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Tom Oates: Breaking down the 2018-19 Big Ten men's basketball season
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Tom Oates: Breaking down the 2018-19 Big Ten men's basketball season

Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany, basketball man that he is, no longer wants to surrender November and December to college football.

"I don't think there's anything less interesting than bad college basketball in the month of November," Delany said recently. "We're trying to improve it."

Delany's latest attempt to accomplish that is by making the Big Ten the first men's basketball conference in the country to move to a 20-game league schedule.

The Big Ten played 16 conference games from 1997-98 to 2006-07 and 18 from 2007-08 through last season. Starting this season, that will increase to 20 as each team will open Big Ten play with two conference games on or around Dec. 1, then resume conference play a month later with an 18-game sprint to March Madness.

When you add those 20 games to a game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and a Gavitt Games date against a Big East team, it guarantees each Big Ten school 22 games against opponents from power conferences, including four in November and December, which has become a wasteland of "buy" home games against non-competitive opponents for most big-time programs.

None of this is surprising because it was driven by television. The Big Ten's television network partners have no interest in a Michigan-Bethune Cookman game. On the other hand, Michigan versus North Carolina or Indiana in November and December is something network executives crave.

"We're going to try to have more meaningful games," Delany said. "We have 22 pretty powerful games. We're not going to cede the college sports scene to college football."

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has watched Delany bow to the wishes of television money over the years. What is surprising, however, is that Delany met with little resistance on the move to 20 games. Indeed, he even acquired some surprising allies.

The Big Ten coaches.

"It's going to be an interesting challenge," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "But I think the madness behind it, it usually works out best for the student-athletes, for the media, for the fans and for the players because you play in the best arenas, you play in the best games, you play in front of the most people. It gets you the exposure you're looking for. Sometimes for a coach it's harder because it is just constantly grinding it. But I think most coaches like it, too. I know I do. I'd rather play good people."

Playing two early season conference games actually began last year, when Delany switched the conference tournament to Madison Square Garden in New York but had to move it up a week to secure the building. Holding the tournament in faraway New York a week before NCAA Selection Sunday was universally panned in most Big Ten states, but the early season conference games proved to be no problem.

"At first, I didn't think I would like the 20," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "But (non-conference) scheduling is so difficult, trying to get teams to play you home and home. We've been able to really do a good job with that, but it's really hard. If Jim said, 'We're going to go to 22 or 24, what do you think about going to 26?' this is crazy now, but I'd say, 'You know what, let's do it.' Scheduling is really, really hard.

"Getting home games for your students in December is everything. If you were at our (Big Ten) games last year − home with Indiana, away at Ohio State − that first weekend in December, packed arenas. It was great. One of the best moves we've made is play in December and expand the schedule. Who knows where it could go from here."

A byproduct of the move to 20 games is that it will enhance the NCAA tournament résumés of Big Ten teams by upgrading their strength of schedule, whether they like it or not. Most will like it, especially after the Big Ten received only four bids to the NCAA tournament last season.

Michigan saved face for the Big Ten by reaching the NCAA championship game, but four bids was the fewest for the conference since 2008. For comparison purposes, the ACC had nine bids.

“For us, to be able to get quality opponents in your building, it's important to us early because our fan base loves it,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “More importantly, though, last year from studying what the NCAA Tournament was looking at, they're looking at how many good wins you have. They're not looking at who you lose to. That really isn't relevant anymore. I mean, certainly we don't want to lose, but if you can stack up as many quality wins as you can, it's good for everybody.

“I think it's great. I think a lot of the power five or power six conferences will go to (20 games). The Big East probably can't, but for us, I think it's really smart. I think it’s a good idea.”

Of course, anything that helps the Big Ten succeed in the NCAA tournament is a good idea. The conference hasn't won an NCAA title since Michigan State did it in 2000. Since then, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State, the University of Wisconsin and Michigan (twice) have come up short in the NCAA final.

Though this looks like a season where the Big Ten has few great teams and eight to 10 pretty good ones, Beilein feels it's only a matter of time before the Big Ten breaks through with a title.

"We're right there," he said. "This is a referee's call, this is a ball bouncing the wrong way, this is an injury away from us winning, it's that simple. It will all come back around. Our programs are just too good not to win a national championship somewhere along the line."

Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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