More than three years after the Big Ten announced it was bringing its men’s basketball conference tournament to Madison Square Garden for the first time, celebrating the move as an ambitious step in its eastward expansion, the event will get underway Wednesday with a different tone.
Not only did the league suffer through one of its most mediocre years in recent memory and could send just four teams to the NCAA tournament, but those results came at a steep price. Playing the tournament in New York meant doing so a week early; the Big East has the Garden reserved next week, the traditional time of power-conference tournaments, and the ACC is booked for Barclays Center in Brooklyn. By pushing its tournament forward for the sake of playing it in New York, the Big Ten was forced to play a condensed schedule that league Commissioner Jim Delany said “wasn’t healthy” in an interview with the Chicago Tribune this month.
Delany vowed to not repeat compressing the league schedule like the conference did this season — the Big Ten fit 112 of its 126 conference games into a 55-day window — and the tournament will likely not be back in New York anytime soon. Meanwhile, the league’s coaches are trying to squeeze everything they can out of their tired rosters and are preparing for a layoff before the NCAA tournament that will last well more than a week.
Teams had the option of scheduling nonconference games after the tournament, but none did. The consensus was clear: They will gladly take the rest.
“We’re thinking about going to the Bahamas for a week, having a little spring break. I can’t say that I was a big fan of it . . . because we are creatures of habit,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “I understand why [Delany] and the conference had to do it.”
“I don’t think anyone is blaming Jim or anything. I think it’s all something we agreed to do,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said. “Was it hard? Yeah, it was probably hard.”
Delany told the Tribune that about 14,000 tickets had been sold for all of the tournament sessions, which begin Wednesday and conclude Sunday with the championship game. Tickets for Wednesday’s first-round matchups — Iowa vs. Illinois, and Minnesota vs. Rutgers — were selling for as little as $6 on StubHub.com this week.
That comes a year after attendance cratered at the event’s first East Coast showing in Washington, averaging just 13,281 fans. The previous year in Indianapolis — which, with Chicago, is where the tournament often has been based, the average was 16,722.
It remains to be seen whether the perception of the league’s quality of play, which has taken a hit over the past two seasons, will have any impact on attendance this week in New York. Michigan State (28-3, 16-2) is a national championship contender, as is Purdue (26-5, 15-3). Ohio State (24-7, 15-3) and Michigan (24-7, 13-5) appear to be locks for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. After that, it’s a mixed bag. Nebraska (22-9, 13-5) and Penn State (19-12, 9-9) enter the tournament on the bubble, but only one other team finished at .500 in league play this season: Indiana at 9-9 (16-14 overall).
“The good news is that we’re going to a postseason event and we know that we’re going to play,” Nebraska Coach Tim Miles said, knowing his team could have to wait a week to know whether it will play in the NCAA tournament or the less prestigious National Invitation Tournament. Miles will give his team plenty of rest during next week’s layoff but is already hard at work devising a plan to balance its “competitive edge.”
At Michigan, the plan for balance has already taken shape. Wolverines Coach John Beilein has been in this scenario before — in previous coaching stops at Canisius and Richmond, there were layoffs after winning the conference tournament — and he will frame next week as a training camp in Ann Arbor. He plans to practice hard for two or three days, followed by a day of rest, and will also likely work in a live 30-minute scrimmage, complete with officials.
“It is different when you’re used to the other format,” Beilein said, “but we’ll still find a way.”
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