Rebuilding in Big Ten challenging for bottom 3
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Tom Crean came to Indiana after five NCAA tournament trips and a Final Four appearance at Marquette. John Beilein won 73 games in his final three seasons at West Virginia, and Iowa's Fran McCaffery was the only coach in the country to lead his team to three straight regular season and conference tournament titles while at Siena.
All three have hit a wall in the top-heavy Big Ten.
Indiana, Michigan and Iowa are the three worst teams in one of the nation's best leagues. The Hoosiers, Wolverines are 2-6 in the Big Ten and the Hawkeyes are last at 1-7, seemingly stuck behind a slew of powerhouse programs led by marquee coaches with well-established roots.
The strength and stability of programs like Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois have made the challenge of cracking the top half of the Big Ten tougher than maybe any league outside of the Big East.
The top six teams in the Big Ten standings were in this week's AP Top 25, from the top-ranked Buckeyes to the 25th-ranked Spartans.
"There's leagues out there that are very cyclical. This is not, over time, proven to be a cyclical league," Beilein said. "For the most part, the coaching situations have stayed stable, and they've been able to get to the top and the rest of us are fighting for the sixth or seventh spot."
The head coaches at the top six schools in the Big Ten have a combined 51 years of experience at their current schools. Crean, Beilein and McCaffery have just eight.
"There's rebuilding, and then there's what we've been doing the last three years, and it comes at a really bad time when you have the league as strong as it's been over a period of years," Crean said.
Beilein took the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament in just his second season in Ann Arbor — with fired coach Tommy Amaker's players — but the good times haven't lasted.
Michigan, which has only been to the tournament once since 1998, dipped to 15-17 last year and have drifted even further behind this season. The young Wolverines dropped six straight before Thursday night's 61-57 victory at Michigan State.
Crean inherited a program rocked by Kelvin Sampson's damaging stint in Bloomington and went just 16-46 the past two seasons.
Many thought this would be the year the Hoosiers would begin to show progress, but injuries have exposed depth issues common in most rebuilding efforts.
Sophomore guard Maurice Creek, who started 13 games this season and was averaging 8.3 points, recently had surgery to fix a stress fracture on his right knee. Starting guard Verdell Jones III, who ranked second on the team with 12.9 points per game and led them in assists, has missed the last two games with inflammation in his right knee that could keep him out indefinitely.
Indiana has some talented recruits in the pipeline, led by 2011 blue chip power forward Cody Zeller and a host of verbal commitments for 2012.
For now, the Hoosiers appear headed for yet another frustrating season — though they did snap a 19-game losing streak against Top 25 teams Thursday night by beating No. 20 Illinois 52-49 at home.
"We're not equipped yet to just plug somebody in, and then have somebody plug in to that backup's role and say 'OK, we're not going to miss a beat.' And I think that's the hardest thing about rebuilding," Crean said. "Your margin for error in the games is so small ... it's very hard to overcome injuries, things like that when you don't have it built up yet the way it needs to be."
McCaffery may be in the toughest spot of all.
Iowa slipped into irrelevance during coach Todd Lickliter's three-year tenure, losing 20 games for the first time last season.
McCaffery is doing his best to squeeze all the wins he can out of this season while building for the future. Much like Michigan's commitment to bolstering its facilities and fixing up aging Crisler Arena, the $47 million that Iowa is pouring into renovations to Carver-Hawkeye Arena should help the Hawkeyes compete for recruits they've been losing to more successful schools like Wisconsin.
The Hawkeyes finally broke through with their first Big Ten win on Sunday — against Indiana. Perhaps the most encouraging sign from that 91-77 win was that nearly half of Iowa's points came from freshmen.
"What you have to do is focus on your own team and try to get better, try to develop your younger players and, obviously, aspire to be one of the better teams in the league and compete with those teams," McCaffery said.
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.