Program Tiers: Big Ten
Our recent piece on schools that should be perennial powers received a good deal of feedback, so we figured it's the perfect time to capitalize and bring more of the same content.
All jobs aren't created equal. There are some schools that have more funding, more prestige and better resources at their disposal to make recruiting (and, by extension, winning) more sustainable. As an attempt at pegging which jobs in the major conferences are best and which are most difficult based on those factors, we developed a seven-prong tier system, ranging from the perennial blue bloods to the spots with annual uphill battles.
A good coach can raise their program a tier, perhaps even two if there's longevity involved. These rankings fluctuate slightly as a result of the man in the head chair, but are largely dependent on factors outside of who the boss is right now.
What I love about the Big Ten is just how many schools are good pretty much every year. There was a point in time when Indiana was considered a national blue blood, though that time seems to be gone, thanks not only to their own sputtering record but the consistency and success of several other major programs the last two decades. There's a clear bottom-tier of four or five spots, but there are enough resources for any of the league's ten best to win the conference on any given year.
Tier #1 - Bluebloods
None - While no team stands out as an overall blue blood, the Big Ten has so many teams who can be in Tiers 2 thru 4 that it's almost impossible for one to establish itself as the clear alpha.
Tier #2 - Consistent and Historic
Indiana - Assembly Hall. The Bobby Knight factor. Crazed Hoosiers and depth of in-state talent. They can win on a national level by dominating their backyard and reaching for the right out-of-state talent. Tons of money donors, Adidas major connections for the Gauntlet kids... the Hoosiers should sustain success and always be knocking on the door of national success.
Michigan State - Izzo doesn't typically have poor seasons. He's been so good for so long there that people think of the Spartans as close to a blue blood and national power. East Lansing had Magic Johnson, too, and is a pretty well-oiled machine that recruits in-state and in Detroit better than their main rival...
Michigan - The Fab Five era has gotten a lot of traction since the return of Juwan Howard. He can flat-out coach and should be there for a while. He's building on the success of great coach John Beilein; they're moving from a group of overachievers to a national recruiting powerhouse. That's how these programs turn success into sustainable success. Believe in what the Wolverines are becoming.
Tier #3 - Have it Rolling Right Now
Ohio State - Since Thad Matta took over, the Buckeyes have flirted with national relevance and contention on multiple occasions. Since Matta took over in 2004, the Buckeyes have earned a top-ten ranking in ten of the sixteen seasons. With only two Final Fours to show for it, the Buckeyes have transitioned a little bit in the opposite direction of Michigan. They left the Greg Oden and Mike Conley era to move towards more "best fit" talents under Chris Holtmann. He's a really good coach, and with an underrated amount of in-state talent, the Buckeyes should be able to keep it rolling.
Tier #4 - Should Be In Tier 2
Maryland - The local talent in the DMV is elite, the Under Armor connection, the great home game atmosphere and sturdy tradition. The Terps should be in the consistent and historic realm. Instead, they've sputtered mostly at the middle of the pack of the Big Ten. They take two or three years to load up for one big run, then recycle it.
Tier #5 - Places You Can Sustain Winning
Purdue - The Boilermakers are pretty consistently one of the best basketball programs in the conference. But it feels like its built on culture and the identity of their last two coaches (Matt Painter, Gene Keady) than anything administrative. Mackey is a tough place to play and once they get things going, they can stay consistently in the tournament. But Indiana is bigger in-state, and there are clear financial constraints that prevent them from becoming a household name.
Illinois - Chicago talent is hefty, and campus is really nice. They are the best in-state option by far, and with so much talent in Chicago, it can be a place that can turn things around and win pretty quickly. It's not the most glamorous job in the league, though.
Wisconsin - There's been clear identity in Wisconsin for about 30 years, and they've kept to their identity as well as any power-five school. They crush in-state recruiting better than anyone in the conference, and the local talent plays right into their style. It's a system that has been tested a bit since Bo Ryan retired, but Greg Gard has it rolling again.
Iowa - The Hawkeyes don't really sustain success for long periods, but there's definitely an ability to win there. They spend enough and have good facilities to stay on par with the rest of the top of the league. It helps that they consistently crush in-state rival Iowa State on the trail and eat up talent in what is an underrated basketball state.
Tier #6 - In Someone Else's Shadow
Minnesota - There's enough talent in Minneapolis to do okay. The Gophers don't seem too concerned with fending off others to keep it. The state of Wisconsin is pretty much off-limits, so it's really Chicago and out-of-region implants for the Gophers. Facilities are nice and campus is better than it gets credit for. You can win there, but it certainly isn't an elite job in the league.
Nebraska - The facilities are outrageously good out there, and the commitment to that aspect is paramount. But the Cornhuskers, a football school in clear ways, are in a difficult spot. There simply isn't as much local talent in comparison to the rest of the conference. That lack of a jackpot nearby means they have to get creative with their recruiting.
Tier #7 - Uphill Battles
Penn State - I used to argue that the Nittany Lions were missing opportunities. There's a plethora of talent in Philly and New Jersey they could poach nearby. But none of that top-end talent wants to go play games in Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska weekly. The school doesn't emphasize basketball success. State College isn't a kind place for city kids. There are a lot of factors that make winning there pretty difficult in this conference. With too many schools above them that don't mess up, it's hard to see them scraping up farther.
Rutgers - The same East Coast constraints are on Rutgers. Add in a low budget in comparison to the league, only mediocre facilities and a lack of historical success in anything athletic and the Scarlet Knights are always going to be fighting an uphill battle.
Northwestern - Once NCAA Tournament. Unflinching academic rigors. Putrid facilities. It's just not easy to do anything there.
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Assistant Men's Basketball Coach, Dickinson College.