The 2018-19 Big Ten Conference basketball season opened on Nov. 30, the same weekend members of other major conferences occupied themselves with opponents from the Big South, WAC and Atlantic Sun. For the B1G teams, it was like watching the trailer for a horror film they’re all dying to see — and frightened to endure.
“I just can’t imagine playing in this league in January and February,” Indiana coach Archie Miller told Sporting News after the first of a couple two-point victories against Northwestern and Penn State. “I just don’t see a team that’s not very good.”
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The Big Ten jumped out of the blocks early with league play — each team playing one home and one road game as November morphed into December — because its members will, for the first time, play 20 conference games in the regular season. This is a maneuver designed partly to provide better programming for the Big Ten’s media partners, but also to allow all 14 teams to feel like a part of the same league — and not just a collection of schools that wear the same logo on their uniform jerseys.
This change meant each team would have two fewer non-league games to schedule, and that increased the importance to each school — and the Big Ten as a whole — of the interconference games that remained. Which can be tricky, because the members aren’t in charge of all those games. They cede control to the league of matchups in the Gavitt Tipoff Games (a series against the Big East) and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge (against the ACC, obviously). In the latter, the league cedes control of the event to its owner, ESPN.
The Big Ten learned a year ago how costly it can be to perform poorly in those arranged marriages. After compiling a 3-11 mark in the 2017 ACC Challenge, the conference received only four bids to the 2018 NCAA Tournament. It was the fewest spots the league had earned since 2008, when it seeded just four of its 11 members.
The Big Ten finished nine games under .500 against the other five top conferences in 2017-18, and nearly 90 percent of that differential was the product of its ACC Challenge failure.
“The nonconference wins or losses are going to be so much more important, because you’re just not able to have many of them,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told SN. “I do think we have to look at people’s entire schedules. We have to look at when we’re playing. I think if it’s going to be this important, the matchups have got to be somebody’s best against somebody’s best. There’s got to be some semblance of order in that.”
No one felt the pain of last season’s defeats more acutely than Nebraska. The Huskers went 13-5 in conference play and stood at 22-9 on Selection Sunday but were not selected to the NCAA Tournament. For years, achieving a .500 record in Big Ten play had been nearly a guarantee of an NCAA bid.
“I had a friend of mine who called me, and he was out of the country last spring. When he came in, he heard all this talk about, ‘Nebraska’s not this, Nebraska’s not that.’ He thought we got ninth in the league,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles told SN. “He told me, ‘Then I saw you had 13 wins — what did I miss?’ I thought that was hilarious.
“I thought we achieved a lot. I thought we had a very capable team. We missed opportunities, but what happened last year in our league was we had four teams fall at least 50-60 RPI spots below what they were predicted. That really hurt us.”
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Assistant commissioner Kerry Kenny is in charge of television administration for the Big Ten’s basketball competition. He told SN the Gavitt Games and ACC Challenge are important to the conference because of the exposure they provide, and because these competitions emphasize the league’s desire for an Eastern presence to support its three members in that region — and the myriad alumni who live there.
He also understands the significance of those games to the competing programs.
“Overall, we really value both challenges,” Kenny said.
The two events include different obstacles, and some that are intertwined. The first step for each is deciding which teams will play at home and which will play as the away team. For those eight teams competing in both events, the Big Ten works to give each one home game and one road game.
The Big Ten and Big East offices work together to create their matchups in the Gavitt Games, trying to create the greatest degree of competitive balance possible.
The ACC-Big Ten Challenge is the property of ESPN, however. And although it cooperates with the two leagues in setting matchups, the network does have the greatest influence. Dan Ochs, ESPN’s director of college basketball programming, acknowledged to SN that establishing the strongest possible attractions is a priority for the network, particularly for the four windows in which games appear on the main ESPN channel.
“You’re going to get those teams that come with a brand name, so despite what we might think of their quality on the floor in the preseason, we’re probably going to bump them up a notch or two based on who they are,” Ochs told SN. “And you’ve got your teams on the other end of that spectrum: teams that are expected to be good but unfortunately, for any number of reasons, don’t usually carry the largest viewing audiences.
“It’s not as scientific as saying, ‘You are a preseason No. 1 team in the ACC, you will face the No. 1 team in the Big Ten. There are real limitations that don’t permit us to do that anyway, based on who’s home and who’s away. And again, we do need to put on a game that we think is entertaining and drives a big number.”
Michigan State was projected to be the Big Ten’s No. 1 team in the preseason by media who cover the league, as polled by the Chicago Tribune. The Spartans went on the road in this year’s challenge, but were sent to Louisville, which was the No. 11 team in the ACC by media who cover that league (the Cardinals won 82-78). ACC No. 1 Duke was visited by Big Ten No. 3 Indiana, which, as likely the strongest basketball brand in the B1G, has faced the Blue Devils or North Carolina five times in the past seven years.
And although Duke won by 21 points, its game with IU was the most-watched of all the Challenge matchups.
“In a perfect world, we’re looking to create 14 compelling matchups,” Ochs said. “This year, with the conferences splitting down the middle 7-7, we feel like we did a pretty decent job.”
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Still, this season, only six matchups in the ACC-Big Ten challenge featured opponents whose preseason rankings were within two spots of the other (e.g., preseason No. 1 Duke playing preseason No. 3 Indiana, even with oddsmakers considering the Blue Devils 15-point favorites). Five games featured rankings differentials of four or more spots in favor of the ACC. The Big Ten had only two such games in its favor.
So to finish the ACC Challenge with a .500 record was, in a sense, an overperformance by the Big Ten, which continued its trend of strong nonconference play this season.
Last season, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, 74 percent of victories by Big Ten teams were against teams ranked 150th or below on the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) scale. And league members also had three losses against such teams. This year, with the NCAA changing to the new NET rating system, only 58 percent of the Big Ten’s wins by that date came against bottom-quadrant opponents.
In multi-team tournaments a year ago, such as the Maui Invitational and the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Big Ten went 15-11 and lost seven of their 11 opening games, sending those teams into the losers’ bracket to most often face lesser opponents. This season, the Big Ten went 17-8 in such tournaments, including 7-2 in openers. Iowa won the championship at the 2K Classic.
The number of high-level victories accumulated by Big Ten members early this season has led to seven teams being ranked in the AP Top 25, and 11 ranked in the KenPom top 50.
“I think the biggest thing with our coaches, as we talked to them last offseason, is understanding that with 20 league games and now a shortened nonconference set of data points … there was really an importance placed on scheduling up and, as kind of simple as this sounds, just going out and winning games,” Kenny said.
Miles expressed that the move to 20 conference games was extremely positive, particularly in assuring rivals like Indiana and Purdue would not again be in a position where they only met once in a season.
“It makes our league better, allows for better competition, allows for a truer champion. By the book, it had to be done,” Miles said. He recognizes, though, that granting control of roughly 20 percent of the non-league schedule to others does create, well, challenges.
“I think some things you just accept as fact,” Miles said.
“I’ve always thought the Gavitt Games with the Big East and the ACC Challenge were vital. But I think this year it was more important than previously, because you have less opportunity to control that narrative. The great part about it is, you need to play well. If you can play well, you’ve got a game that will stand up for a long time in your favor.”
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