In the process of bagging on the Big Ten for being populated with cheap athletic directors who don’t exploit the league’s revenue advantages by hiring coaches with credentials, it occurs to me that I ought to take a crack at explaining why the league is doing much better in basketball. KenPom has the league atop his ratings this year, while Sagarin puts the Big Ten a hair behind the Big East in second place. Sagarin had the Big Ten as the best conference in basketball in 2008-09, so the league’s success isn’t necessarily a one-year blip. (Caveat: this is the first year that KenPom has had the Big Ten in the top two and only the second year in which it has had the league in the top three, so by that measure, 2010-11 is indeed a outlier. If you go by those numbers, then this year is simply the product of the Big Ten having a number of very experienced teams.) So how do I explain the Big Ten’s success in basketball as compared to its wasted potential in football? I’m glad you asked:
1. College basketball doesn't penalize lack of proximity to talent. Take the best programs in college basketball: Duke, UNC, Kansas, and Kentucky. (Historically speaking, we can include Indiana.) While these states are basketball hotbeds, they aren’t exactly population centers brimming with talent. Those programs all recruit nationally and they are able to do that because they only need three players per year. College football is more of a numbers game, so when a top program is putting together a recruiting class, it is harder to assemble 25 players from all over than it is to assemble three or four. That would explain why college football powers are found in Florida, Texas, and California, but the same is not true in college basketball (with the exception of UCLA). Also, the top college basketball players are used to traveling with their AAU teams, so going far away for college doesn't strike them as unusual. It’s not as hard for Roy Williams to convince Marvin Williams to cross the country to play in Chapel Hill when Marvin had already been a jet-setter in high school.
1a. All that said, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Illinois all recruit locally and they all have good local talent bases. The explanation might be as simple as the fact that the Midwest is more into basketball, culturally speaking, and the South is more into football. I'd bet that the Midwest does a lot better in the Rivals 100 in basketball as opposed to football. Michigan, for example, produces far more basketball talent than football talent. Illinois and Indiana are the same. The only major football talent-producing states in the Midwest are Ohio and Pennsylvania and the latter isn’t quite what it used to be.
2. College basketball has evolved in such a way that teams can compensate for lack of talent, especially on defense. There are two major examples: (1) mugging players away from the ball (a.k.a. Big Ten defense); and (2) flopping under the basket to prevent opponents from scoring on drives to the basket (a.k.a. Duke defense, although the Devils don’t do this as much as they did in the Battier era). Think about a football equivalent. If officials started allowing defensive backs to grab receivers with impunity, don’t you think that the Big Ten would do better in match-ups with the SEC? Ditto for offensive tackles tackling defensive ends. The SEC has better athletes than the Big Ten does, but that advantage would be negated in an anything-goes environment. (Caveat: this explanation reflects my status as a fallen college basketball fan, so take it with a grain of salt. I don’t watch enough college basketball to make the claim with confidence.)
3. We can predict with greater certainty whether a college football coach will do well because the nature of the game gives us a better read on a college football coach’s merit. Because football coaches call plays on every play (or at least hire and supervise the coordinators who do so), they have more control over events than their basketball equivalents do. Thus, a college football coach’s record will be a better reflection of his coaching ability, whereas a college basketball coach’s record will be more dependent on talent. Thus, hiring the best available (and most expensive) college football coach is more of a sure thing than hiring a blue chip college basketball coach. (Caveat: if basketball success is more dependent on talent, then hiring a college hoops coach who can attract talent is a sure way to win. See: Calipari, John and Pitino, Rick.) The Big Ten has done well with in-house promotions and hires from the local lower tiers: Matt Painter, Bo Ryan, Bruce Weber, and Thad Matta. In fact, the Big Ten coaches who came in with the best credentials – Tom Crean and Tubby Smith – have produced underwhelming results (although both are relatively new in their jobs and Crean inherited an absolute disaster). The Big Ten would not and does not do as well with local promotions in football.