Illinois AD blasts B1G for methodology used to determine basketball conference champion
A lot of conversations have been brewing about the legitimacy of Michigan’s outright B1G regular season title since the end of last weekend. Though the Wolverines finished 14-3 in B1G play and owned the best winning percentage in the conference, Illinois thought it deserved a share of the crown.
Illinois ended the year with a 16-4 record, playing all 20 games while Michigan played only 17. In addition, the Fighting Illini pummeled the Wolverines 76-53 in the only head-to-head meeting of the season.
But the B1G has been reluctant to alter its rules. Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman has something to say about that.
On Tuesday evening, Whitman released a statement, criticizing the B1G for the methodology it used to determine a league champion and its unwillingness to re-evaluate the situation. Below is the letter Whitman penned to the Fighting Illini community:
Our request was simple: in a year unlike any other, do what we have shown a willingness to do repeatedly during the past 12 months – act in the best interests of our student-athletes, pivot when needed, and do the right thing. In a year where, because of the different numbers of games played, we cannot fairly distinguish one team from another, declare Michigan and Illinois co-champions of the regular season. It was a straightforward solution to a complicated problem.
We should not have had to advocate for ourselves – this is the right outcome for the Big Ten and one that it should have proactively sought. But nonetheless, we were left to fight our own battle, and despite our advocacy, I learned late yesterday that our efforts were unsuccessful. Michigan will remain outright champions.
To be clear, we have not endeavored to take anything away from Michigan. They have compiled an exceptional season and deserve the championship they have already had the pleasure of celebrating. They are the #1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and I expect they will make a deep run in the national tournament. They earned their title, and we are not looking to diminish their accomplishments.
But Illinois earned that title as well.
In November, the conference agreed that winning percentage would be used to determine the regular-season champion in basketball. At the time, we stared into an uncertain future, not knowing how many games teams would be able to play. The winning percentage metric was meant to “level the playing field” for those teams that might suffer more significant disruption than others. For Michigan, which played three fewer games than its allotted 20, it accomplished that purpose. What we did not anticipate, and what we now realize, is that this same metric would actually penalize a team – in this case, Illinois – that was fortunate enough to play its entire schedule of 20 games. With the benefit of now seeing the entire season, winning percentage was an overly simplistic, misplaced choice, and it deserved to be changed.
As a result, for the first time in my memory (and, truly, maybe for the first time ever), the team that has won the most games – in this case, two more games – is not recognized with even a share of the conference championship. This defies logic. It stands counter to the very foundations of competition and sport. For a marquee conference that just concluded arguably the greatest, most competitive season in the history of college basketball, this is an unfortunate and disappointing outcome.
This entire situation was avoidable. By mid-February, my DIA colleagues and I saw this possibility on the horizon. I first raised the concern with the Big Ten weeks ago. As a conference, we talk about being values-based in our decision-making. We talk about prioritizing our student-athletes. We talk about doing the right thing. I have seen my colleagues do it time and again. Yet in this instance, we failed to act. We became so focused on process and timing that we lost sight of the bigger picture. Illinois is left to pick up the pieces.
This is a decision that will resonate with our program for generations. As part of my argument, I focused on the rarity that is the chance to compete and win a Big Ten title in men’s basketball. Schools go decades without that distinction. Some of our peers have never won a Big Ten championship. A conference title provides a career-defining moment for coaches and a lifetime memory for our players. This is something that our fans, alumni, and supporters would celebrate now and years into the future. All that is to say: this decision matters. History matters in college athletics, and this is an outcome that will forever live in infamy amongst the Illini family.
After Illinois’ win over Ohio State on Saturday, head coach Brad Underwood said that Illinois deserved the opportunity to be named a co-champion, saying, “No one’s won more games than us, and we played them all.”
Michigan’s Juwan Howard clapped back, saying he was opposed to sharing the conference title or diminishing his team’s accomplishment.