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2018-19 Big Ten basketball preview: The lizards return

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Can a surprise run to the NCAA final, an NIT title, and a new 20-game schedule re-ignite a power conference that has struggled to maintain national attention?

At the beginning of conference play last season, my buddy Ben Goren, a Northwestern alum who’s seen his fair share of bad college hoops, tweeted this, which I have dubbed the Big Ten Lizard:

An entire thread of two months’ worth of Bad Basketball Games from Big Ten teams follows this initial tweet. As this series of tweets demonstrates, the Big Ten was not a good basketball conference during the 2017-18 season. The metrics back this up - in KenPom ratings, the B1G was fifth out of the six major conferences, only beating out the Pac-12. Meanwhile, only 4 B1G teams out of 14 made the tourney, and while all these teams were a 5-seed or above, there wasn’t much depth to speak of in the conference.

Thus, that lizard’s face represented my feelings as I tried to watch conference games throughout last January and February, when a whole bunch of lizard-faced play went down during a shortened conference season. Nebraska going 13-5 in the conference and weren’t even one of the first teams left out of the dance? That’s lizard worthy. Michigan State scraping their way to a title with a whole bunch of last-second victories? Bring on the lizards. More lizards as Minnesota and Northwestern disappointed following successful 2016-17 campaigns. The lizards continued while Indiana and Illinois experienced growing pains with new head coaches. And lizards were found in Wisconsin and Maryland, two teams in rebuilding years that missed the Dance last season. All in all, last season might have been the B1G’s worst season since 2004, when only 3 of 11 teams made the tourney, none higher than a 5-seed.

A funny thing happened in the postseason, though. A 3-seed Michigan squad, propelled by a B1G Tourney win and Jordan Poole second-round buzzer-beater, made it all the way to the NCAA title game. And Penn State, whose basketball team might be the spiritual equal of IU football, won the NIT as a 4-seed, showing that even the mid-tier B1G schools had some fight in them at the end of last season.

But in the midst of these accomplishments, the lizards came back as well. Michigan State, the reigning conference champion, got knocked out in round 2 by a Syracuse team that wasn’t Jim Boeheim’s best and was a questionable tourney selection (never forget that Tom Izzo subbed out lotto pick Jaren Jackson Jr. for walk-on Ben Carter late in that game). And Texas Tech overpowered Purdue with its athleticism in a Sweet 16 game in which the Boilermakers looked completely worn down midway through the second half.

Thus, we come to the start of a new season. We’ve got a few changes for this year that I think are very positive developments:

  • The conference schedule goes from 18 to 20 games. We still get the two conference games in early December — a schedule quirk that I enjoyed last season. But this year, we’re up to 20 conference games. Those two new conference games will most likely replace two cupcake opponents with sub-250 Kenpom rankings for each team, so I’m not complaining. Like the nine-game conference football schedule, this allows B1G teams to play each other more often, and my hope is that the increased strength of schedule will help B1G teams get back to the NCAA tourney. The fear, however, is that the reverse could happen — more games between Big Ten teams could just result in more lizard action.
  • The Big Ten tourney heads back to the Midwest, and it’s back on its normal week. Last season, IU played its last conference game on February 23. This year, it’s on March 10. The shortened conference schedule to make room for the early Big Ten tourney in MSG may have affected how teams played last year and brought the lizards out. And while some definitely enjoyed the tourney in NYC last season, I fell into the group that thought it was miscalculated gamble by Jim Delany, and wholly unnecessary for the conference to squeeze everything in just for the thrill of playing in “The World’s Most Famous Arena” (and I say this as someone who loves NYC and now lives in the Northeast and has for most of my non-IU-attending life). This year, the Big Ten tourney heads back to Chicago, and will be held the week before March Madness begins. Hopefully, the expanded schedule will help teams play better throughout the season. Probably still won’t help Indiana’s cursed B1G tourney legacy though!
  • Indiana plays Purdue twice. Three times in the past 5 years, IU and Purdue only met once. Purdue has dominated the series recently (6 out of the past 7 wins), so perhaps that’s not a terrible thing, but something always felt off when IU didn’t play the Boilers twice but had to do a home-and-home with Nebraska or Rutger. But this is now a protected rivalry, so we’ll get Purdue games in Assembly Hall and Mackey every year. Michigan-MSU is also a protected home-and-home, which is cool because they’re both usually good, and as we saw in their football game last weekend, those two schools haaaaaate each other.
  • Romeo! Yeah, Romeo Langford is on the Hoosiers. I’m very amped about this.

Otherwise, things seem relatively stable in the B1G. For the first time in a while, the conference has no new head coaches. Both Michigan schools seem to be near the top of preseason predictions. Ethan Happ and Carsen Edwards will be dominant players again. Rutger still exists. Monday and Friday conference games remain, and I’m still getting used to them, but I’d rather have a Friday night basketball game than the Friday Night Lights that IU football has to deal with at Minnesota tonight.

Despite the positive changes, there’s still work to do for the Big Ten this season. Five years ago, this was the best conference in all of basketball. In the first half of the 2010s, this was the premiere conference in basketball. But then the Big East leaned in on hoops, the ACC added a couple powerhouses, and the Big 12 improved all round. The B1G still hasn’t caught up. And if it continues to fall in the shadows of other power conferences, the lizards will remain.