Why The Big Ten Is College Basketball’s Elite Conference

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Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

Aaron Craft of the Ohio State Buckeyes tries to throw the ball inbounds during their game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium in November.

It’s not just that the Big Ten – historically a football powerhouse – is far and away the strongest basketball conference this year. Realignment is establishing the conference as the country’s premiere league.

Ask even the most diehard of college sports fans these days how many teams are in the Big East. Or who’s going to be in the ACC next season. Or which conference includes Boise State. On second thought, don’t.

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Realignment is upending every major conference in college athletics. Additional revenue streams that will come from more powerful expanded leagues with lucrative television deals is driving the endless shake-up. And college basketball is just along for the ride.

Because the real money is in college football. In 2010-2011, the top 15 revenue-generating college basketball programs brought in $293 million while the top 15 college football programs earned almost $1 billion. As universities jump from one conference to the next, the Big Ten is beginning to emerge instead as the elite basketball conference.

For years the Big Ten was known more for being a center of college football. Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State dominated the college football landscape. With more than 20 national titles between the three programs, football often seemed to revolve around the Midwest throughout the 1980s and 1990s – with an occasional tilt toward Florida and Florida State.

But the balance of power decidedly shifted over the last decade or so toward the south. Eight of the last 10 BCS national champions have come from the SEC. And while the Big Ten’s addition of Nebraska helps keep it relatively top-heavy, scandals have put permanent marks on both Ohio State and Penn State, and Michigan is not near the dominant power football program it once was.

That’s opened the door for men’s basketball to emerge as the league’s most dominant sport. This year, six schools from the Big Ten (Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State) are ranked in the Top 25 (and Wisconsin’s garnering votes), and in the ratings of stats guru Ken Pomeroy (often more reliable), four Big Ten teams are in the top 10. With the return of Indiana and Michigan, two historically rich basketball programs that went through losing seasons in the 2000s, the Big Ten may be the best it’s been since the 1990s.

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The disintegration of the Big East is helping catapult the Big Ten to the top. Long the dominant basketball conference – oftentimes merely because of its size – the Big East is slowly evaporating. Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Louisville and West Virginia are all exiting the conference, leaving UConn, Georgetown and Villanova as the remaining top teams. (And it’s even unclear whether those teams will all stick around.)

Meanwhile, teams are clamoring to join a conference that sits in the heart of the Midwest — rich with basketball recruits. Fans often forget about coaches like Tubby Smith, who’s quietly led the Minnesota Golden Gophers to a Top 10 ranking this year. Tom Izzo’s Spartans and Bo Ryan’s Badgers seem to reload every year and rarely miss a spot in March. And a handful of young coaches, including John Groce at Illinois (who built mid-major Ohio into a giant killer), round out a formidable coaching lineup.

The only other conference that could make an argument for elite status after conference realignment is the ACC, which has added Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East to go along with favorites Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State. Both Louisville and Syracuse are ranked in the Top 10 this year – along with former No. 1 Duke.

But even though the ACC has gained some basketball toughness, its historically been been top-heavy, with Duke and North Carolina trading championships year after year with the occasional appearance by Maryland, Wake Forest or N.C. State. It’s never been very deep, and realignment will certainly give the conference more depth. But in the end, the ACC still can’t match the Big Ten’s coaches, recruiting pool or historically rich basketball programs.

The Big Ten looks as if it will dominate the college basketball landscape for the next several years. It’s starting to even look a bit like the glory years of the 1980s and 1990s – just in a different sport.