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What Happened To The Big Ten?

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With just one team in the Sweet Sixteen, the supposed super power league looks like anything but

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oregon at Iowa
Iowa Hawkeyes center Luka Garza (55) walks off the court after their 95-80 against the Oregon Ducks during the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Monday, March 22, 2021, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. 
IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

The Sweet Sixteen is set and so are initial bragging rights. The PAC-12, aka the Conference of Drug-Addled TV Announcers, has four, including two surprises, Oregon State and UCLA.

The ACC, the Big East and the SEC all got a pair while six leagues got just one bid each. That includes the West Coast Conference, with #1 Gonzaga, the AAC with Houston, the Big 12 with Baylor, the Missouri Valley with the Loyola Ramblers and the Summit with Oral Roberts.

Is that right? We feel like we must be making an error. Who could we have missed. This could a B1G mistake so we want to make sure we get it right....wait, hold the phone. It’s the Big Ten! The mighty, nine-bid league Big Ten which, other than Michigan, fell and, generally speaking, fell hard.

Let’s look how hard the mighty did fall.

  1. #11 Michigan State just crumbled in the second half and down the stretch against fellow #11 UCLA in the First Four, 86-80
  2. #4 Purdue turned into Peee-yu! against #13 North Texas 78-69 in the first round.
  3. #2 Ohio State fell to #15 Oral Roberts 75-72 in the first round.
  4. #10 Maryland beat #7 UConn 63-54 then got embarrassed by #2 Alabama 96-77.
  5. #9 Wisconsin beat #8 UNC 85-62 (thanks Badgers!) then lost to #1 Baylor 76-63
  6. #2 Iowa beat #15 Grand Canyon 74-68 then lost to #7 Oregon 85-50
  7. #1 Illinois beat #16 Drexel 78-49 then lost to #8 Loyola 71-58.
  8. #10 Rutgers beat #7 Clemson 60-56 then lost to #2 Houston 63-60.

You can probably accept a #9, #10 or #11 seed not advancing, but a #1 seed, two #2 seeds and a #4 seed all failed to make the Sweet Sixteen and that’s pretty bad.

Some people have argued that that Illinois got screwed by having to face Loyola in the second round, to which we say: well, were the Illini the #1 seed or not? Because even if Loyola was higher than an eight - and they probably should have been - a #1 seed shouldn’t be thoroughly beaten in the second round or really, ever.

And Illinois certainly was thoroughly beaten.

So was Purdue, even if you limit that to overtime, as were Wisconsin, Iowa and Maryland.

In general, it was a disastrous performance by the conference that leaves only Michigan to carry the B1G banner into next weekend and they’ll have to get past Florida State and probably Alabama just to get to the Final Four where Gonzaga will almost certainly await - and they’ll have to do it without Isaiah Livers.

The question is why? This should have been a big year, at least theoretically, for the Big Ten. How could it have performed so poorly?

We’ve seen two theories.

The first is that the nature of the season limited non-conference play which in turn distorted how the various rating entities measured the Big Ten’s strength.

Let’s look back at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for some support. Some of the irrelevant games aren't listed but these are interesting in retrospect:

  • Miami beat Purdue despite missing one starter and being down 20.
  • Boston College finished with just four wins, yet took Minnesota to overtime on the road before losing.
  • Iowa beat a mediocre UNC team by just seven.
  • A weak Notre Dame team gave Ohio State a five-point game
  • A very young Duke team lost to Illinois 83-68, a loss that in retrospect was misunderstood on both sides.
  • Clemson beat Maryland 67-51
  • Georgia Tech took out Nebraska 75-64
  • Florida State needed OT to beat Indiana at home
  • Louisville got hammered by Wisconsin, 85-48
  • Michigan State played Notre Dame and at Duke (as part of the Champion’s Classic)
  • Purdue played no ranked non-conference teams.
  • Ohio State played no ranked opponents and no one tougher than UCLA and Notre Dame.
  • Maryland’s non-conference was predictably lame.
  • Wisconsin played Rhode Island, Green Bay and Marquette.
  • Iowa played Gonzaga and lost by 11 and played no one else ranked.
  • Illinois at least played #2 Baylor, losing by 13, but nobody else.
  • Rutgers played Sacred Heart, Farleigh Dickinson and Hofstra.

Some caveats here, starting with Covid, which limited non-con games both numerically and geographically, but not much anyone could do about that. And while we also know the games that weren’t play due to protocols or testing, we can’t know the emotional impact the pandemic had on teams and personnel.

But those things affected everyone else and not everyone had the resources Big Ten schools have. Take Iona, for instance. They had a very rough time with Covid but still managed to compete at a really high level.

The main point though is that the Big Ten’s strength was measured primarily against other Big Ten teams.

In the Big Ten, five teams finished under .500 and three more won sixteen games or less. Of those, only Rutgers finished at .500 in the conference.

So for Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State and, to a lesser extent Wisconsin, Rutgers, Maryland and Michigan State, there were plenty of easy wins to pick up.

We’re not going to delve into the whole quad 1/2/3 business because it gets kind of hard to follow and if you feel like Loyola was wildly mis-seeded, it’s kind of pointless anyway.

But it’s hard to get past the feeling that the Big Ten puffed up resumes by playing each other in a self-perpetuating circle of mythological superiority not seen since Xerxes tried to sell the Spartans that he was a God-King just before 300 Spartans convinced him otherwise at Thermopylae.

Take that, Bill Walton.

The other idea has a larger data set to consider although we’re not willing to draw firm conclusions: the Big Ten’s physical style just doesn't translate in the NCAA Tournament.

Look at the Big Ten’s best teams, or at least the teams that have reached the Final Four this century, champions bolded and Big Ten teams italicized:

  1. 2001: Michigan State Duke, Maryland, Arizona
  2. 2002: Maryland, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma
  3. 2005: UNC, Illinois, Louisville, Michigan State
  4. 2007: Florida, Ohio State, UCLA, Georgetown
  5. 2009: UNC, Michigan State, UConn, Villanova
  6. 2010: Duke, Butler, Michigan State, West Virginia
  7. 2012: Kentucky, Kansas, Ohio State, Louisville
  8. 2013: Louisville, Michigan, Syracuse, Wichita State
  9. 2014: UConn, Kentucky, Florida, Wisconsin
  10. 2015: Duke, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Kentucky
  11. 2018: Villanova, Michigan, Kansas Loyola
  12. 2019: Virginia, Texas Tech, Michigan State, Auburn

We count 14 Big Ten teams and six of them are Michigan State, which won the last title of the last century in 2000.

Look at the teams that won, though: with the notable exception of Virginia, which we’d call an outlier, none of the title teams played a style that most people would associate with the Big Ten, which is to say none of them relied on power more than speed, athleticism and transition basketball.

We want to be careful about not sticking the Big Ten with an unfair label - it didn’t really apply to John Beilein’s Michigan as much - but it is broadly seen as a very tough, physical league.

Does that translate well to the national stage?

We’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but the only Big Ten team left, while certainly ferocious, very much likes to run.