneven in terms of prestige — or possibly Maryland.
What about Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers? Would any of the three want to be super-glued to each other or another Big Ten school?
That’s not to say the issue doesn’t have merit. Indiana-Purdue should be played home-and-home every season. Same with Michigan-Michigan State. You also could make that case with Ohio State-Michigan, Iowa-Minnesota, Purdue-Illinois among many others. But in a football-first athletics model, leagues have to draw the line somewhere.
The league could designate just a few series such as Indiana-Purdue or Michigan-Michigan State as permanent, and then continue to rotate the others naturally. That’s what it does for football with Indiana-Purdue as the only permanent crossover. But unbalanced scheduling has its drawbacks based simply on its uneven nature.
The permanent opponent scheduling model actually is much simpler for the league office. Every team would play the other 12 foes four times over a 3-year period. That’s as organic of a rotation as it gets.
Does it have a chance of passing? Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told Carmin and other reporters, “I can’t tell you how close we are, but I think it’s an active discussion on that issue for sure.”
If permanent rivalries are established, here’s how they probably would go down:
- Michigan-Michigan State
- Ohio State-Maryland
- Penn State-Rutgers