Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, March 2, 2016

The basketball season is winding down. Who is the league coach of the year? And all hail Indiana! Spring football also is on the minds of readers. Could Nebraska win the West? I look at those questions and others in my mail bag.

The conference schedule just isn?t fair with how it is unbalanced. It can be the luck of the draw on who you play once and who you play twice. – Brad

I agree. I long for the old days when the league played almost exclusively on just Thursdays and Saturdays and there was a round-robin schedule to crown a true champ. No more. Now, with a 14-team conference, Big Ten squads plays five teams twice and eight teams once (four home; four road). And, depending on the rise and falls of teams, not all of these schedules are created equally. To wit: Indiana only had to play Michigan State, Michigan, Maryland and Purdue once. All will be in the Big Dance. The only projected NCAA teams IU had to play twice were Wisconsin and Iowa. Conversely, the Badgers played Purdue, Indiana, Maryland and Michigan State twice and had a game at Iowa. But, as they say, life isn?t fair. So, give Indiana credit for taking care of business and winning its second outright Big Ten championship in four years.


Last week, you asked some media members who they thought should be Big Ten Coach of the Year. Who is your choice? -Dallas Rohlf

Wisconsin?s Greg Gard and Indiana?s Tom Crean are the leading candidates for the award. And I also would consider Michigan State?s Tom Izzo. I think Iowa?s late-season swoon has damaged the candidacy of Fran McCaffery. It?s difficult to not be impressed by what Gard has done. He has gone 12-5 since taking over for Bo Ryan this season. At one time, the Badgers were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten and it looked like the program was gonna go off the rails. But Gard has it positioned to make an 18th NCAA tourney appearance in a row. Only Kansas (26), Duke (19) and Michigan State (18) have longer streaks. But I have to go with Crean. What he has done without star James Blackmon for most of this season with a knee injury has been remarkable. Indiana clinched the outright Big Ten crown last night, the program?s second in four years. Indiana has now won 22 Big Ten championships, which ties the conference record. Take a bow, Crean.


I can?t wait for football season. Where do you see Nebraska finishing? – Dee Ehrlich

Nebraska has a shot to win the West Division. Yes, many pundits will pick Iowa to win the division coming off its 12-2 season of glory. But the Huskers welcome back lots of talent, including QB Tommy Armstrong, RB Terrell Newby, WR Jordan Westerkamp, CB Josh Kalu, WR De?Mornay Pierson-El, LB Dedrick Young and Michael Rose-Ivey, among others. That is a nice nucleus to work with. And NU?s luck has to change in 2016 after all of those tough losses last season, right?

[ MORE: Get Tom Dienhart's Nebraska spring football preview ]


In your opinion, is center the most important position on the offensive line? If so, what is your estimate of the abilities of Michigan?s Mason Cole and Patrick Kugler? – Ron Ball

Center is a key spot on any o-line. But I think left tackle is the most critical spot, as that position typically protects the quarterback?s blind side. Center probably is the second-most key spot, as he has to act like the quarterback of the front and call out blocking assignments and protections in many instances. Cole cut his teeth as a left tackle last year and impressed as a true freshman. Kugler, a coach?s son, is a skilled player who looks primed to come into his own. Two good options.


In your breakdown of most dominant Big Ten teams in the last 25 years, you didn?t have Minnesota?s Final Four team of 1996-1997. I do not care what the NCAA says, this team was the real deal! – Dr. Trygstad

I agree, that was a formidable team. And I considered including the Gophers. But, the fact the NCAA stripped Minnesota?s appearance in the Final Four for an egregious academic fraud scandal, I opted to exclude Clem Haskins? squad. It?s too bad. There was a lot of talent in Dinkytown on that club, including Courtney James, Bobby Jackson, Sam Jacobson, Quincy Lewis and Eric Harris, among others. Yes, I know I included the 1992-93 Michigan team, but that team made two consecutive national title game appearance and is one of the most recognizable Big Ten teams ever.


Will Purdue win more games in 2016 than it did in each of the three previous years? Can the Boilermakers win more than three games this year? – Paul Matzat

This is Year Four of the Darrell Hazell era. And progress has been glacial. He is 6-30 overall and 2-22 in the Big Ten with some spectacularly bad losses. Give Hazell credit: He shook up his staff after last year?s dreary 2-10 effort, hiring new coordinators. Long story short, there is a chance for success in West Lafayette, but only if the QB spot stabilizes and the line play on both sides of the ball improves. Here is the full sked. You see six possible wins? I do. Try it!

  • Eastern Kentucky
  • Cincinnati
  • Nevada
  • At Maryland
  • At Illinois
  • Iowa
  • At Nebraska
  • Penn State
  • At Minnesota
  • Northwestern
  • Wisconsin
  • At Indiana


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