By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The Michigan Wolverines are the No. 1 team in the nation. The Indiana Hoosiers were the No. 1 team in the nation. And come Saturday night, those Big Ten titans will clash amongst the candy-striped crazies of Bloomington, Ind., pitting the Associated Press’ No. 1 and No. 3 squads against one another in the biggest college basketball game of the season.
Besides UM and IU, conference kin Ohio State, Minnesota and Illinois have also enjoyed spots in the Associated Press’ Top 10 this year. And just this week, Michigan State cracked a Top 10 list for the first time, checking in at No. 9 in the USA Today Coaches Poll – even though the Spartans lost a game to Indiana last weekend.
Yes, in case you hadn’t noticed, the Big Ten is good this season.
So good, in fact, that on Jan. 16 during ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption” basketball analyst Bruce Pearl declared, “I think you have three teams at the top of the league. I think you have Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota … I think those are the top three teams in the Big Ten, all capable of getting to the Final Four.”
Minnesota, currently ranked in the lower reaches of the Top 25, has fallen off during the past two weeks. Nevertheless, the Big Ten still has four of the nation’s 11 best teams according to the Coaches Poll and four of the Top 13 per the AP. It’s clearly the best conference in America.
But the Big Ten still isn’t as good as it was 24 years ago.
Not yet, at least. And it’s very possible that it won’t be at all.
That’s because in 108 years of Big Ten basketball, the 1988-89 season still stands out as the conference’s gold standard. Just like this year, it featured a slew of Top 10 teams, including a No. 1. But it also posted a combined 15-4 record in the NCAA Tourney, sent two teams to the Final Four and produced the national champion along the way.
If this year’s Big Ten teams are to outshine the feats of 1989, they still have their work cut out for them. No matter how brightly they’ve shone so far.
Past Vs. Present
This past November, the 2012-13 preseason AP poll rated three Big Ten teams among its Top 10 in No. 1 Indiana, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan. Those numbers were similar to 1988, when the inaugural AP poll included No. 3 Michigan, No. 7 Iowa and No. 9 Illinois.
By Week 6 in of the 1988-89 campaign, hot-starting Michigan (No. 2), Iowa (No. 4) and Illinois (No. 5) had all risen into the nation’s Top 5. In comparison, at the Week 6 mark of this season, No. 10 Illinois had joined No. 1 Indiana, No. 3 Michigan and No. 7 Ohio State to give the Big Ten four of America’s 10 best.
By Week 8 of this season, the Big Ten had staked claim to nearly half of the AP’s Top 12 teams (No. 2 Michigan, No. 5 Indiana, No. 10 Ohio State, No. 11 Minnesota and No. 12 Illinois). And here in Week 13, the league still boasts four of the AP’s Top 13 (No. 1 Michigan, No. 3 Indiana, No. 11 OSU and No. 13 MSU).
During Week 13 of the 1988-89 campaign, the Big Ten also had four of America’s Top 13 teams in No. 7 Illinois, No. 8 Iowa and No. 10 Michigan, as well as No. 13 Indiana, which was unranked on Jan. 10 before the Hoosiers ultimately rose as high as No. 3 en route to edging out the Illini to win the league championship.
Entering the 1989 NCAA Tournament, Illinois (which spent a week at No. 1 in late January) was ranked third, Indiana eighth, Michigan 10th and Iowa 14th.
Where the Big Ten’s teams will be ranked by season’s end this year is still TBD, of course. But rankings, as any college basketball fan knows, rankings mean little when judging the true glory of a basketball season.
What really matters is what happens in March. And what did happen during the NCAA Tourney back in 1989 is the reason why that season stands out above the rest – and why this year’s Big Ten bunch has such a high bar to meet for all-time greatness.
Marching Through The Madness
When the NCAA Tournament Brackets were unveiled on Selection Sunday in 1989, five Big Ten schools made the cut, with Illinois earning a No. 1 seed, IU a No. 2 seed, Michigan a No. 3 seed, Iowa a No. 4 seed and Minnesota a No. 11 seed.
That smallish bunch of Big Ten squads, however, made the most of their opportunity. All five schools won their first-round games, including the Gophers’ 86-75 upset of sixth-seeded Kansas State. In the years since then, Big Ten teams have won all their first-round games only three other times (’92, ’98, ’03) and none of those groups fared better than 5-0.
In the second round of the ’89 Tourney, the Big Ten continued to roll with Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota all advancing to the Sweet 16 with victories. Iowa, which fell 102-96 to fifth-seeded North Carolina State, was the only second-round loser.
During the Sweet 16, both Illinois and Michigan won to reach the Elite Eight, while Indiana fell to third-seed Seton Hall and Minnesota was upended by second-seed Duke. The Illini and Wolverines then beat Syracuse and Virginia respectively to punch their national semifinal tickets and give the Big Ten half of the Final Four teams in Seattle.
In the semis, the Illini and Wolverines matched up and despite having lost twice to Illinois during the regular season, Michigan pulled out an 83-81 victory. The Wolverines then outlasted Seton Hall 80-79 in an overtime thriller to capture the national title.
Since 1989, the only comparable Big Ten season has been 1999-2000 when the league went 5-1 in the first round of the NCAA Tourney and qualified three teams for both the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. Wisconsin and Michigan State then both went on to the Final Four, where the Spartans beat the Badgers 53-41 before whipping Florida 89-76 for the national title. Along the way, the conference piled up a combined NCAA Tourney record of 15-5.
The Big Ten of 1999-2000 also twice had three teams simultaneously ranked in the AP’s Top 10 (MSU, OSU and IU), but none of them ever reached No. 1 during the regular season. In 1988-89, the conference boasted a top-ranked team in the regular season, two in the Final Four and one that cut the nets down at year’s end.
This year, the Big Ten has already had two schools ranked No. 1 and has many believing it can send multiple teams to the Final Four and win a national championship. But here in 2013, will the Big Ten really party like it’s 1989?
That’s a question for the ages, but one that Michigan and Indiana might begin to start answering come Saturday night.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.