Senior-Heavy Big Ten League of Team-Building
During the NBA Draft last week, head Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari said that seeing five UK players drafted in the first round was the biggest night in the history of one of college basketball's elite programs. I'll avoid going over how ludicrous -- and how offensive it should be to Big Blue Nation -- a statement that was for now, considering FanHouse's Ray Holloman has already taken care of that.
Instead, as a Big Ten wonk, I thought something else. It was a pretty good night for the league.
Ohio State's Evan Turner, college basketball's national player of the year, was picked second overall. Not one other player drafted came from the Big Ten. Think about that: only one player from the storied Big Ten was drafted. This might be the point where all the Big Ten haters proclaim the paltry draft number is a sign of the conference's ongoing weakness.
Let's be better than the easy knee-jerk reaction.
Here's what we know about the Big Ten's performance last year. It was, at worst, the fourth-best conference according to the popular gaggle of stat-crunchers, though it would be fairly easy to argue that's entirely too low. It was the only conference to send three teams to the Sweet 16, and, during the course of the year, had three top-six teams. Michigan State made the Final Four, Ohio State stormed the Big Ten tournament and lingered in the top 10 and Purdue may have been a No. 1 seed were it not for Robbie Hummel's injury. When it mattered, the league collectively outperformed seedings in the NCAA tournament. More than anything, though, the Big Ten is home to schools that value long-term program-building. It sounds like something a person could say as a cop out to cover up for a lack of overall talent, but that isn't the case.
Consider only one underclassman entered the NBA Draft and then take a look at the senior class this league has collectively assembled. It's a true outlier among the so-called BCS conferences -- where being a basketball factory has become much more common than building for a great tourney run two-to-four years down the road.
The clear-cut top four teams will all be very senior-laden, each sporting a trio of stars.
Michigan State, which has now been to the Final Four six times in the past 12 seasons, is loaded with experience. Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and defensive stopper Chris Allen lead an all-star senior cast. Lucas and Summers may have had a shot at getting drafted, but instead to friends chose to return and take care of some unfinished business. The Spartans have been to two straight Final Fours, but left both times without a championship. (Side note: There are still rumors swirling that Allen will transfer, but nothing has been made official yet. Even if he does, Lucas and Summers will have plenty of help from the underclassmen).
Purdue has seen its four-year building plan come to fruition as the Boilermakers have assembled as daunting a senior class as anywhere in the nation. Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson are looking to spearhead a charge to the Final Four -- a place the Boilers haven't been since 1980. But, the reason Moore and Johnson withdrew from the draft is because they have their eyes on the same banner the Spartans do -- one Purdue has never won.
Ohio State went to the Sweet 16 and lost its best player, but still retains a formidable core with its own group of senior leaders: Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale and David Lighty. This is actually a rarity at OSU under Thad Matta, but he hasn't strayed from strong underclass recruiting and the Buckeyes will again be good.
Illinois also has a strong trio with Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis returning for their final year. With the talent and leadership of these guys blending in with a touted recruiting class, Bruce Weber is in line for the best season he's had with a team he assembled (the run the championship game was with a team overwhelmingly built by Bill Self).
The rest of the teams aren't lacking for senior leadership either.
It's really business as usual for Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers. They lose two very important seniors (Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes) and will once again have seniors as two key cogs (Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil). Minnesota will be led by seniors Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber. Penn State has a whopping eight seniors, including diminutive superstar Talor Battle. Finally, Northwestern may just make that elusive Big Dance after all, with seniors Kevin Coble and Michael Thompson back in the fray.
And make no mistake about it, the underclassmen aren't exactly slouches. From Draymond Green to William Buford to Maurice Creek to many others and several stellar recruiting classes (Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois in particular), the Big Ten is not just a run-of-the-mill conference.
It's not as if several Big Ten underclassmen stayed in school out of necessity. Buford probably would have gone in the first round (much like Turner passing on the first round status last season). Johnson, Summers, Leuer, Lucas, Hummel and McCamey would likely have garnered enough attention to land somewhere. There were players far worse than Diebler, Moore and Battle who stayed in the draft pool.
The tie that binds is the emphasis on team over individual. With Harris being the notable exception, the only player who left early was one who would have been crazy to stay.
We're talking about a bona fide powerhouse conference that stresses long-term program-building.The Big Ten is home to traditional college basketball, rather than simply existing as a brief weigh station on the way to the NBA. Whether this is by design or recruiting circumstance, it is the way the coaches collectively choose to do business.
For fans of traditional college basketball, it's a pleasure to see. We can dream together that most other conferences as a whole begin to follow the lead. It's not like you can't win without getting a bunch of John Wall types. Look at the last two national champs: the Tyler Hansbrough-led Tar Heels and this past season's Duke team, which had a trio of seniors as a big part of the nucleus.