By the time the weekend is over, the Maryland men’s basketball team will have played eight games in 19 days, including two that open the Big Ten hoops season before college football even ends. The Terrapins played twice in Florida, then once in Upstate New York in a span of three days. From the beginning of Thanksgiving week through Sunday’s game at Illinois, they will play twice as many games as they will have had honest-to-goodness practices.
How the heck are you supposed to get better?
“Would I prefer some more practices this time of year and less tough games and some games we could win and not play as well — but learn from?” Terps Coach Mark Turgeon asked Thursday. “Sure. But it’s not the way it is this year.”
Welcome to the Big Ten’s 2017-18 men’s basketball season. Don’t feel like you have a chance to get ready for it yet because, heck, Wisconsin and Ohio State haven’t yet decided the conference’s football championship? We don’t even know who’s going to the Outback Bowl or the Pinstripe Bowl, let alone the College Football Playoff.
Well, get ready because Purdue comes to College Park on Friday night, and the Terps travel to Champaign, Ill., for a Sunday tilt, and those Big Ten games count like it’s late February, even if it’s barely December.
To thank, we have the sharp elbows at the Big Ten offices, which are headed for the throat of the ACC, which long ago clocked the Big East right in the gut. In college sports, staking out geographic territory is more important than how often the athletes compete or how many miles they travel or what the toll might be.
The Big Ten basketball tournament will be held this spring in that traditional Big Ten hotbed, Manhattan. Now, we can measure the rims at Madison Square Garden, and sure enough they will be 10 feet off the floor, just like they are in Bloomington, Ind., and East Lansing, Mich., and Iowa City and, well, Hickory, for that matter.
But there’s no way that Big Ten tournament won’t have a different feel than, say, all the previous versions in Chicago and Indianapolis. This follows last season’s event in Washington, which five years ago would have made about as much sense as a site for the B1G event as Birmingham, Ala. — until Maryland joined.
So when you flip on the television Friday night and find Purdue at Maryland or wait until Saturday and see Indiana at Michigan or Ohio State at Wisconsin, you have college sports’ overlords to thank. This is a circumstance that affects this season. It has roots nearly 15 years old.
The summer of 2003 is when the tectonic plates below college sports’ landscape began to shift. It started with the ACC, make no mistake, and its decision that there was no reason for the “Atlantic Coast” to be confined to an area south of Maryland. To that end, the ACC pursued Miami, Boston College and Syracuse that summer but ended up, temporarily, with only Miami and Virginia Tech in a fiasco that involved significant political pressure in Virginia — much of it coming from then-Gov. Mark R. Warner, who couldn’t let the Hokies be left behind in a crumbling Big East while Virginia kept its home in the (comparatively) stable ACC.
Whew, what a time. But it’s not that distant, and its impact isn’t over. You can draw a line directly from those mind-bending days — wait, is Nebraska really joining the Big Ten, and Utah will be in something called the Pacific-12? — and the fact that Maryland is playing conference games on the first weekend of December.
The talk, back then, was of making sure a conference had a viable “footprint,” which was code for spreading its members far and wide, mostly to media markets that offered more eyeballs than, say, Greensboro, N.C. It’s why the ACC pursued Boston College, even though college sports there rank somewhere behind which Red Sox lefty is the best fit for the seventh inning and what hoodie Belichick will wear Sunday.
Whatever. The talk of “footprint” led the ACC to Syracuse, which it believed would give it entree to New York. And it led the Big Ten to Rutgers (Rutgers ?!) for the same reason.
Still, having a school near New York isn’t the same as playing in New York, so in 2014, the Big Ten announced it would play the 2018 men’s basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden. The ACC already was heading to Brooklyn and Barclays Center. Lines were being drawn. Don’t be left out!
Problem: The Big East, a shell of its former self, has a deal with the world’s most famous arena through 2026.
So the Big Ten is playing its tournament a week early. And the Terps, along with the rest of the conference, are playing conference games the week after Thanksgiving.
“It is what it is,” Turgeon said repeatedly Thursday, and that’s how a coach must deal with it because he can’t shift those tectonic plates back to where they once were. So look at the schedule, figure out when to practice and play the games.
Still, the calendar fills up in a hurry. And it’s not just the Terps. Purdue, the defending regular season champion, will play Sunday for the 10th time in 24 days, which is the same ratio Michigan will complete by Monday.
“You hopefully get better in games,” Turgeon said, and there is no choice. When they played St. Bonaventure, New Mexico and Syracuse in a span of four days — the off day reserved for a flight from Florida to central New York — “We saw like four different zones, and we saw a team that pressed us, and we saw a team that switched every man screen,” Turgeon said.
No time to practice against them all. So try getting better between TV timeouts.
Additional repercussions will be felt in March, too. It’s not inconceivable that a Big Ten team could lose on the Thursday of the conference tournament — a game before the quarterfinals — and have to wait more than two weeks to play an NCAA tournament game.
There, Turgeon actually sees an advantage. When he coached Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference more than a decade ago, he would have nearly two weeks off between the conference and NCAA tournaments. “You could put like seven new plays in,” Turgeon said. His 2005-06 team used that surprise well, beating Seton Hall and Tennessee to reach the Sweet 16.
So in the name of marketing itself, the big-time Big Ten now has a postseason schedule like the mid-major Valley.
“We talked about playing a game in between and all that stuff,” Turgeon said. “But I think, in the end, everybody realized breaks can be kind of nice.”
Except this weekend, the Terps will host Purdue, sleep in, grab some breakfast, work out the kinks, watch some tape of Illinois, put some shots up, get on a flight and face the Illini 48 hours later.
When’s that break again?