Examining the Big Ten's new divisions

No more than half an hour ago, ESPN.com's Andy Katz had multiple sources tell him some very interesting things. The first was that the Big Ten is planning to announce its new two-division format later today. The second is what those divisions are going to look like. According to Andy's sources, they are as follows:

  • Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota in one division, and

  • Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Illinois in the other.

The football fans among you will recognize the separation of Ohio State and Michigan, which would be a crime if the Big Ten wasn't reportedly planning to consistently facilitate traditional rivalry games across divisions. So that's a relief. A Big Ten season without OSU-Michigan isn't much of a Big Ten season at all.

But since this is a hoops blog (forgive me for the brief college football interlude, but I just downloaded the demo for NCAA Football 11, and we're like three days from real, actual, college football Saturdays, finally) let's look at the hoops side of things. Two questions immediately pop. One: For basketball purposes, are these divisions balanced? And two: Will the Big Ten use its divisions to schedule college hoops?

To answer the first: No. No, they are not. Almost any way you break down the conference -- whether you want to take into account all-time history, performance in the past decade, immediate prospects of success, or some combination of the three -- the second division listed above is considerably stronger. (Until the Big Ten gives us an official name this afternoon, let's call it the East.) Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois are all immediate Big Ten title contenders. Throw in Indiana, and you've got some combination of the most traditionally dominant and immediately relevant programs in the conference.

Michigan State is the clear hoops favorite in the West. Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa are all decent programs with varyingly successful pasts, but none have the historical cache of Indiana, and none of the three (with the very generous exception of Minnesota) are immediate threats to win the Big Ten in the coming years. Nebraska and Northwestern are ... well, they're Nebraska and Northwestern.

None of this matters unless we know the answer to the second question: Will the Big Ten schedule basketball according to division? Divisional scheduling, in which each team plays its immediate foes twice and the teams outside its division once, can be a handy mechanism, so long as you don't go overboard and starting seeding your conference tournament based on divisional standings. (That's right, SEC. We're talking about you.)

The idea is fine in theory. In practice, not so much. The Big Ten would be subjecting its hoops teams to a divisional format that came about almost solely thanks to football-based concerns. Even if the conference's teams wax and wane, our East division is probably going to be better at basketball than the West for the foreseeable future. That's counterproductive. It beats up on the teams in the East and goes easy on the teams in the West, which is bad for both the West's best teams (namely Michigan State, whose strength of schedule just took a major hit) and the East's (who are now resigned to beating each other up for much of January and February).

We'll wait to see whether the Big Ten wants to go that route, but it seems unlikely. The divisional setup isn't bad in and of itself, but if these are your divisions, it's probably best they're left to govern what they were designed to govern: pigskin.