The Conference Title Debate
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I'm back in my chair at my desk in my home office for the first time since... February 26th? I think that's right. Left that afternoon for Madison, got back Sunday night, drove to Michigan Monday, flew to visit my sons and daughter-in-laws after that, and got home last night. I almost made it the entire way, but around Altamont I got so tired that my wife drove the rest of the way and I crashed in the passenger seat. Much better than crashing in the ditch after falling asleep at the wheel.
Now, this afternoon, my brain is 94% clearer. I'm not kidding - after my Michigan article, published at 3:45 am that night/morning, my writing tank was way below "E". I added a splash of gas to write the article about the Illini fans at the Michigan game, and then mostly just recharged my batteries for four days. I have no idea how this team won games at Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State across eight days. It's hard for me to even keep my writing brain together while traveling that much.
The topic this afternoon; the conference champion debate. This can maybe be considered Part I with another post talking about Michigan vs. Illinois NCAA Tournament resumes as Part II (because that's what really matters right now). But we need to start with the debate that was raging on Sunday while I, for the most part, wasn't around.
I'll start with something I tweeted after the February 26th Underwood press conference. This was the day after the Nebraska game at home and the day before the Wisconsin game.
Underwood’s presser makes this season so very clear:— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) February 26, 2021
- The 30 Illini people who test daily do not interact with anyone outside the 30. Zero positives yet now 3 games in 5 days because of others.
- Ayo injured because of others.
- Michigan moved to next week because of Michigan.
He was very clear that day. It's frustrating to have 3 games in 5 days, it's frustrating to finish with 5 of 6 on the road, it's frustrating to sit for 10 days in January with no games on the schedule while no makeup games are being scheduled, but the focus is on the NCAA Tournament, not the Big Ten. Here's an exact quote from that press conference after Jeremy Werner asked him about his frustrations:
"I want my players to learn a life lesson, not just a single game moment of 'hey, we're going to cancel this game because we don't feel like playing'. And that could be very easily done in Covid, OK? Because the Big Ten Championship means nothing. They're going to go to some numeric formula. And all we're trying to do is get to the end and get to the NCAA Tournament. Because I think the final chapter of a Covid season is having the NCAA Tournament. And I want to be there in the best way we can and the healthiest we can."
If you'll allow me a moment here, I'd like to be Brad Underwood's anger translator.
"I want my players to learn a life lesson, not just a single game moment of 'hey, we're going to cancel this game because we don't feel like playing'. And that could be very easily done in Covid, OK?"
Michigan made the choice not to play on February 11th to make their season easier. They also pushed back against things like 'play these three games in five days' and only accepted a schedule from the Big Ten that included 17 total games. It made their path to the title easier.
"Because the Big Ten Championship means nothing. They're going to go to some numeric formula."
We accepted the three games in five days from the Big Ten. We accepted five of six on the road to finish. All we had to say to the Big Ten was "that's not healthy for our players" and the Big Ten would have given us a schedule of 19, 18, or 17 games. But we accepted all 20. And when you do that while other teams won't accept as many games, how can you have a true champion?
"And all we're trying to do is get to the end and get to the NCAA Tournament. Because I think the final chapter of a Covid season is having the NCAA Tournament. And I want to be there in the best way we can and the healthiest we can."
The Big Ten championship really does not matter to us. Whoever wins it with less than 20 games did so because they chose to not make them all up. Every team could have done what Illinois and Nebraska did, accepting things like 4 games in 8 days. Some teams raised their hand and said 'that's too much' and the Big Ten let them play whatever number of games they chose. When teams are choosing not to play while we're choosing to accept whatever they tell us to do, you can't have a true champion. So we're focused on the NCAA Tournament.
I'm taking creative license there. I probably have to say this just so you understand fully: Brad Underwood did not say those things. But that's how I heard them. Somewhere in the tape of the press conference you could probably see me wink and signal to Underwood "oh I hear you". (Not really - I joined that one from the car driving to Madison with my video off and the audio in my earpiece.)
So that remains my take with all of this "Illinois should declare themselves co-champions" stuff on Sunday after Michigan lost. I don't want to do that. I want to stay right where Underwood was during that February 26th press conference. That's what I tweeted on Sunday after MSU beat Michigan:
I wish we weren’t talking about titles.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) March 8, 2021
Michigan postponed the game, MSU broke Ayo’s nose, three B1G teams had Covid cases which forced us into 6 games the final 2 weeks, 5 on the road. And we used all of that to go scorched earth on the entire conference.
Let’s stay there.
Basically, I don't want to get wrapped up in "no fair!". I was right with Underwood when he said "because the Big Ten Championship means nothing (this year)". He declared it before all of this happened. Teams could choose to opt out of games, and because teams could choose to opt out even with zero positive tests, it's kind of like there's no "champion" this year.
So it's really tough to then turn around and say "we're champions!" after that. (As I'm typing that, I'm realizing that I wasn't on the Ohio State postgame press conference. Here's hoping Underwood didn't claim a championship for a trophy he's already declared meaningless.) I agree with the "there's really no true champion" take, which is why I don't really care about the "Kevin Warren must speak on this" side of all of this. And yes, that means I went from "hanging banners MATTERS to me and this probably cost us that chance" after the Maryland loss to "there's no real Big Ten Champion" after Underwood said it and I bought it.
Well, let me clarify that. We did play all 20 games. We accepted 4 games in 8 days while other teams refused. So had we finished with a higher winning percentage than Michigan, then yes, I would have felt comfortable declaring us the Big Ten Champions. We'd have played our full schedule, including 5 of 6 on the road to finish, and could have declared it, both winning percentage-wise and wins and losses-wise (and beat-the-second-place-team-by-23-at-their-place-without-our-best-player-wise). Other teams chose not to, and that makes the championship less banner-worthy.
And yes, there are legitimate reasons those teams chose not to play 20 games. Really, once they were put on pause for 2 weeks, Michigan was not going to get to 20. They could have gotten to 19, though. Let's go through that.
To get in 19 games (and remember, Michigan's Covid pause came from the state, not from any positive tests), Michigan would have had to play Illinois on 2/11 after only three days of practice, they would have had to squeeze in Indiana on Tuesday the 16th (between Wisconsin on the 14th and Rutgers on the 18th, with Indiana's game against Minnesota bumping to the 18th), and they would have had to play Northwestern or Penn State instead of us on Tuesday the 2nd. It could have been done, but it would have been an even greater concentration of games than we just went through. Under that scenario, they would have had 10 games in 25 days and Illinois would have had 8 games in 24 days. As it played out, because of the cancellation, Illinois was reduced to playing those 8 games in 23 days while Michigan chose to close the season with 8 games in 22 days.
Let's go over that again. If Michigan chooses to play on 2/11, it's one less game to make up for each team. Neither team would have played the day after on 2/12, so between Saturday, February 13th and Sunday, March 7th, if the plan was to get to 20, Michigan would have had to play 11 more games and Illinois would have had to play 8 more games. Michigan chose to skip three, so they played 8 in 23 days and Illinois played 8 in 22 days. Worth noting: Nebraska was faced with nearly the same situation and they chose to accept nearly every reschedule (which even meant games on back-to-back nights against Maryland). Starting February 10th (the day before our Michigan game that they canceled), Nebraska played 12 games. The scenario above that Michigan didn't want to accept would have had them playing 11 games.
Yes, I'll go through that again. Nebraska had a 3.5 week pause. They accepted a schedule where they played 12 games from February 10th to March 7th. Michigan had a two week pause. To get in the rest of their games, they would have had to play 11 games from February 11th to March 7th. One less day than Nebraska had, but also one less game. The schedule Michigan accepted: 8 games from February 14th to March 7th, cancel 3 games.
Again, this isn't even the point. There's no way to really say what teams could have or should have accepted with rescheduled games. Nebraska accepted a schedule that got them to 19 games (but likely declined something with another back-to-back that would have gotten them to 20). Illinois accepted a schedule that got us to 20 games but we only had three road games canceled and didn't have a forced 2-week or 3-week pause. Michigan came off their pause and chose to not start for a week and cancel 3 games.
Which takes me back to Underwood's point. Michigan fans went insane over his "the Big Ten Championship means nothing" quote, but this is why he said it. If teams can choose to not play games (Nebraska accepted 12 games in 26 days; Michigan declined 11 games in 25 days and chose to cancel three games), then there's no way to say "this team 'won' the Big Ten".
That's right where I am. And let me tell you, as a fan, it's a fun spot. That yellow confetti looks funnier and funnier every time I see it. They chose the easier path (as was their right), then they lost to us by 23 without Ayo, so there's no way the trophy doesn't feel a little light when they raise it. You know, because it's hollow.
As for us, let's just stay angry. We used the anger to close the season with wins AT Wisconsin and AT Michigan and AT Ohio State. Michigan danced around in confetti two days after losing to us by 23 without Ayo. Mady Sissoko broke Ayo's nose with a Flagrant-2 and Tom Izzo refused to suspend him, saying he's the last kid to injure someone "because he's the nicest kid in the world". Illinois players are staying quarantined when they're not at practice or a game while Nebraska and Michigan State have to postpone our games because their players are out in the community getting Covid. We accepted stretches like "4 games in 8 days, 3 on the road" to get to 20 games while other teams said no.
Let's just stay there. Big Ten title? For me, it's easy to point to the Maryland game and say we blew it. If Ayo's three falls, we go to overtime, beat Maryland, and then win the Big Ten outright. It clanged off the back iron, and so we lost and didn't win the Big Ten. That's on us. Lose to a team that goes 9-11 in the conference (much better than the 6-14 I predicted that night, I should add) and you don't have much of an excuse when talking about conference titles. Both Michigan and Illinois lost at 9-11 Michigan State, but Illinois' loss to 9-11 Maryland is what cost us the true, unequivocal title.
But we used the anger from those back-to-back home losses to Maryland and Ohio State to then go win 11 of our next 12. Let's use the anger of us accepting 20 games while Michigan played 17 to go, you know, win the national title.
Imagine what Michigan's confetti would look like then.