Once the arguments raged: which conference played the best college basketball? No more. Now the question is: why does the Big Ten play the best basketball?
"We've got the best players, the best teams and the best arenas," said Michigan Coach Johnny Orr, the leading chauvinist among the Big Ten. "I think the record speaks for itself."
The record makes Atlantic Coast Conference people wince. This is the sixth season in which more than one team from a given conference could participate in the NCAA tournament. Consider year-by-year marks:
1980 -- Two of the four Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament, Iowa and Purdue, make it to the final four. Indiana and Ohio State lose in the round of 16. None of the five ACC teams makes it to the final four -- two lose in the round of 32 (North Carolina and North Carolina State), one in the round of 16 (Maryland) and two in the round of eight (Duke and Clemson). The Big Ten's NCAA record is 10-2, and one of the losses was Indiana falling to another Big Ten team, Purdue. The ACC record is 6-5.
1979 -- Big Ten champion, Michigan State, wins the national title, the second in four years for the conference. Iowa, the other conference representative, loses in the round of 32, in the same round that both ACC teams, North Carolina and Duke are eliminated. The records: ACC 0-2; Big Ten 6-1.
1978 -- An ACC year. Duke makes it to the national championship game, losing in the final to Kentucky. Big Ten champion Michigan State also is beaten by Kentucky, in the round of eight. Indiana goes out in the round of 32. The records: ACC 4-2; Big Ten 3-2.
1977 -- Again, the ACC is close as North Carolina loses the championship game to Marquette. Wake Forest makes it to the round of eight, also losing to Marquette. Big Ten champ Michigan also loses in the round of eight and Purdue, in a moment of glory for the ACC, loses to North Carolina in the round of 32. The records: ACC 6-2: Big Ten 2-2.
1976 -- This was the year the Big Ten mystique started. While ACC representatives North Carolina and Virginia are gone lickety-split (first-round elimination for both), Indiana beats Michigan for the national title. The records: ACC 0-2; Big Ten 9-1.
Add up the five years (both conferences were 3-2 in 1975, the first year of multiple invitation) and the ACC's cumulative record is 16-13 with no national titles and two appearances in the final four. The Big Ten's record is 20-8 with two national titles (and a third possible) and five appearances in the final four.
"You look at the records and you'd have to say the Big Ten is better," Maryland's Lefty Driesell said yesterday. "But I think there's a big reason for their success -- they haven't got a tournament.
"Look at our players. After we lost the Duke game (for the ACC title) they were all crying. They were very upset. After we lost to Georgetown (in the NCAA) there might have been one guy crying. Actually, they should have been a million times more upset about losing to Georgetown, but they weren't. They just keep hearing 'ACC, ACC' all the time.
"I think they should either abolish the tournament completely or play it at Christmas or something. Supposedly the reason we play it is for money, so let's play it at Christmas and get the money. We'd still sell it out playing them."
That isn't likely to happen any time in the near future. The ACC is a traditional conference and is not about to mess with a 27-year-old institution. tNot only is the tournament a money-maker, but is also is a major tool in fund-raising efforts. Tournament tickets are a significant lure for contributions.
Other conferences -- Southeastern, Southwest, Big Eight, Metro Seven, Eastern Eight and the Big East -- have gone to tournaments in recent years and have the same problem as the ACC. But the Big Ten and Pacific 10 have an tournament, and, according to their members, will not any time in the near future.
"We play a double round robin now as it is, that's 18 games," said Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke. "We think that arduous enough and that's the best way to choose a champion. If you have a tournament where the fifth-place team can come out as your champion (as happened in the ACC this season) what's the point of the regular season? We're happy with our current system."
What's more, as Orr points out, a tournament would not be practical for the Big Ten.
"In the ACC, the schools are so close together it doesn't cost that much to get everyone to a central location," he said. "But that's not true in our league. Everything is spread out. We'd probably end up playing in the Chicago Stadium and that's hardly an ideal place to play."
Actually, the Big Ten coaches are delighted with the current setup. "This league plays the most competitive basketball throughout the season and its record in postseason speaks for itself," said Iowa Coach Lute Olson, who takes his Hawkeyes, fourth-place team in the Big Ten, into the final four against Louisville Saturday.
"It isn't that everyone doesn't play hard all season, because they do, but everyone points towards one goal in March: the NCAA. That may not be true in the ACC."
It is not true in the ACC. Traditionally, the ACC champion has played poorly in its first outing in the NCAA. Even the 1977 North Carolina and 1978 Duke teams that made the final four barely survived first-round games.
NBC commentator Al McGuire, the former Marquette coach, insists that the ACC will never do as well as the Big Ten in the NCAA tournament as long as it has its own conference tournament. "They spend too much emotion in the tournament," he said. "Top to bottom both leagues are great but the Big Ten has that one big advantage. That's the dividing line."
In the late 1960s and early '70s the ACC played the best basketball and UCLA had the best team. But the arrival of Bob Knight at Indiana in 1971 changed that. Knight insisted on allout man-to-man defense all the time. 1While Indiana is the only Big Ten team that always plays man-to-man, the league is known for tomahawk beat-on-the-body defenses.
"That's the big difference to me," Iowa's Kevin Boyle said after the Hawkeyes won the East Regional last weekend. "Out here (in the East) you don't seem to be subjected to the same kind of defense as in the Big Ten. There isn't always that hand in the face or the bump inside. Sometimes, but not always, not for 40 minutes like we're used to."
There is another factor. Black players have flourished in the Big Ten over the last 25 years. The ACC did not have black players until the 1965-66 season when Julius Johnson and Bill Jones were sophomores at Maryland. But once the barrier was broken, black talent quickly became a major factor in the league.
Once Knight at Indiana and Orr at Michigan had upgraded the quality of their programs in the early '70s, the other schools in the league were forced to follow.
"I think '76 was sort of the turning point," Orr said. "When Indiana and Michigan played on national television for the championship, the other teams all began expanding their basketball budgets and stepping up their recruiting.
"Up until then, when we recruited we would run into Indiana and maybe Purdue. After that, it was everyone, everywhere. Most of the other programs were respectable before '76 so when they went all out they didn't have that far to go to be really tough."
Where -- and when -- does it all end? Will the ACC tournament continue to make it difficult for ACC teams to do well in postseason play?
"It's all cyclical," Commissioner Duke said, "We're delighted with the way our teams have played. But I think too much is being made of this comparison between the Big Ten and the ACC. It's gone too far."
And of course ACC aficionados can point out that Virginia beat two Big Ten teams (Michigan and Minnesota) en route to the NIT championship. The Big Ten, however, was 2-0 against the ACC in the NCAA.
Ohio State guard Kevin Ransey probably put the current situation in perspective earlier this season after the Buckeyes had beaten Virginia, 70-65, in Columbus.
Ransey was asked how he thought Virginia would do in the Big Ten.
"Oh, I think they'd do well," he said. "They're a pretty good team, you know. Just because they're ACC doesn't mean they can't play."