There are a lot of reasons to like the Big Ten basketball tournament this year – and perhaps more not to.
What’s to like? The Big Ten can boast four of the nation’s top 15 teams, more than any other conference, including second-ranked Michigan State, and 15th-ranked Michigan. They’re all doing battle this week.
Perhaps the most popular coach this spring is Michigan’s John Beilein. He’s never won a national title, he’s been to only one Final Four, and he’s won three Big Ten titles – far fewer than the league leaders. But he’s so squeaky clean he wouldn’t allow Spike Albrecht to order tiramisu on his recruiting trip because the recipe has a bit of rum in it. When his team goes a few seconds over the NCAA-allotted practice time, a horn goes off. And when he swears, he confesses in church – the next day.
The guy may seem unreal, but he’s never wanted an ounce of attention for any of his piousness. All these stories come from his players. But given the cesspool that is big-time college basketball, Beilein is looking better and better. I’ve been arguing for years that Michigan fans have not fully appreciated what they’ve got in Beilein, especially if you believe it’s better to finish second and clean than first and dirty.
We now know that’s exactly what Beilein’s team did in the 2013 NCAA final, when Michigan lost to Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad. Since then, Pitino’s program has been found to be guilty of just about everything, including hiring prostitutes, so even the normally docile NCAA decided to take back Louisville’s NCAA title. That doesn’t cause Michigan fans to celebrate in the streets, but perhaps it should: Even if their players lost, they could be proud of them, before, during, and after the game.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is one of the most respected coaches in college basketball, but he’s had a rough season – off the court. He’s being questioned about the conduct of three of his players from 2010, another one accused of sexual assault this season, and an FBI investigation showing the mother of star player Miles Bridges received $400 from a third party. We don’t know yet how any of this will shake out, but it’s made for some uncomfortable post-game press conferences, when Izzo has declined to answer any questions after games, probably wisely. But the questions won’t stop until he answers them, most likely after the season.
On the court, the Spartans’ season has been much more enjoyable, winning their first outright Big Ten title in nine years. They’re favored to win the Big Ten Tournament, and get to Coach Izzo’s eighth Final Four. There will still be questions when it’s all over, but the longer the team goes, the happier Coach Izzo and company will be.
That can’t be said of the Big Ten tournament itself, which is being held for the first time at New York’s Madison Square Garden – and, fans hope, for the last. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany might be the smartest leader in college sports, but he blew this one. He pushed to get Rutgers into the Big Ten to secure the New York cable TV market, then scheduled the Big Ten tournament in New York one week earlier than usual as a thank you.
But very few folks in New York care about Big Ten football, and even fewer care about Big Ten basketball, if attendance at this tournament is any indication. This is just one more example of big-time college sports going for the short-term money grab, at the risk of its long-term fan base.
Guess they all can’t be John Beileins.
John U. Bacon is a freelance sports commentator. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.