Big Ten Basketball: It Ain’t What It Used to Be

(AP photo of Purdue’s Robbie Hummel)

Last week, I was interviewed by the Big Ten Network for a program it is doing on the Big Ten’s 1989 men’s basketball season.

I did so with reservations because a) the Big Ten Network is one of my favorite targets and b) talking about something that happened 20 years ago isn’t good for my swashbuckling, youthful image.

But I did it anyway, because any kind of promotion we in the newspaper/online racket can do is welcomed. Plus, despite the risk of looking like a cranky old swashbuckling, youthful type, I believe college basketball was so much better two decades ago than it is now and wanted to say so. The Iowa team of 1989, for instance, was imperfect. But man, could those guys play.

My feelings were confirmed this week when the Big Ten announced its preseason all-conference team. It consists of Robbie Hummel and E’Twaun Moore of Purdue, Raymar Morgan of Michigan State, Manny Harris of Michigan, and Marcus Landry of Wisconsin.

Good players, one and all. Players who averaged double-digit scoring last year, one and all. People I couldn’t recognize if I saw them on the street, one and all.

Hummel is the league’s preseason Player of the Year. He averaged 11.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game last year. Not exactly the numbers of a league legend-in-the-making. Now, that’s no insult to Hummel. He plays with passion, smarts and great skill. He is a fantastic 3-point shooter. He was integral to the Boilermakers going 15-3 in the conference last year to finish a game behind Wisconsin. He deserves his honor.

But in days of yore, Hummel wouldn’t have been considered for preseason Player of the Year. Ten years ago, the league had Mo Peterson and Mateen Cleaves at Michigan State and Michael Redd at Ohio State. The latter was on this year’s U.S. Olympic team. Peterson is still a productive NBA player.

That 1989 season the Big Ten Network will focus on had the national-championship Michigan team led scoring machine Glen Rice. Illinois reached the Final Four with Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle and Kendall Gill. Indiana won the regular-season conference title. And Iowa finished fourth with five future NBA players in B.J. Armstrong, Matt Bullard, Ed Horton, Les Jepsen and Roy Marble.

Guys like Rice and Anderson, who had long NBA careers, didn’t leave for the pros after one college season or two. Thus, college basketball was better.  I’m not pushing for the NBA to close its doors to college freshmen the way it has to those who are fresh out of high school. It’s un-American, for one thing, and I put country first. Or no lower than third, anyhow.

But when you see Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. about to enter their second year as pros after playing all of one year at Ohio State, you know the college game has changed for the worst.

Who knew that Michigan’s “Fab Five” would one day look like a stable unit that was together a long time until Chris Webber left following his sophomore season?

The good news in this for Iowa fans is that it increases the chances the Hawkeyes will eventually vie for Big Ten titles. Todd Lickliter seems to be focused on recruits who are willing to be part of something bigger themselves. You know, the four-year guys. The kind Drake was stocked with last season when it beat every team in the state and lived in the national rankings for the better part of two months.

Wisconsin has thrived with such guys. Bo Ryan’s Badgers have won 30-plus games in each of the last two seasons. That couldn’t have happened in decades past. But as a basketball fan, I’d rather watch the Fab Five or “Big Dog” Robinson than Ryan’s teams, as well as they play the game.

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