The Big Ten has become the big bully on the hardwood this season.
It unquestionably is the best basketball conference in the country.
Indiana is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls. Michigan State is No. 4 in the AP poll and Michigan is No. 7.
Two other teams, Ohio State (No. 18) and Wisconsin (No. 19) also are ranked, and Illinois and Minnesota are among the top four teams outside the Top 25 receiving votes.
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For now, at least, football has been forced to take a backseat to basketball in the Big Ten.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the best year I’ve seen in the Big Ten, but it’s really good,” ESPN analyst Dan Dakich said last week. “What makes it fun, is that it’s kind of even, with some really good teams.
“People have a tendency to say, ‘Well, college basketball’s just the (NCAA) tournament,’ when really it’s not. The regular-season games have been great.”
That’s especially true of last Tuesday’s Indiana-Michigan State game. The Hoosiers finished with a 9-1 run to beat the Spartans 72-68 and snap a 17-game road losing streak in East Lansing that dated to 1991.
“Michigan State or Indiana, either one of them are good enough to win the national championship,” Dakich said.
Unfortunately, there has been little to cheer about in Happy Valley, where basketball has played second-fiddle to football for much of its 117 seasons of existence.
In November, Penn State coach Patrick Chambers lost star point guard Tim Frazier to a season-ending Achilles injury.
Now, more than three months later, and with just four conference games remaining, the Nittany Lions are 0-14 and mired in the basement of the Big Ten.
Penn State (8-18 overall) has never gone winless in conference play since joining the Big Ten - the 2005 team did finish 1-15 under former coach Ed DeChellis - but 0-18 is looking like a distinct possibility. Despite the fact that Penn State’s basketball program rarely is relevant in the winter, Dakich has been impressed with the Nittany Lions’ work ethic after working a handful of games for ESPN this year, including last Sunday’s 79-71 loss at Michigan.
“Seven out of the 10 years I was at Bowling Green, I lost my best player, so I know what coach Chambers is going through,” said Dakich, who coached the Falcons from 1997-2007 and served as interim coach at his alma mater Indiana for the final seven games of 2008 after Kelvin Sampson resigned in wake of an NCCA recruiting scandal.
“It’s just draining on everybody because you get excited about the team, you’re ready to go, and then instead of developing and getting better as a team, you’re trying to mix and match and move guys around,” Dakich said. “Nobody feels sorry for you. It wears you out. It kind of drains everyone.”
Dakich played for Bobby Knight at Indiana and later coached under him. And Dakich said he has empathy for what the Nittany Lions are going through.
“They’ve had their brains beaten out, and everything in between, but they don’t seem to have lost their sense of each other,” he said. “Penn State’s still competing. In my mind, that’s a really big deal.”
Despite guiding Boston University to the NCAA tournament in 2011, Chambers has a 20-37 overall record at Penn State in two seasons and the Nittany Lions are just 4-28 in Big Ten play.
Chambers has three years remaining on his contract, and isn’t the first coach to find the sledding tough at Penn State, where the school has more NIT invites (10) than NCAA tournament appearances (9).
Additionally, the Nittany Lions have had just 10 players drafted by NBA teams, but none since 1999, when Calvin Booth was a second-round pick of the Washington Wizards.
DeChellis, now in his second season at Navy after being involved in the Penn State program for 22 years in various capacities, including eight years as head coach, recently told the Patriot-News of Harrisburg that he left Penn State in May 2011 – two months after guiding the school to its first NCAA tournament berth in a decade - because of dwindling attendance and the lack of a basketball culture.
It didn’t help that DeChellis’ Nittany Lions had to vacate their home court for practice at the Jordan Center for 10 days while Bon Jovi tuned up for the start of the band’s “Live 2011 Tour.”
Dakich thinks Chambers made a smart move by aligning himself with the football program and coach Bill O’Brien, who guided the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record in his first season despite heavy NCAA sanctions.
“Penn State (basketball) doesn’t have the same advantages like they do at Indiana, Ohio State or Michigan, where there are recruits all over the place,” Dakich said. “You’ve got to build it. And I think coach Chambers is building it pretty good.
“I think coach Chambers did a great thing by embracing coach O’Brien’s football program. I think that’s a real advantage for Patrick. You bring (recruits) in on football weekends because that’s when there is high energy and the campus is rocking and rolling. That can only help.”
Chambers signed four three-star prospects during the NCAA’s early signing period in November. Two of the 2013 recruits are from Pennsylvania - 6-3 guard Geno Thorpe from Shaler High School in Pittsburgh and 6-10 forward Julian Moore from Germantown Academy near Philadelphia.
“I don’t know coach Chambers’ recruiting classes by heart, but I know the most important guy coming back next year is Frazier,” Dakich said.
Once Frazier is back in the fold, maybe Penn State will be able to work its way back onto the basketball map in the Big Ten.
At this point, that’s a big maybe.
Ron Musselman is a freelance writer living in Centre County. Follow him on Twitter@ronmusselman8.