In 1962, John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to inspire the United States to go to the moon. After mentioning those who question, "But why go to the moon?" he listed other seemingly insurmountable challenges and declared, "We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard." It is with this mindset that I proclaim the Big Ten to be the best conference in all of basketball. Not because it is an easy, free-flowing style of motion offense and incessant dunking, but because it is a hard, grueling journey filled with tough defense and even tougher fan bases. It is in this struggle, this ugly and gritty trek through conference play, where true physical skill and mental fortitude shines through in a way that no other conference could display.
But I did not grow up with this sentiment. I was born into a Big East family (pre-realignment). My mother attended both Marquette and Uconn, my sister attends Pitt, and practically everyone on my father's side is a Villanova Wildcat. I was taught that a Big East Tournament game at the Garden means mandatory viewing, no matter the time. But when I would ask why the Big East would earn so many bids to the tournament and have half of their teams bow out before the round of 32, I would never receive a satisfactory answer. To me, this was because Big East teams could not adapt from tough conference play to the finesse of the tournament. They knew how to beat eachother up, but could never adjust to outplay a quicker and less physical squad. Herein lies why the Big Ten is the best conference in basketball.
Big Ten teams and coaches have the toughest jobs in all of basketball. The variety in the styles of play is mind-boggling. Last season, Indiana averaged 80.0 points per game, good for third in the country. Michigan wasn't far behind with 75.2 points per game. But wait, you ask, I thought the Big Ten was riddled with offensively-challenged, slow-it-down, make-Dr.-James-Naismith-roll-over-in-his-grave teams? Well, you're still correct, as Nebraska averaged 58.3 PPG and Northwestern scored at a 60.7 per game clip. That means that these coaches have to make more adjustments during the season than anyone else. In the span of one week, a coach could potentially have to prepare his team for a high-flying Hoosiers offensive attack, a suffocatingly slow yet effective Wisconsin defense, and then a battle with the Spartans, who can play both of these styles to perfection. And this doesn't even consider the impossible challenge of playing any of those teams on the road. By the end of the season, these coaches have to throw out their entire playbook and basically start from scratch in the tournament, which they do to perfection.
The beautiful thing about the Big Ten is that its best days are probably in the past, but it is entering a new renaissance. It produced legends like John Wooden, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Bobby Knight, but it also had the highest conference RPI in all of college basketball last year. This is a conference where Jerry Lucas and Jalen Rose are both mentioned in the pantheon of great players in history. But it's also a conference that couldn't be in better shape for a strong basketball future after realignment. From barns to nuthouses, each venue is beautifully distinct, but they all share one common theme: they're loud as hell. Now if you're looking for the Best Conference for a Player to Stay One Year and Bolt for the Pros, look elsewhere. Those conferences may be stronger in pure talent, but the battles between the players and coaches and fans don't run as deeply as they do in the Big Ten.
But why go to the moon? Why believe in Big Ten basketball? Because in JFK's words, "That challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win." And over every other conference, to me, the Big Ten wins.