The Big Ten advanced four teams to the 48-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1982. Indiana and Iowa won openers and were eliminated in the round of 32. Ohio State lost in the opening round. The Gophers were the conference champions. They had a first-round bye, survived Tennessee-Chattanooga 62-61, and then lost to Louisville in the round of 16 in Birmingham, Ala.
It was an unimpressive finish for a Big Ten that had come through its best-ever basketball era:
Indiana beat Michigan in the national finals in 1976 — the second tournament where more than one team per conference could get a bid. Michigan State beat Indiana State in the Magic-Bird final in 1979. Purdue and Iowa were in the Final Four in 1980. Indiana won the title again in 1981.
Jim Dutcher was Minnesota’s coach, and the sideline competition was tremendous. Bobby Knight was still full of steam at Indiana. Lute Olson would be at Iowa for another season. Purdue had replaced the successful Lee Rose with the dynamic Gene Keady.
Jud Heathcote was the first of back-to-back legends at Michigan State. Lou Henson, bad hair and all, was a monstrous recruiter at Illinois. Bill Frieder was the same at Michigan, after replacing Johnny Orr (gone to Iowa State).
Elsewhere, Eldon Miller was perfectly adequate at Ohio State, Bill Cofield was getting fired and replaced by Steve Yoder at Wisconsin, and Rich Falk was about to take Northwestern to its first-ever postseason tournament (the 1983 NIT).
Dutch had his work cut out for him in that league, against those coaches. Another obstacle of that era: There was no Penn State or Nebraska to hold up the standings.
Legend has it that Jim Delany, in his sixth year as Big Ten commissioner in 1995, was so upset with the trend toward lesser-name hires in the conference that he complained when Michigan State promoted longtime assistant Tom Izzo to replace a retired Heathcote.
Izzo’s appointment worked out well for Sparty.
And for all his accomplishments, Izzo must be looking at today’s Big Ten and seeing more first-class opponents on the sidelines than at any time in his tenure — more coaching competition than at any time since Dutcher was winning his Big Ten title three decades ago.
The state of coaching also explains the dilemma faced by Norwood Teague, the Gophers’ athletic director, when it comes to Tubby Smith. Teague doesn’t have the younger, full-of-steam Tubby to take on this extra-challenging Big Ten. He has a Tubby who has overseen teams that became completely unglued in conference play for three consecutive winters.
These Gophers lost 11 of 16, went 8-11 against Big Ten opponents and backed into a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament. The backing in could continue on Friday night: The Gophers have stumbled into UCLA — a No. 6 seed flawed by a lack of depth and a recent injury to standout Jordan Adams.
A victory over UCLA would be Smith’s first in the NCAA in his six seasons at Minnesota. There’s a strong sentiment (from here, anyway) that one win won’t be enough for Teague to keep Tubby.
Maybe Florida, the No. 3 in Austin, Texas, could get waylaid by Northwestern (La.) State, giving Tubby’s bunch an easier path to a Sweet 16. That would be a job-saver, but it wouldn’t change what lies ahead for the Gophers in the Big Ten.
Izzo: fantastic and energetic. Indiana’s Tom Crean: crazed and energetic. Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan: 66 and still the Miracle Worker of Madison. Ohio State’s Thad Matta: known as a great recruiter, and now as an outstanding coach with the rise of the current Buckeyes.
Michigan’s John Beilein: a veteran pro. Purdue’s Matt Painter: a younger pro. Iowa’s Fran McCaffrey and Illinois’ John Groce: Both replaced the humdrum with fire. Nebraska’s Tim Miles: No basketball tradition, but grand facilities for a program builder. Maryland’s on the way in 2014 with the promise of Mark Turgeon.
Teague has reason to be very nervous about the future of Gophers basketball. With today’s Tubby, tomorrow very well could put the Gophers perennially in the same tier as Northwestern, Penn State and perhaps Rutgers ... fighting for 11th through 14th in the Big Ten.