The midwest has had a long lasting love affair with football. Maybe it is because football embodies the tough, blue collar work ethic that is common throughout this part of the country, or maybe because it provides a great excuse for us to drink large amounts of beer and consume large amounts of grilled meats. No matter the reason, our fondness for football and the historical success of the conference has long led fans to consider the Big Ten a football conference. In light of another disappointing bowl season and the recent performance of Big Ten teams in basketball, that may be changing. In this morning’s hive I look at whether the Big Ten is becoming a basketball conference, much like the ACC and the Big East.
Despite the historical success of Big Ten football, the conference has struggled mightily in games against teams from other conferences, most notably bowl games. This year the Big Ten posted a 4-6record in bowl games, putting us in 4th place among the six BCS conferences. This is not a one year abberation, in fact the picture looks even worse when we look at the previous five bowl seasons covering the 2006-2010 seasons. During those years the Big Ten posted a 13-24 record in bowl games, having only 1 season where the conference finished at .500 or above and coming in last among all of the BCS conferences. Over that stretch of time the SEC and the Big East led the way (I really hated typing that) posting 30-16 and 20-8 records, respectively, and finishing above .500 in all five seasons. Third place belonged to the Pac-12 which posted a 16-12 record, only finishing below .500 once. The Big 12 posted a 19-20 mark with 3 seasons at or above .500 while the ACC had 1 season at that mark while posting a 17-25 record.
The picture gets a little better if we look at the number of teams from each conference that finished ranked in the final AP Poll. The SEC came in on top with 25 ranked teams while the Big 10 was tied with the Big 12 for second place with 20 teams ranked. The ACC and Pac 12 each has 14 teams while the Big East only had 12. The final poll numbers for the conference are actually pretty impressive considering the amount of time that the national media has spent pointing out how weak the Big Ten is.
While we all are proud of the Big Ten’s historical success we have to admit that in recent years the conference has struggled against the other conferences. There are a number of explanations that have been offered to explain these bowl records, most focussing on the location of the bowl games and the amount of time off between the end of the Big Ten season and the bowl games. While it is true that Big Ten teams have to travel the longest distances in general but Big East and Pac 10 teams also have had to log lots of miles for the most part and have posted better records. As for the long layoff that Big Ten teams had to deal with due to the conference not having a championship game and ending their season before Thanksgiving, those have been rectified. We have now had two seasons in a row with the Big Ten teams playing Thanksgiving weekend and we have not seen an improvement in bowl record and the addition of the conference title game only impacts two teams.
To gauge how the Big Ten has done compared to the other 5 major conferences in men’s basketball, I take a look at the records for the conferences in the past five NCAA tournaments, 2007-2011, and the results are a bit surprising. The Big 12 actually comes in first place with a 43-27 record (61%), definitely not a result that I was expecting. Second place goes to the ACC which had a 39-26 record (60%) while the Big East earns third place with a record of 56-39 (59%). The Big Ten is tied with the Pac 12 for fourth place with records of 39-28 and 30-22 (58%), respectively. The SEC brings up the rear with a record of 26-22 (54%), always nice to see the SEC come up last in something besides academics.
I was honestly surprised that the Big Ten did not fare better in those stats considering te Final Four runs by Michigan State and Ohio State during that time. While we are still near the bottom of the major conferences in terms of NCAA tournament success, the conference is on a definite uptick in its performance against other conferences; this is best evidenced by the conference winning the Big Ten-ACC challenge three years in a row. The Big Ten also seems to be rising in women’s basketball, earning a tie in this year’s women’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge after losing the first four and posting a win in the innaugural Big Ten-Big 12 Challenge.
Looking at the bowl and NCAA tournament records in recent years, it is disappointing to see that Big Ten is struggling compared to the other major conferences in both football and basketball. At this point I would essentially rule it a tie between the Big Ten’s performance in football and its performance in basketball. Considering the conference’s long history as a football conference, I will rule that the tiebreaker goes to football and rule that the Big Ten is still a football conference. That said, if the recent improvement in basketball continues without a similar improvement in football, that status will likely change in the next year or two.