At the beginning of last decade, when conferences snatched up schools and teams scrambled to find a chair before the music stopped, the Big Ten expanded eastward. Its additions of Maryland and Rutgers for the start of the 2014-15 season were wildly lucrative: They extended the Big Ten Network’s reach to the east coast and played significant roles in ballooning conference revenue from $318.4 million in fiscal year 2013to almost $759 million in 2018.
On the men’s basketball court, though, those additions didn’t bring much to the Big Ten’s postseason punch. Maryland, which made back-to-back Final Fours in 2001 and 2002, made four NCAA Tournaments in its first five Big Ten seasons but only reached one Sweet 16. More notably, Rutgers was the conference’s doormat: The Scarlet Knights were 3-33 in league games during their first two seasons, and they didn’t improve much over the next three. They have not finished .500 in conference play since 2001-02 in the Big East, and have not had a winning conference record since their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1991. From 2010-11 through last season, DePaul and Boston College were the only power-conference schools to lose more games than Rutgers.
But this year, breakout seasons have defined the Big Ten. The conference is the best in men’s college basketball, with both Maryland and — shockingly — Rutgers playing central roles, along with a sizable crop of other improved teams.
Rutgers’ surprising basketball renaissance stems from the rebuilding efforts of fourth-year coach Steve Pikiell, a stingy defense and — mostly — an 8,000-seat, on-campus hornets’ nest that has swallowed almost all who have visited this season. “I’m sure I’ve been jeered and heckled in more places,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann told Yahoo Sports’s Pete Thamel. “I’ve just never heard it so clearly.” The Rutgers Athletic Center (better known as the RAC) has always given the Scarlet Knights a home-court advantage — even when mired in futility for the first two decades of this century, they were usually good for a little less than one home upset of a top-25 team per year, on average over the last decade. But playing at home this season, they’ve been a dominant 17-1, the only loss coming last week against Michigan. On the strength of that record, they’re expected to make their first NCAA Tournament since 1991.
Pikiell’s team, however, has only been good at home. Though 17-1 (.944) at the RAC, Rutgers is 1-8 (.111) on the road. That spread — 83.3 percentage points — is the widest in college basketball over the past five seasons, at least. Only some dramatic finishes have preserved that disparity: Rutgers rallied from 18 down to beat Northwestern at home in overtime on Feb. 9, and then the Scarlet Knights’ road woes deepened when they lost to No. 16 Penn State on a last-minute 3-pointer Wednesday.
A competitive Rutgers team is only part of the novelty of this Big Ten season. Illinois and Penn State were also among the league’s five worst teams last season; this year, they’re among the five best. Penn State, Ohio State and Purdue each enter Friday’s games at least seven spots away in the conference standings from where they were projected in the preseason poll. And Maryland has followed up on last year’s No. 24 finish in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings with a top-10 overall showing this year, along with the best record in the conference.
In 2020’s balanced basketball landscape, no conference has more parity than the Big Ten. Twelve of its 14 teams rank between seventh (Michigan State) and 38th (Indiana) nationally in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin. Overall, the Big Ten is the best conference in Pomeroy’s system — according to his calculations, a team that goes .500 in Big Ten play would be good enough to beat an average Division I team by a whopping 17.49 points per 100 possessions.
In the ultra-competitive league, the RAC isn’t the only house of horrors. Early in the Big Ten season, home teams were 38-6, sparing no victims. That record has since regressed toward the mean a bit, and now home teams are 82-38 (.683), which is still the fifth-highest in college basketball this season and seven percentage points above the national average. Both Iowa and Maryland are undefeated in Big Ten home games this season. Only Maryland (5-4) is above .500 in conference road games, by the grace of Darryl Morsell’s last-minute, game-winning 3-pointer that capped a 17-point comeback at Minnesota on Wednesday. It’s certainly something to keep an eye on in the NCAA Tournament, where every team has to survive away from home.
Just two years ago, though, the 14-team Big Ten only put four teams in the NCAA Tournament: March mainstays Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State. Only Michigan and Purdue made the Sweet 16, and only Michigan (which lost in the national championship game against Villanova) made a deep tournament run. Not since 2008, when the conference had only 11 members, had it received just four tourney bids. In 2018, Maryland missed out at 19-13 (8-10 in the Big Ten) and Rutgers was the worst of them all, still in the cellar at 3-15 in the Big Ten. Two years later, well-rounded teams are everywhere in the Big Ten, which is forecasted to produce a record 10 tournament teams — and a conference turnaround that few saw coming.