On Sunday, college basketball fans were treated to a thrilling matchup between Michigan and Michigan State, two Top-10 squads that aren't even the best team in the Big Ten.
That'd be Indiana, who has been at or near No. 1 in the nation all year long.
Michigan came away with the win as two last-minute steals helped the Wolverines take and preserve the lead, and it was easy to come away from that game believing that the best basketball in the nation is being played in the Big Ten.
Because it is.
Now, this is an unusually strong year for the Big Ten, of course; it's not every year that it looks like the conference could put multiple teams in the Final Four without some weird runs taking place. And it's also not every year that Big Ten football is going to be so, so bad once you get past the top team.
But the disparity is real, and although it may not be as grand even 12 months from now, the fact is that nobody has thought the best football in the nation is being played in the Big Ten for a long, long time. The closest one might ever come to that conclusion in recent memory is when Ohio State and Michigan were meeting in a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup to finish off the regular season in 2006, but that sentiment fizzled quickly as both teams were spanked in their respective bowl games thereafter.
Past that, the last time the Big Ten looked great compared to the rest of the nation would probably be 2002, when Ohio State won the national title and two other teams made the Top 10 in the final AP poll.
That would probably qualify. And that was a decade ago.
So we know the Big Ten can excel at sports. That's a silly thing to need to have proven, but it's there—the Big Ten is outstanding at basketball and that's probably not going to vanish overnight (though it theoretically could in a sport that hinges so much more quickly on the comings and goings of single players).
And it would be astonishing if Jim Delany weren't privately asking his members, "if we can do this in basketball, why not in football?"
Of course, college football is a sport where programs compete on basically an institutional level, where 22 men start, not five, and up to 85 men earn scholarships, not 13. Strength training is more important, so facilities are more important. The best players have to stay on campus for three years before they're eligible for the NFL draft as opposed to one year for the NBA, so attracting that top talent is a bigger long-term benefit in football. And that top talent, for whatever reason, just so happens* to reside in greater concentrations in the south in football than it does in basketball.
Now, pressure to improve in football is one thing, and doubtless the Big Ten is putting that pressure on its schools (or at least its soft underbelly of annual bowl fodder). It certainly should be, anyway. But pressure by itself doesn't actually solve any problems. You can yell at someone to get out of the bottom of the well all you like, but at some point someone's going to have to come up with a ladder.
That ladder has to be the Big Ten Network and its increasing revenues as the conference expands its footprint. Or at least it's a start. Maybe the recruiting picks up as more areas of the country familiarize themselves with the Big Ten after expansion.
Maybe. Either way, something has to happen soon—basketball is just clowning the pigskin in the Big Ten, and unless the Big East and ACC look like ideal models for the Big Ten's athletic future, that's a problem.
*This appears to be worded like I'm driving at some politically incorrect truth that I'm baiting the reader into thinking without actually having to write it myself (completely bogus move), but I promise that's not the case—and I don't know what it would be anyway. I'm just saying the why isn't really what's important here, because it doesn't change the end fact and the end fact is what Big Ten football has to deal with regardless.
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