Opinion - The Big Ten shows its true colors

By Larry Smith/IlliniGuys.com

Quick show of hands:  how many of you are prejudiced or biased?

It's an awkward question, I know, but bear with me.

For those of you who raised your hands, thank you for your honesty.  For those of you who didn't, step away from this and go take a good long look in the mirror. (We'll still be here when you come back.)  Because we ALL are guilty of prejudice and/or bias.  It's human nature.  We may hold people who drive expensive cars in higher regard than those who don't.  We might look down on people who live in certain neighborhoods as opposed to other zip codes.  In sports, I've had a veteran referee admit to me a personal bias that affects the way he calls things late in games.

I have prejudices and I have biases.  I'm not going to list them in this space, but trust that I'm very aware of them and I battle within every day to not allow them to cloud my judgment or hurt an innocent person.

And we now know...the Big Ten is biased too.

When the Michigan athletic department elected to shut down all of its teams for two weeks due to the discovery of COVID-19 variants, the rest of the sports world was shocked, but supportive.  We need to keep everyone safe and individual programs at dozens of other schools have had to stop and postpone games, so by all means step away and get your house in order.

But that widespread support began to crack and chip away when  - at the end of the two weeks - the announcement came that the Michigan men's basketball team would extend its hiatus and postpone its first game back to a later date.  There were few details or reasons given, but here's what we learned:

  1. Immediately there were reports that the team - which hadn't practiced during the shutdown - was beyond rusty when they hit the gym for the first time back
  2. Their next opponent - 6th ranked Illinois - would be their highest ranked opponent all season and the Illini were hot, coming off a home spanking of then-#7 Iowa, an overtime win at a determined Indiana team, and were in the process on that day of dismantling a ranked Wisconsin squad.
  3. Head coach Juwan Howard admitted within days of the announcement that no one within his program had tested positive for the coronavirus.
  4. The Michigan women's team - ranked in the top 15 like the men and off to the best start in program history - was allowed to play its next game as scheduled, a contest at Purdue at the same date and time that the Michigan-Illinois game was scheduled.
  5. The Michigan wrestling team - ranked #2 in the country - was allowed to compete in its next meet as scheduled a day later.
  6. Just last week, Howard told reporters that some things regarding rescheduling had been discussed but "I'm not in position to talk about that".

Reading through this list, it's hard for anyone - not just in Illini nation, but many pundits and even casual observers around the country - to come up with a reasonable excuse for why Michigan's men couldn't take the court as scheduled.  It's pretty clear - they didn't want to face Illinois after a few disjointed practices.

That aside, Michigan now had five postponed games to make up.  So we waited.  Day in and day out. The Big Ten had a plan, right?  Surely it was coming.  The conference brass made last place Nebraska play a whopping seven games in five cities in 12 days.  Without any further hiccups, the Huskers will play a total of 14 games in 30 days to end the regular season.

So, to fit five games into Michigan's remaining schedule should be pretty easy, right?  The conference waited two weeks to make the call. Finally it came.  Would the front-running Wolverines have to scramble a la Nebraska to get in all 20 league games?  Nope.  Just two of the five games - home dates with Illinois and Michigan State - will be played.  Road games against Penn State and Northwestern and a home game vs. Indiana will be canceled.

To the conference's credit - if you want to give them any, at least they did reschedule the Illinois game, given the Illini have been in second place throughout this saga and it's the one game everyone wants to see happen.  But the Wolverines had six days off between games this week and four more days next week.  Even with the added games, Michigan has the next four off and will leave the state only once in the final two weeks.

Eight games in 22 days for the Wolverines.  Busy, but not Nebraska-esque.  Why?  Because the maize and blue matters and the Huskers don't.  Not in basketball.  There are possibly other issues involved, like having enough officiating crews, and we respect that.  But you found a way to make it work for Nebraska.  Why wasn't the same done here?

This feels a lot like the Big Ten's decision to basically anoint Ohio State its football champion last fall instead of abiding by its 6-game minimum rule and having an upstart Indiana team try its hand.  If the Hoosiers fell and failed to be chosen for the College Football Playoff, that's a massive payday lost.

The finances here are different - Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State all figure to go deep into the NCAA tournament, but the favoritism reeks of the same scent.  The Big Ten's decision all but eliminates preseason favorite Iowa and now Ohio State - each with five conference losses, four more than Michigan - from contending for the regular season crown.  Granted, nothing is guaranteed for the Wolverines.  They still must face Iowa and Illinois - both at home, will travel to face an Indiana team trying to earn an NCAA tourney bid, and have Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State twice.  But three less games means fewer chances to stumble and it's unlikely the Wolverines will lose four of their final five matchups, which they would have to do to bring the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes back into the chase.

COVID has touched us all and turned everything in our world upside down.  For the players and coaches to focus enough to bring us this beautiful game night in and night out and to do so safely is nothing short of remarkable.  But the conference brass had a chance to do the right thing and they blew it.

So, to the Big Ten, you can step away from the mirror now.  Your goose is cooked.  We know.

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