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BENNER: Big Ten hoops begin, but eyes are still on football mess

November 10, 2012

When Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany took to the podium at the conference’s basketball media day in Chicago recently, he might have thought it was time to focus on the league’s outstanding prospects for the upcoming hoops season.

Wrong.

Four of the first five questions dealt, at least in part, with the Big Ten’s thus-far dismal football season.

You know, the one where the two “leaders” of the Leaders Division, Ohio State and Penn State universities, are both on probation.

The one where the top team in the Legends Division, Nebraska, is ranked no better than 18th in the latest Associated Press poll.

The one where the Big Ten will be hard-pressed to fill its allotment of post-season bowl slots.

The one where Indiana University—yes, my Hoosiers, losers to both a Mid-American Conference school (Ball State) and a service academy (Navy)—went into the second weekend of November with a shot at the Rose Bowl (not that I’m complaining about that, mind you).

Nonetheless, there rarely has been a better time for the arrival of basketball season in Delany’s dominion, and from the newness of November through the madness of March, the Big Ten should be the collective bruising brute in basketball that its football representatives are not.

And how well we know here in Indiana, where Tom Crean’s Hoosiers sit atop the preseason polls and center Cody Zeller is Sports Illustrated’s cover boy.

Who would have thought such a thing in the dark aftermath of the Kelvin Sampson debacle?

Starting the season at No. 1 is swell, of course, but the objective is finishing there. Unlike the University of Kentucky, which was able to mostly sleepwalk through the Southeastern Conference schedule last year en route to its national championship, Indiana will encounter a Big Ten replete with nationally elite teams.

Indeed, winning the conference regular-season title this year may be a more difficult challenge than even the national championship, though failing in either endeavor will be regarded as a major disappointment.

Ah, those danged expectations. When you’re at the top, you can only live up to them or let everyone down.

That’s why last year’s unexpected success was like gravy. This is the meat-and-potatoes season, especially when Zeller will have the significant lure of professional basketball awaiting him next April.

But first things first. There’s the non-conference season with the slight blend of challenges (North Carolina, Butler) amid a whole plate of cupcakes. But then comes the Big Ten: No. 4 Ohio State, No. 5 Michigan, No. 14 Michigan State, No. 23 Wisconsin and Minnesota just out of the preseason top 25.

And if anyone thinks Matt Painter’s Purdue Boilermakers are going to have a post-Robbie Hummel swoon, think again. As long as Painter is the coach, the Boilers will always be one tough out.

Crean has consistently talked about the mind-set of improvement every day at Indiana, but now there’s the mind-set with which others will approach the Hoosiers. Yes, Indiana is Indiana in college basketball, but it hasn’t been this Indiana in a long, long time.

“The target of being an Indiana Hoosier has never changed,” Crean said at media day.

But with all due respect to the coach, it has. The best example I can give is that when IU loses this year, it will be the other team’s fans rushing the court.

In any case, it’s heartening to see Indiana finally emerging from the Bob Knight divorce and the Sampson embarrassment, though, again, nothing short of a national championship will bring the program all the way back. Crean always has had the knock—deserved or not—of a guy who could bring the talent in the door, but not send it out with a trophy. So, on that score, we’ll see.

Finally, Indiana fans are certain to complain about the harshness of the NCAA in handing down nine-game suspensions to freshmen Hanner Mosquera-Perera and Peter Jurkin for accepting $18,000 in benefits from AAU coach Mark Adams through his A-HOPE Foundation which, according to its website, places African student-athletes in American colleges.

I feel badly for the kids, and nine games does seem extreme.

But I do have to wonder: Where (or from whom) does the foundation get its funding?

And other than just being a good guy with a mission to help kids, what else is in this for Mr. Adams?

I hope IU has asked these questions, because I’ll bet the NCAA has.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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