Commentary

Big Ten looking to restore image, successful ways in 2008-09

Originally Published: November 12, 2008
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

In June, Iowa's incoming freshmen had been in town for only about a week when flooding inundated much of Iowa City. Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder and her staff started calling the kids to tell them to go back home for a while, since the campus was closing as parts of it were going underwater.

[+] EnlargeCoquese Washington
Matthew O'Haren/Icon SMICoach Coquese Washington and Penn State upset then-No. 10 Duke last season. But the league needs more marquee wins to restore its reputation in 2008-09.

"I was trying to get ahold of them, and nobody was answering," she said. "I thought, 'Where are they?' I found out they were all out sandbagging.

"I thought, 'Here they are for one week, and they're already protecting their turf.' I was really proud of them."

Now, there is no comparison between battling a natural disaster and playing hoops … yet Bluder's phrase, "protecting their turf," stood out. In a basketball sense, the Big Ten has lost "turf" the past few years. It would like to regain that ground -- and add to it. But it must reverse a negative trend.

In 2007, the league had just three teams in the NCAA tournament field, its lowest total since 1992, when it also had three. At least Purdue had some shelf life in the 2007 postseason, advancing to the Elite Eight.

But last season, when four Big Ten teams made the field, none lasted long. Ohio State, Iowa and Minnesota lost in the first round; Purdue fell to eventual national champion Tennessee in the second. It was the first time since 1984 -- a totally different era in women's basketball, with just 32 teams in the NCAA field -- that the Big Ten failed to advance at least one team to the Sweet 16.

But the Big Ten's coaches think (or at least hope) the league is headed upward this season.

"I think this year the league will be back," Ohio State's Jim Foster said. "For a couple of reasons. You put [Lindsay] Wisdom-Hylton back at Purdue; she'll be a first-round draft pick. So that's a big impact player. [Aisha] Jefferson at Michigan State is a very athletic player. And they are adding other impact players at Michigan State.

"Look at us, returning [Jantel] Lavender. There's [Emily] Fox at Minnesota. We have more of the kind of players necessary to be successful outside the league."

The second part, Foster said, is the new coaches who have come into the league in the past three years. Joe McKeown is in his first season at Northwestern after a very successful 19-year stay at George Washington. Michigan's Kevin Borseth, Penn State's Coquese Washington, Illinois' Jolette Law and Michigan State's Suzy Merchant are in their second seasons in the Big Ten.

Purdue's Sharon Versyp and Indiana's Felicia Legette-Jack are starting their third seasons at their respective programs, although Versyp is in her fourth year in the league. She coached at Indiana in 2005-06 before the job she couldn't pass up -- at her alma mater -- opened the next season. This leaves Bluder, entering her ninth year in Iowa City, as the current longest-serving coach in the Big Ten, with Foster and Minnesota's Pam Borton starting their seventh seasons in the league and Wisconsin's Lisa Stone her sixth.

Thus, much of the "past" -- both the good and the bad -- did not come under the watch of several of the league's current coaches. Clearly, they deserve some time to establish themselves.

"We had some people in our conference like Rene [Portland] and Theresa [Grentz] who had done a lot for the sport and our league," Bluder said of the former Penn State and Illinois coaches, who both resigned after the 2007 season. "But it was probably time to move on. It is fun to see a lot of new faces; they all bring new ideas into the league."

That said, it's important to take note of how little success some of them inherited. Historically, Michigan and Northwestern have been the cellar-dwellers of Big Ten women's basketball, while Indiana hasn't been a whole lot better. The Wolverines have won far fewer league games (126) than any other Big Ten program -- even Penn State, which has played in the conference 10 fewer seasons that the rest of the schools. That's right: Penn State has won 73 more league games during its 16 seasons in the Big Ten than Michigan has in its 26. (The Big Ten officially began women's hoops play in 1982-83).

Michigan and Indiana have the fewest NCAA tournament appearances among Big Ten teams, each with four. But at least they've both made the field in this decade (Michigan in 2001 and Indiana in '02). Northwestern has been in the NCAA tournament six times, but not since 1997.

Those three, plus Illinois and Wisconsin, have not been in the Big Dance in the past five seasons -- a long time when you're talking about the attention span of recruits. And those five programs have combined to win just three regular-season titles in Big Ten history. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of room for improvement from several of the league's schools.

And yet, the national perception of conferences is not based on how unsuccessful its worst programs have been. Rather, it's based on how well its best programs have fared in the NCAA tournament.

Recruiting is boosted by postseason results and visibility. So a drop in one typically results in a drop in the other … and so goes a downward spiral of both. The Big Ten is by no means in the tank. Yet it has taken a few steps backward in prestige, which is something that can happen very quickly in college athletics. (The good news is that it also can be reversed the same way.)

The Big Ten's key perception problem in recent years has been that marquee program Ohio State has lost in either the first or second round in four of the past five seasons. This despite winning or sharing the Big Ten regular-season title from 2005-08.

However, Foster himself gives a negative assessment to only one of those seasons. That was 2006, when Ohio State went 29-3, losing to Boston College in the second round.

"I thought that team was deep and talented," Foster said. "Maybe it could have been a little bit more offensively oriented at the guard position. But athletically, we were good enough. I would view that as a disappointment."

The next year, though, the Buckeyes lost Brandi Hoskins during the season, and couldn't fill her absence in the postseason. Ohio State fell to small-conference upstart Marist in the first round.

Last season in their NCAA opener, the Buckeyes lost to a Florida State team that then nearly made it to the Sweet 16.

It's Foster's viewpoint that Ohio State has had just "one" disappointment in that stretch. But let's face it: That's not how Ohio State has been perceived by women's basketball followers. Fair or not, if most observers remember anything, it's tournament results.

But Foster doesn't believe Ohio State is dealing with any "accumulation effect" going into this season.

"I believe this team is young enough that it won't be an issue," he said. "I think you just need to look at things as they are; you don't overemphasize anything in the past. You've got to be good, and you've got to be lucky."

Purdue -- which has done more to uphold the Big Ten's national reputation than any program -- and Ohio State are expected to be the league's top two teams again this season. Despite multiple coaching changes, Purdue has been the league's rock. Purdue has advanced to three Final Fours, is the only Big Ten team to win an NCAA title and has the league's longest current streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (15).

That the Boilermakers were able to keep that streak going last season -- winning the Big Ten tournament for a seventh time -- was particularly impressive, considering they'd lost standouts Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless to graduation, and Wisdom-Hylton and Jodi Howell to injury.

"We want to get at least five to six teams in the NCAA tournament every year," Versyp said. "And we want to get the respect for the league to help us do that. The future is very exciting, and I think you'll see lot of great things from different programs. There are some growing pains, though."

My short-term list of "needs" for the Big Ten? Purdue just needs to keep being Purdue. The league really couldn't ask for more out of that program. Ohio State needs to live up to its NCAA tournament seed (whatever it might be). Iowa and Michigan State need to make the 2009 NCAA field (they are early-round hosts), as does Minnesota. Somebody in that group of five needs to survive to at least the Sweet 16.

A bonus would be seeing any of the programs under newer management -- such as Michigan, Illinois, Indiana or Penn State -- get an NCAA berth this season.

Longer-term, the league needs to recruit higher-level athletes better (the new coaches are going to impact that). Penn State, which has a winning tradition and a receptive fan base, needs to return to prominence under Washington. She's having to create a new environment at that program after Portland's long and often successful but controversial reign there.

And, of course, the league needs to have another program make a serious NCAA title run the way Michigan State was the last to do, in 2005.

The league must have some "turf-building," if you will. Because women's college basketball as an entity benefits from a stronger Big Ten.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.