Big Ten Men's Basketball History

The Game That Developed | The Teams That Stood Out | The Players That Starred
The Coaches Who Led | The Growth of a Game and a Conference

The Big Ten is celebrating its 99th season of Big Ten basketball in 2003-04. National dominance, television exposure and attendance titles are the trademarks of Big Ten basketball. Michigan State showcased the depth and strength of the Conference by advancing to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2003 despite earning a No. 7 seed entering the event. The Spartans’ run followed a four-year streak that saw at least one League team advance to the Final Four every year. Michigan State made three straight national semifinal appearances from 1999 to 2001, including the 2000 title, and was joined by Ohio State in 1999 and Wisconsin in 2000. Indiana was the most recent Final Four participant from the Big Ten, advancing to the national championship game in 2002.

The Big Ten boasts some of the most loyal fans in the country. League fans are flocking to the arenas and have helped the Conference win each of the last 27 national attendance titles, as the Big Ten has broken the two-million mark in total attendance in 11 straight seasons. Those fans who are not packing the arenas are watching Big Ten basketball on television. In 2003–04 alone, Big Ten fans will be able to enjoy more than 150 games on the tube featuring Conference teams. Media exposure coupled with the Conference’s high-quality basketball programs will continue to make Big Ten basketball a “must-see” affair.

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The Game That Developed

Big Ten men’s basketball popularity and quality is not a late-arriving fad. Conference attendance has led the nation through the years with good reason. League basketball action has provided many thrills, with great teams, players and coaches. And even as it is favored by basketball fans everywhere, the Big Ten has also been a leader in the game’s advancement.

Since James Naismith invented the game in Springfield, MA, with his 13 rules and the use of two peach baskets, the Big Ten has been at the forefront of college basketball’s development. Even prior to basketball becoming a Big Ten-sponsored sport, Conference teams were to be leaders in the collegiate basketball movement. It was University of Chicago athletics director Amos Alonzo Stagg, who earned more renown as the Maroons’ football coach, who introduced basketball to the Big Ten. A fellow instructor and friend of Dr. Naismith at Springfield College, Stagg initiated basketball as a varsity sport at Chicago in 1894.

Just a month before the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives (now the Big Ten Conference) was founded, the first college basketball game with five players to a side was played as Iowa hosted Chicago on Jan. 18, 1896. Previously, games featured seven to nine players on the floor at once, but that made competition rather crowded, so Iowa physical education professor H.F. Callenberg scaled down the size of the two competing teams to five apiece. Chicago won in the new format, 13–12, at the Iowa Armory before about 400 spectators.

In 1906, the NCAA was founded in Chicago, and the previous fall, the Big Ten’s inaugural season of basketball got underway.

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The Teams That Stood Out

Many outstanding Big Ten hoops juggernauts have come and gone since Minnesota won the first Conference championship with a 6-1 record in 1906. The University of Chicago was the first dominating team, taking the next four Big Ten crowns and tying for the title in 1907 and ‘08.

In its infancy, college basketball developed into a rough-and-tumble competition with elbows and even fists thrown about. The game featured two types of shots: the underhand shot and the push shot from the chest. Players were mostly stationary, while at the same time throwing long and looping passes. Contact was inevitable, and even Dr. Naismith probably didn’t expect to see some of the violence that resulted from this style of play.

In 1911, along came a Wisconsin team which pioneered a quick, finesse-oriented offensive game plan featuring short passes, weaving player movement and the use of pivots and screens. This new format dubbed “The Wisconsin System” earned the Badgers Big Ten championships from 1912 through 1914. In that stretch, UW lost only one game in 1913 and amassed a 35-1 record. Wisconsin would eventually win five Conference titles during the decade and four more in the next.

A number of teams shared the spotlight in the 1920s. In 1926, the first four-way tie for the Big Ten championship took place between Indiana, Michigan, Purdue and Iowa. It epitomized play during the decade. But by the end of the ‘20s, Wisconsin’s dominance gave way to Purdue as the Boilermakers became one of the nation’s most powerful teams and eventually had a hand in at least six Conference championships during the next decade.

In the 1930s, the Boilermakers succeeded Wisconsin as the League’s second real powerhouse, winning Big Ten titles every other year from 1926 to 1940. Northwestern interrupted Purdue’s dynasty, winning Conference titles in 1931 and ‘33.

The Big Ten was responsible for another milestone in college basketball in 1939 as Northwestern’s Patten Gym hosted the first NCAA championship. Ohio State was a finalist, losing to the “Tall Firs” of Oregon before 5,500 (which included numerous fraternity and sorority club members, many of which were let in free to beef up attendance) for the title. In 1940, Indiana became the first Big Ten NCAA titlist, winning the second national championship. After finishing ninth in the Big Ten the year before, Conference champion Wisconsin followed up with an NCAA crown in 1941.

The early 1940s saw the era of the “Whiz Kids,” Illinois’ high-scoring, fast-breaking squad. In 1942, the team won a Big Ten title with a team of four sophomores and a junior. Beating teams by an average margin of 24 points, the Fighting Illini would win the Conference championship again in 1943, losing only a nonconference game. However, the “Kids” were not able to finish out their college careers as all were called to service in the armed forces immediately prior to the 1943 NCAA tournament. Ohio State, which was to taste greater success 20 years later, also put together some fine teams in the ‘40s.

Enter the post-war years, and it was Indiana and Illinois that became the prominent Big Ten basketball programs. The Hoosiers won their second national title in 1953. With the advent of the one-and-one free-throw situation, scoring totals jumped by more than 13 points per game. As a result, IU was responsible for 12 Big Ten records that year. The Illini also were a Big Ten and national force as they made it to the Final Four in 1949, ‘51 and ‘52, finishing third each time.

In the mid-‘50s it was Iowa’s turn. The Hawkeyes made it to the 1955 Final Four and to the 1956 championship game, losing to a Bill Russell-led San Francisco squad. Michigan State’s 1957 Conference co-championship team (with Indiana) gave the Big Ten its sixth appearance in the NCAA round of four in the ‘50s.

In the next decade, the Big Ten was represented seven more times in the Final Four. Star-studded Ohio State put together a record run of five Big Ten championship or co-championship teams starting with the NCAA champion 1960 squad and national runner-up units of 1961 and ‘62. Ohio State’s Big Ten dynasty was the longest-running ever, as the Bucks won or shared Conference crowns from 1960 to ‘64. Michigan made it to two Final Fours in 1964 and ‘65, while the Buckeyes and Purdue also had their moments near the end of the ‘60s. Iowa’s 1970 Big Ten championship juggernaut was the highest scoring Conference team ever, averaging almost 103 points a game in League play.

Later in the 1970s, defense came back into style thanks to the play of Ohio State, Minnesota and Indiana. The Hoosiers put together two of the finest college basketball teams ever seen, in 1975 and 1976. In those two years, IU was 63-1 overall and became the only school ever to finish two consecutive Conference seasons undefeated. The 1976 team finished its season at 32-0, as the first unbeaten Big Ten team in 57 years. Since then, no team in Division I has gone undefeated. In the bicentennial year, the Big Ten became the first conference to send two teams to the NCAA finals, as the Hoosiers prevailed over Michigan in the national championship game.

It was the two schools from the state of Michigan that won national crowns a decade apart, with Michigan State winning it all in 1979 and Michigan 10 years later. With the Spartans’ championship, a Big Ten team was yet again part of a watershed moment in college basketball. MSU, led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State team in a game which vaulted the NCAA Tournament into the big time. The ‘89 Michigan team, which took third place in the Big Ten, won the national crown under then-interim head coach Steve Fisher.

The Wolverines, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois held much of the spotlight during the 1980s with the Hoosiers winning two more NCAA championships in 1981 and ‘87. A Big Ten Final Four double took place at the decade’s beginning and end as Purdue and Iowa both made it to the 1980 Final Four, while in 1989, eventual champion Michigan defeated Illinois in the NCAA semifinals.

Big Ten teams continued to earn national prominence in the 1990s as three different Conference squads (Indiana, 1992; Michigan State/Ohio State, 1999) made appearances in the NCAA Final Four. Ohio State took its first Big Ten title in 20 years, sharing it in 1991 with Indiana and repeating in 1992. Purdue dominated the decade’s middle years by claiming the 1994, 1995 and 1996 crowns, becoming only the second team to win three in a row outright since Ohio State (1960–62). The 1996 title gave the Boilermakers 21 League crowns, the most in Big Ten history.

The Big Ten opened the latest decade on top, as Michigan State claimed the 2000 national championship, defeating Conference foe Wisconsin in the national semifinals after the Badgers made their first Final Four appearance since winning it all in 1941. The Spartans followed that with a third-straight Final Four appearance in 2001, just the second Conference squad to accomplish that feat with Ohio State (in 1944–46 and 1960–62). MSU also grabbed a piece of its fourth-straight Big Ten title in 2001, joining OSU, Indiana and Chicago as the only League schools in that select group.

The 2001-02 season featured a pair of rare feats, as Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin tied for the Big Ten title, marking just the second four-way tie in League history and the first since 1926. The Hoosiers, a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, would go on to make a surprising run to the national championship game, as the Big Ten sent a team to the Final Four for the fourth straight season for the first time in Conference history.

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The Players That Starred

Although a team game, there is plenty of opportunity in basketball for individuals to stand out. This is no different in the Big Ten. From the League’s very beginning, some of the nation’s top basketball stars emerged at Conference universities. Early players that captured Big Ten fans’ imagination include Chicago center John Schommer, who was probably the League’s first great player. From 1907–09, Schommer, later the inventor of the modern backboard, became the first and one of only four players to capture Big Ten scoring titles three times.

In an era in which teams usually scored 50 points combined, Wisconsin’s Chris Steinmetz shocked the college basketball world by scoring 50 in a 1905 game. He added a 44-point effort one month later. Steinmetz would eventually score almost 500 points that season, unheard of in the game’s early days. Along with Minnesota’s George Tuck, Steinmetz was the Conference’s first All-American. Steinmetz’s feats were to portend future success for the Badgers. In the teens, the early Wisconsin powers featured All-Americans in forward George Levis and guard Harold Olsen, who went on to coach at Indiana and Ohio State, respectively.

Minnesota center Arnie Oss and Purdue forward George Spradling were outstanding Big Ten players in the 1920s. Illinois’ Chuck Carney became the first Big Ten athlete to be named a football (1920) and basketball (1922) All-American. Following Carney was Michigan’s Bennie Oosterbaan who was named an All-American as the Conference’s leading scorer in 1928 after he won All-America honors on the football field the previous fall.

The best was yet to come for Purdue in the 1930s. Center Stretch Murphy and guard John Wooden led the powerful Boilermakers. Wooden was the first of two three-time Big Ten All-Americans and, of course, went on to coaching fame at UCLA. In 1932, he was also the first guard to lead the Big Ten in scoring and helped increase national emphasis on backcourt play. As a two-time leading Big Ten scorer in the late ‘30s, Boiler forward Jewell Young kept the Purdue dynasty going.

Illinois forward Andy Phillip, an All-American in 1942 and ‘43, was the Illini wartime “Whiz Kids” standard-bearer. Phillip set numerous Conference scoring records. Other League performers of note during the decade included Iowa forward Murray Weir and two-time Big Ten scoring champ Max Morris, a forward from Northwestern who was the first winner of the Big Ten Chicago Tribune Most Valuable Player award for basketball in 1946.

The early 1950s saw a great influx of talent, for as in the mid-‘40s, freshmen briefly became eligible. The yearling invasion was led by Indiana center Don Schlundt, a three-time All-Conference pick and longtime IU scoring leader. In fact, Schlundt was such a prolific point-maker, he became the new Big Ten career scoring leader as a sophomore and held the League’s top spot for 15 years. Other fine players worthy of mention during the early ‘50s are Ohio State center Paul Ebert, a three-time all-Big Ten selection and three-time team MVP, along with Illinois center Johnny “Red” Kerr and guards Bob “Slick” Leonard of Indiana and Chuck Mencel of Minnesota. Later in the decade, Ohio State guard Robin Freeman, Indiana center Archie Dees, Illinois guard Don Ohl and Michigan State center Johnny Green were standouts.

The marquee names of Jerry Lucas (the only other Big Ten three-time All-American besides Purdue’s Wooden), John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried dominated the scene as Ohio State went on to great success in the early 1960s. Later, Buckeye center Gary Bradds averaged over 33 points a game as a senior as did Michigan guard Cazzie Russell, who led the Wolverines to Final Four appearances in 1964 and ‘65. As a sophomore in ‘64, Russell and teammate Bill Buntin became the highest-scoring duo until that time in Big Ten history.

The decade ended with a bang with the record-breaking scoring of Purdue guard Rick Mount, who set a Big Ten single-game record of 61 points in a 1970 game against Iowa. The contest featured the Big Ten’s highest-scoring player in a season (Mount averaged 39.4 points a game that year) against the highest-scoring Conference team ever. The Hawkeyes eventually won the epic, 108–107.

Not to be overlooked in the 1960s was Purdue center Terry Dischinger, the third player to lead the Conference in scoring in three consecutive years, from 1960 to 1962. Dischinger, fellow Boilermaker Dave Schellhase and Michigan’s Buntin were all three-time All-League picks. Other stars included Wolverine forward Rudy Tomjanovich and Indiana center Walt Bellamy, whose 33 rebounds in a game against Michigan in 1961 remains a Big Ten record.

In the 1970s, Indiana players were responsible for many postseason honors. Standouts included forward Scott May, center Kent Benson and guard Quinn Buckner, all important members of IU’s amazing teams of the mid-‘70s. May was named 1976 NCAA Division I Player of the Year. Michigan players worth mentioning during that period are forwards Henry Wilmore and Campy Russell. Michigan State guard Mike Robinson earned All-Big Ten honors three times as did Ohio State guards Allan Hornyak in the early ‘70s and Kelvin Ransey at the end of the decade. Minnesota center Mychal Thompson was a part of Minnesota’s basketball resurgence in the 1970s, while Michigan State closed out the decade with an NCAA title on the shoulders of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Greg Kelser.

In the 1980s, there were many talented athletes to be found, including brilliant Indiana guards Isiah Thomas and Steve Alford, leaders of IU national championship teams in 1981 and ‘87. Alford, a two-time consensus All-American, is the only four-time Hoosier most valuable player and became the first men’s basketball player to be named Big Ten-Jesse Owens Men’s Athlete of the Year. Joe Barry Carroll was a Purdue standout at the beginning of the decade and led the Boilers to the 1980 Final Four, while guard Troy Lewis and forward Todd Mitchell paced Purdue to two consecutive Conference crowns at the end of the ‘80s. Michigan also put together back-to-back championship teams in 1985 and ‘86 with the help of center Roy Tarpley and guard Gary Grant. Some of the decade’s finest performers were from Illinois in guard and defensive whiz Bruce Douglas and forward Nick Anderson. Michigan State guard Scott Skiles was a top scorer and team leader, while Minnesota center Randy Breuer was an intimidating shot-blocker. Wolverine swingman Glen Rice became the leading scorer in an NCAA tournament, pacing Michigan to its 1989 national title. That same year, Rice was named the Big Ten-Jesse Owens Men’s Athlete of the Year.

The ’90s were the decade of the Spartans, as MSU claimed four Big Ten titles. Michigan State opened with All-America guard Steve Smith leading the team to the 1990 title. MSU’s Shawn Respert was the 1995 Big Ten and National Player of the Year and established the all-time record with 1,545 points in Conference games only. Two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Mateen Cleaves guided the Spartans to three titles to end the ‘90s and was joined by his fellow “Flintstones” Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell as the three Flint, Michigan, natives led MSU to the 2000 national crown.

Big Ten players proved to be among the nation’s best during the decade, as the Conference boasted four-straight national players of the year from 1992 through 1995 in Ohio State’s Jim Jackson, Indiana’s Calbert Cheaney, Purdue’s Glenn Robinson and Respert of MSU. Jackson earned All-America honors while leading the Buckeyes to success in the early ’90s, Cheaney became the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer in all games with 2,613 points, while in 1994, Robinson became the first player to lead the League in scoring and rebounding in 23 years. Cleaves and Indiana’s A.J. Guyton were two of the standouts in the late ‘90s. Cleaves was the first player since Jackson to win back-to-back Conference Player of the Year honors in 1998 and 1999. In 2000, Guyton was the first Hoosier to be named a consensus All-American since Cheaney in 1993.

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The Coaches Who Led

In the Big Ten coaching ranks, many illustrious names can be found. Bob Knight finished his career at Indiana in 2000 as the Conference’s all-time leader for Big Ten victories and overall winning percentage. Knight led IU to three national titles and earned six Big Ten Coach of the Year awards.

Ward “Piggy” Lambert was Purdue’s mentor from 1917 to 1945 and is second in Big Ten winning percentage to Knight and third in League wins to fellow-Boilermaker Gene Keady.

Walter Meanwell was probably the first great Conference coach. His Wisconsin teams revolutionized college basketball in the “teens,” emphasizing finesse rather than rough play, winning nine Big Ten titles. Meanwell’s weaving, short-passing Badger offense confused opponents from 1911–34. Another long-time Conference coach was Minnesota’s L.J. Cooke, who from 1897 to 1924, led the Golden Gophers with a .642 winning percentage.

Indiana has had a history of fine coaches, including Everett Dean and his successor Branch McCracken, a former Hoosier standout and early practitioner of the one-handed push shot. Dean led IU to the first Big Ten NCAA title in 1940, while McCracken introduced a gameplan that favored defense, rebounding and especially the fast break. He coached the Hoosiers to a national crown in 1953.

Also during that time, Illinois’ Doug Mills was the architect of the high-scoring Illini offensive machines throughout the 1940s. Mills’ successor was Harry Combes, who in 20 years led Illinois to four Big Ten titles and three NCAA Final Four appearances.

Fred Taylor coached the great Ohio State teams of the early ’60s, winning an NCAA title and reaching two other national finals. Taylor coached the Buckeyes to at least a share of nine Big Ten titles and an unprecedented five in a row from 1960 to ’64.

After over 20 years at Illinois and Michigan State respectively, Lou Henson and Jud Heathcote retired in the mid-1990s, both ranked among the top win leaders in Conference history. Gene Keady has won a record seven Big Ten Coach of the Year awards and led the Boilermakers to uncontested League crowns from 1994 to 1996.

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is the latest Big Ten coach to make a name for himself, claiming a share of four straight titles from 1998 to 2001, winning the 2000 NCAA Championship and earning three national coach of the year awards in 1998, 1999 and 2001.

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The Growth of a Game and a Conference

The addition of Penn State in 1992 was a positive step for Conference schools and its fans. Penn State has appeared in the NCAA championship eight times. All-America center Jesse Arnelle led the Lions to the 1954 and ’55 tournaments, including a Final Four appearance in ’54. Arnelle is the school’s all-time scorer and rebounder. Other Penn State players of note include DeRon Hayes (1989–93) and Tom Hovasse (1985–89), the program’s No. 2 and No. 3 career scorers and most recently, center John Amaechi, twice the Conference’s top shot-blocker and the Big Ten’s most recent first-team Academic All-American. In 1995, Amaechi became Penn State’s initial First-Team All-Big Ten selection.

This just touches on the storied history of Big Ten Conference basketball which spans all but nine years of the Conference’s 108 years of existence. The League has been a leader in the game’s advancement, its skills and play, and the growth and popularity of the sport.