The NCAA Tournament isn’t even over yet, but a few Big Ten programs are already looking ahead to next season with coaching changes. Illinois pulled the plug on John Groce, hiring Brad Underwood away from Oklahoma State, while Indiana is looking for a new coach after firing human meme Tom Crean. It’s entirely possible another Big Ten school ends up having to find a new coach before all the dust settles nationally.
These changes have brought up a good question. Just how good are certain Big Ten basketball jobs? In football, the pecking-order is pretty clear, with a few superpower programs having massive advantages over the rest, while the bottom of the barrel (sup, Purdue, Rutgers and Indiana) are also readily apparent. But given the parity in the league for basketball, the hoops pecking order isn’t as cut and dry.
The Chicago Tribune took a whack at ranking these all recently. But we don’t agree with their final result, or even some of their thought processes. Or with the idea that the D in DMV stands for Delaware. It stands for D.C. Nobody cares about Delaware.
But rather than just throw critiques on Twitter dot com, we decided to come up with our own rankings for y’all to fight over.
Ranking jobs is hard! What makes a job a good gig is more than just a fat paycheck (thanks to TV money, everybody in the Big Ten can pay pretty big money), or geographical access to recruits. That stuff matters a lot, but it’s also about fan support, tradition of winning, facilities, and expectations. If you win the Big Ten twice in four years at Nebraska, for example, you get a statue. At Indiana, they fire you. That matters, no?
With those entirely subjective benchmarks in mind, let’s take a whack at ranking these gigs.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rutgers basketball improved dramatically this season, (and yes, they beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament), but they were still the worst team in the conference by KenPom, (131st), and it wasn’t close. Rutgers hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1990, when I was three years old, and well before any current recruits were born, and their fan support, home court, and general infrastructure lags behind most of the rest of the league. This might be a much better job in say, ten years, but the only argument to keep it out of the cellar right now is it’s proximity to New York City, which low-key doesn’t produce as much high level hoops talent as it used to — and the players it is producing, aren’t going to Rutgers.
13) Penn State
The good news is that expectations are pretty low. Pat Chambers, after all, is getting a seventh season, despite not making the NCAA Tournament yet (on the strength of a strong recruiting class last season, but still). The program doesn’t have much of a record of success, and fan support, compared to other conference programs, lags behind (and the sudden growth of their very good hockey program may not help). It’s in a smaller, rural area, and without hiring assistants who are very plugged in to Philly, recruiting the talent needed to compete would be hard.
You know the only power conference school to have never won an NCAA Tournament game before? It’s Nebraska! Multiple Patriot League schools have accomplished what Nebraska has not. The Cornhuskers can claim a beautiful new arena that is still attracting fans, without the crazy expectations that come from lots of fans caring. But recruiting and building is a tough gig. There’s a reason nobody has ever really won big here before, no matter how many good tweets they fire off.
Don’t let this one good season distract you from the fact that Notre Dame finished 4-8, and Northwestern has mostly sucked for a reason. They play in a high school gym with a nice scoreboard that has been loud for exactly one season, and is one Wildcat swoon from emptying out again (plus, Northwestern has to play in the suburbs next season while their arena gets renovated, and nobody is going to go). Northwestern alumni everywhere want to celebrate their team finally being okay, so you don’t have to worry as much about an adversarial press, and the location is great, but tough academics, little history of fan support, and a low, low program floor still make this a tough place to win regularly.
There’s some things to like about this job! Minneapolis is a fun, interesting city. Minnesota fans care, but the expectations aren’t crazy. The facilities are mostly nice, and even though the basketball arena is old and goofy, it has a certain charm to it. But this athletic department has quietly been a mess for a while, and the basketball program is no stranger to scandals and embarrassing headlines. This may be a better gig in two years.
There are plenty of Iowa fans, and Fran McCaffery has shown with the right player development, you can win games here. But with in-state recruiting pickings slim (and with Iowa State to battle with), that development is critical, because convincing multiple blue-chip types to go to Iowa City is a tough sell. There’s a reason Iowa has only advanced into the tournament’s second weekend twice in the last 30 years.
It’s tough to know what to think of this job. West Lafayette isn’t going to make the Big Ten’s postcard for best college towns, but Mackey Arena gets loud and can create real home court advantage. Indiana has a lot of great high school talent, but that marketplace is crowded with Indiana, Notre Dame and other Big Ten schools, but Purdue can go to Chicago and Ohio to get players. But could Painter’s success be sustained if he left, given how much the athletic department has struggled in most other sports?
Full disclosure, I don’t think there’s honestly a huge difference between jobs 1-7 on this list. Illinois is a reasonable drive from St. Louis, Chicago, and loads of Chicago suburbs, where there are plenty of excellent basketball players. It has a great arena, hungry fans, and a new athletic director. But there’s also a reason Illinois hasn’t won much in the last decade, and without the right assistants to build and sustain those recruiting pipelines, you’re another rural Big Ten school. Just because Chicago is in Illinois doesn’t mean Illinois has some sort of birthright to the city, as anybody who has lived there could tell you.
6) Michigan State
Maybe this is controversial, because Michigan State is an elite basketball program right now, bringing in a mix of highly touted national recruits with well developed Midwestern kids from Ohio and Michigan. But if you’re taking this job now, it means you’re replacing Tom Izzo, and stepping in after a master is never an easy job. How much of Michigan State’s success is because of Izzo, and how much is structural now? It’s hard to say, but being the one to find out would be difficult.
5) Ohio State
It’s been a down few years for Ohio State, and it’s true, Value City Arena often has all the electricity and excitement of an empty airplane hangar. But let’s not forget, this is one of the largest, wealthiest athletic departments in the country, so no expense will be spared. It’s in a city that produces quality high school basketball, has an affiliation with LeBron James and has multiple current successful NBA alumni. You can win big at Ohio State. It just takes the right person. And if you lose, hey, you’ll at least you’ll be handsomely compensated.
I think the difference here is very slim, but Michigan offers a lot of the same advantages Ohio State has, only with the benefit of a better home court advantage and more recent success. Plus, as much as it pains me to say this, Ann Arbor is really nice.
Death. Taxes. Bo Ry—Wisconsin being good at basketball. Despite not having a deep in-state talent base, the Badgers have now sustained strong success over multiple coaches. They enjoy one of the strongest home court advantages in the conference, great fan support (but without some of the crazy expectations), the best college town in the conference, and strong facilities. You won’t get multiple McDonald’s All-Americans, and you probably won’t win a title, but you can win a lot of basketball games.
Sure, it’s got the most tradition. It’s got the banners. It’s got a great arena, it’s close to great high school basketball, and it has a massive fan base. But like Nebraska in football, it also comes with massive expectations that may not always be grounded in reality. They just fired a coach, a goofy coach whose pants didn’t fit and who certainly had flaws, who won the dang conference last year. If you don’t win, and win big, and win quickly, the pressure is getting ramped up. Maybe that’s okay for some people. But the advantages certainly come with a price.
To be honest, I don’t feel super strongly about this and could probably be talked out of it. But Maryland is a short jog away from one of the best high school athletics programs in the country. It has a long tradition of basketball success. It’s the Under Armor flagship school. You can recruit elite talent there, it has plenty of fans, but because of the busy D.C. pro sports landscape, it doesn’t come with quite the same media heat as other big metro area jobs. College Park is kind of whatever, but you’re a short Green Line train away from Washington D.C. It’s not a perfect job, but when this gig comes open next, there will be a long line of highly qualified interested applicants.