If there’s one thing that almost everyone in college basketball has been able to agree on, it’s that for the past two years, the Big Ten has been in a class by itself when it comes to depth and quality.
Had the ill-fated 2020 NCAA tournament actually been played, the league might have matched the Big East’s record of sending 11 teams to the Big Dance, with Penn State easily part of that group. As it was, the Big Ten did pretty well for itself a year ago, earning nine bids and four of the top eight seeds in the field.
While that’s great for the league as a whole, it’s not exactly an ideal situation for a team that’s trying to move up in the league, which Penn State is under first-year coach Micah Shrewsberry. The Nittany Lions haven’t finished higher than sixth in the Big Ten since 1996, and they’re coming off a year in which they had to play Wednesday in the Big Ten tournament.
However, Shrewsberry’s not running from the challenge. As his first season in University Park gets set to tip off, he’s excited about the chance to try to build Penn State into a contender in the nation’s most rugged conference.
“The opportunity to do it is something that stands out to me,” he said. “I’ve grown up a fan of the Big Ten my whole life, and I know how good the coaches are in this league. For me to get an opportunity like this after being an assistant in this league is very special and something I don’t take for granted. I want to help this program win and pay back this administration for putting their faith in me.”
That won’t be an easy task, in large part because of how balanced the Big Ten is and how small the margin between victory and defeat usually is in the league. Since the league went to a 20-game conference schedule in 2018-19, everyone has won at least six league games at least once, and only Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern haven’t gone at least .500 in the Big Ten.
“It is kind of crazy how you can never get caught looking ahead in the schedule at all,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “I think what you’re seeing now is a lot of schools now have some continuity, and there are a lot of specific styles and programs in place where you know what you’re going to get. You see what (Rutgers) coach (Steve) Pikiell has built, Penn State’s gotten better, we feel we’ve gotten better and (Nebraska coach) Fred (Hoiberg) now has his team and system in place.
“So teams that were on the back end of things are now teams that can win on any given night. That’s why when you go through the conference schedule, you have to focus on what’s in front of you, because in order to beat anybody, you’ve got to play at a very high level.”
One reason the league is so challenging is that almost all of the coaches in the Big Ten know the league like the back of their hands. Eleven of the league’s 14 coaches have been in the league for at least three years now, and out of the three that haven’t, Shrewsberry and Minnesota’s Ben Johnson have both served as assistant coaches for much of the past decade and know every team well.
Only Indiana’s Mike Woodson hasn’t spent any time in the Big Ten in the past decade, but he brings 25 years of NBA experience to the table, which more than makes up for that lack of familiarity.
“I’ve got so much respect for every single guy in this league,” Johnson said. “If you’re a competitor, you want to play and compete against the best, and I think that in this league, you’re not sneaking up on anybody. There’s not somebody that you can pull a fast one on; we’re all in the same boat. That’s what makes this league so special and makes this league the best league in the country.”
And that’s the other part of being in this league: the preparation it gives each team for what they’ll see beyond the Big Ten. The league’s coaches know that this conference will be a meat grinder from December to March, but it’s one that they’re happy to go through because they know their players will be better off for it.
“As we go, I think you’ll see our team get better as the year goes on, and we should,” Shrewsberry said. “I don’t want to peak on (Wednesday) against Youngstown State; I want us to be peaking in the Big Ten tournament and beyond.”