The Big Ten, among its many issues, has a problem with its conference men’s basketball tournament.
College basketball is a regional sport with only a handful of schools having true national title expectations every year, the NCAA Tournament is a loser factory. In an ideal world, conference basketball tournaments serve as an exciting culmination to an interesting regular season of college hoops.
Fanbases from all teams gather in one spot that makes sense to converse, take in the surrounding areas before and after the games and, of course, watch the basketball. But a lot has to go right for this.
There’s ways to get this right. The destination needs to make sense, there needs to be established culture and the on-court product has to be good.
One tournament checks all of these boxes: The Big East’s on the men’s side.
The Big East is obviously a basketball-only conference, but the focus and investment in the sport has produced the most compelling product of all the major conferences. There’s legitimate heat when the likes of UConn, Providence, Georgetown, St. Johns and others take the court at Madison Square Garden.
And that’s the thing, it’s always Madison Square Garden. The conference has held its tournament in New York City every year since 1983. It makes sense, the city can more than support all of those fanbases and it’s easy to get to and around for most of them.
It’s the gold standard. The city is great, the arena is historic, the fanbases are rabid and the basketball itself is likely the best in the country.
Then there’s the Big Ten Tournament.
The tournament lacks an established historic location. Conference expansion has eroded much of the league’s traditional matchups and the energy they bring. The style of play isn’t watchable.
The makeup of the Big Ten men’s basketball Tournament can’t be perfected, but it can be improved. Here’s why and how.
You can’t just throw a conference tournament anywhere and expect the fans to turn out. It should be a city wherein that conference has a definite foothold, has enough of a surrounding community to support non-basketball activities and it should be as easy to get to for as many teams as possible.
There’s obviously a few issues that can’t be changed. For one, the Midwest is much more spread out than the Northeast. Going from one end of the conference to another as a fan all but necessitates a flight, which’ll only get worse with the coming arrival of UCLA and USC.
But the Big East has added a few Western members over the years and its conference tournament retains that magic. There’s ways to make it work.
With the Big Ten being so spread out, the issue of travel and location can be addressed by choosing a city that’s roughly centrally placed in the conference. This has been done by alternating between Chicago and Indianapolis.
Chicago is the core of the Midwest with enough fans already in the city to support the tournament before the travel of others. The city obviously has enough to do to support those in attendance as well. It helps that Big Ten HQ is in the city.
Indianapolis is well-positioned to host events, having done so for the Big Ten Tournament, Final Fours, the NFL combine and even the Super Bowl. The city’s built for it despite being smaller than Chicago and benefits from its central location bordering Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State with two in-state teams.
So the location answer is simple, right? You’d think that! Then the conference went and sent the tournament to New York City and Washington D.C. for some reason.
Now, absolutely nothing against either city. Both can play great hosts for events and that’s precisely the problem with the first option. Putting the conference tournament in Madison Square Garden firmly positioned the Big Ten as the second biggest show in NYC in March.
The tournament played second fiddle to that of the Big East, even moving the dates to accommodate it. Having to move your conference tournament so another’s can happen should’ve ended talk of going there in the first place.
There’s plenty of Big Ten fans in New York City but that’s Big East turf. The Midwest is the Big Ten’s territory and the conference needs to keep its tournament there. Moving the Tournament to Washington D.C. created similar issues, there’s other ways to get that region interested in your product without spurning the rest of the conference.
Next year’s tournament is going to be in Minneapolis. While definitely in the Midwest, that still creates issues. There’s a lack of continuity and tradition with the conference moving the tournament all over the place and men’s basketball, be it Gophers or Timberwolves, doesn’t really move the needle in Minnesota (women’s is a different story, it’s a talent-rich region and the Lynx have history).
Like, no offense to the state, but it’s a significantly taller order to ask fans of the Michigan teams or Ohio State to get all the way up to Minneapolis than it is for Chicago or Indy. The city also doesn’t bring the same amount of fans in the surrounding area as Chicago does, so both methods of accommodating fans aren’t present there.
Just, why move the tournament at all? What is the Big Ten gaining from doing so and is it even worth it?
The NFL moves the draft and Super Bowl around because it’s the biggest sports product in America. Every city has NFL fans that’ll turn out for a draft themed around their cultures and the Super Bowl needs no explanation.
The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament is very much not that. You’re not gonna go just anywhere and be embraced, the conference is probably never moving its tournament back to the East Coast again because it presumably learned that lesson.
Moving the tournament around only severs connections in Chicago and Indianapolis without truly building anything wherever it goes. I’m sure the few Ohio State fans in Minnesota will appreciate watching their team in something that isn’t the barn, but the vast majority would prefer it to be closer.
Quit moving the tournaments. Pick a location and stick with it so you can build and improve over time rather than start from the ground up every year or so.
The Big Ten is a historic conference with past postseason success, storied rivalries and plenty of implications when teams take the court.
For example, there’s the Indiana-Purdue rivalry. The Boilermakers lead the all-time series, but have zero national titles to the Hoosiers’ five. Zach Edey won National Player of the Year and Purdue won the Big Ten, but Indiana won both matchups this past season and advanced further in the postseason.
Both fanbases have points to use against the other and those two regular season games are the most heated in the Big Ten. There’s other rivalries between Ohio State and Michigan or the latter and Michigan State and each program knows the others’ history as well as their own.
That changes when it’s Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland or, eventually, UCLA and USC.
Those newer Big Ten teams don’t have a ton of history against the conference on the court or in general. There’s the 2002 title game between Indiana and Maryland but that doesn’t get brought up by either side as much as you’d think.
Bluntly, no actions can be taken to help this issue. The conference moved its tournament to New York and Washington D.C. around the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, but all that did was alienate the league’s Midwestern core.
The only thing that’s gonna help here is time, but those additions may never fully mesh with the rest of the conference all things considered. There’s Midwestern tension with the coasts, but is that really a healthy outlet at the end of the day? Probably not.
The Big Ten, at least on the men’s side, just does not play an appealing style of basketball.
The conference is noted for its defensive reputation, but that has taken the form of physical, tackle basketball that’s being enabled by officiating and by extension the league itself. The style has driven away talent, fomented much criticism of the league as a whole and, damningly, helped sink the conference in March.
When the NCAA Tournament comes around, the league is lucky if more than two of its teams make it to the second weekend of play. Now just imagine how much worse it is when all of those teams are playing one another and the injuries and fatigue start to pile up due to all that physicality. The last three Big Ten men’s basketball tournament champions have combined for one, yes one, NCAA Tournament win.
Meanwhile, the Big East plays a modern style that’s both watchable and works in the postseason. Many of the best coaches in the country choose to do the job in the Big East which, in case you haven’t heard, just got another national title thanks to UConn.
The Big East is an appealing league to coach and play in. The Big Ten most certainly is not, with less than a handful of top-10 recruits choosing to play there over the past several years.
Things have only gotten worse in NCAA Tournament play as the years have gone on and the emphasis on football with all of the dollars it brings makes it less likely that the Big Ten will actually address it.
But it’s an issue worth addressing to get the conference back to where it could be in men’s college basketball. There’s a readily available example of what could happen if the league dedicates itself to change: Big Ten women’s basketball.
Multiple conference teams made it to the Elite Eight and Iowa was the NCAA Tournament runner-up. The Big Ten chose to advance in women’s basketball years ago and the benefits are plain to see, nevermind the absolute disastrous state of officiating on the women’s side nationally.
Work to improve the product and the results will come, the conference tournaments deserve it.