Balk: Big Ten changes will take away from Northwestern’s season


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Vic Law drives to the basket. The junior forward and the Wildcats have high expectations for this season, but will have to navigate an early conference tournament and a different home arena.

Tim Balk, Gameday Editor

Men’s Basketball

There are plenty of reasons for Northwestern fans to get hyped about the upcoming season.

Sure, the team will play in charmless and dreary Allstate Arena. And sure, the drama of last year’s quest for a first-ever NCAA Tournament bid will not be easily replicated as the Wildcats seek merely to return to The Dance.

Still, returning talent and depth should render NU better than a year ago and perhaps capable of challenging for a Big Ten title. The stage is set for an encore, and gravity almost dictates that competition from conference opponents will stiffen somewhat following a down season for the Big Ten.

But here’s the thing.

On multiple levels, the conference is conspiring to suck the juice out of the season following its least piquant winter in years.

It all revolves around the conference tournament. For the first time, the Big Ten Tournament will be played in Madison Square Garden in New York City, hundreds of miles from the conference’s heartland. Though the move will no doubt benefit some northeast alums, it still takes leaps of creativity to pose the change as a wise idea on the whole.

The Big East Tournament remains a Madison Square Garden institution, immortalized by epic battles over decades. Scheduled for the days following the Big Ten Tournament, the Big East showdown can also be expected to overshadow it.

In fact, just about every conference tournament should overshadow the Big Ten’s, which will arrive a week early to accommodate the Big East.

The Big Ten isn’t the Big East. And it shouldn’t try to be. The 2014 additions of misfits Rutgers and Maryland to the conference represent enough coastal pandering. The Big Ten tourney ought to be played in the Midwest.

And it should happen the same week as other major conference tournaments. The early tournament will push some of the Big Ten schedule into early December and lead to hyper-stuffed months of January and February.

If this sounds swell at first glance, it’s not. NU will host Illinois and visit Purdue on Dec. 1 and Dec. 3 respectively, when many students will be gone from campus and many others will be swamped in finals season.

During the tightly packed slog of games in January and February, the Cats are slated to play eight home Big Ten games. Six will take place on weeknights. Six.

It’s unlikely that many folks will want to pack onto buses and wrestle with rush-hour Chicago area traffic while whispers of exams and essays whistle through the Evanston winter. The bunched-up weeknight games will exacerbate a problem created by the Welsh-Ryan Arena renovation.

And while all these annoyances muck up the season, the Cats and the rest of the Big Ten will also face down a new TV contract that will leave fans to catch action on Fox Sports channels. Sorry, but Fox Sports 1 isn’t quite the same thing as ESPN.

None of this is to say the Cats won’t have a blockbuster season.

It’s simply to say NU, which already faces a self-imposed exile from Evanston, will also run up against a Big Ten that has made curious changes in structuring the upcoming season.

Meanwhile, the conference still lacks the excitement and star power it boasted a half-decade ago. Maybe that’s a boon for the Cats, who could roll through the soft underbelly of a league that concluded last season with just one team ranked in the top 20. But good luck keeping track of those weeknight games, let alone getting to them.

Tim Balk is a Medill senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.