NCAA Tournament notes: Big Ten faltering as only 3 teams remain
A historic year for the Big Ten, when it matched its high with 9 teams in the Big Dance, including four of the top-8 overall seeds, could turn into a complete embarrassment by the end of the day.
It’s already close as it is.
The league has faltered in the NCAA Tournament, with 6 of its 9 teams already ousted, including top-seed — and NCAA Tournament favorite — Illinois, which lost to Loyola Chicago in the first game on a Sunday that turned into a mess for many higher-seeded teams.
On a day in which double-digit seeds Syracuse, Oral Roberts and Oregon State advanced to the Sweet 16, underdogs Wisconsin and Rutgers couldn’t pull the same upsets. The 10th-seed Scarlet Knights almost did, but they tightened up in the final minutes, being outscored 14-2 to succumb to No. 2 seed Houston, which is coached by former Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson. Rutgers tried to run out the clock, starting with about 3 1/2 minutes left, a stall tactic that proved closely in the closing seconds.
Wisconsin, a 9 seed, proved little match for the top-seeded Bears of Baylor, losing by 13.
The losses drop the Big Ten’s record in the Dance to only 6-6 and leaves only three teams to try to carry the torch into the Sweet 16: Top-seed Michigan, No. 2-seed Iowa and 10-seed Maryland.
Illinois was the biggest disappointment Sunday. The Fighting Illini offense never got untracked, as Illinois trailed from the start and couldn’t recover. They committed 16 turnovers and scored 23 points less than their season average, a credit to a better-than-advertised Ramblers’ defense. It stifled Ayo Dosunmu, holding the Illini All-American to only 9 points; he averages 20.
It likely will be the end of an era at Illinois, with Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn, who both returned to the Fighting Illini for a chance at an NCAA championship, likely to depart for the NBA.
“The hardest thing about the NCAA Tournament is when you lose, (the reaction of the players in the) the locker room,” coach Brad Underwood said. “It’s family and you see a lot of guys hurting, a lot of guys in tears and a lot of guys disappointed. Yet, such is life. Life deals you very challenging blows at times.
“… Today was not our day. Yet where Illinois basketball was four years ago compared to now, I like where we’re at. I like our pieces. We’ve just got to continue to work and stay at this level.”
Following is a glance at Monday’s matchups:
No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 2 Iowa
Time: 12:10 p.m.
Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse
The Storyline: Oregon is playing in its first NCAA Tournament game after Game 1 was declared a no contest because of COVID issues with opponent VCU. Will the delay to the start of the Dance hurt the Ducks? Iowa might be able to jump out early, and if so could cause Oregon problems. This is likely to be a high-scoring game — neither defense is great, although Iowa has improved in the second half of the season — so it could come down to perimeter shooting. But Iowa has one big edge, and that’s big man Luka Garza. Oregon has struggled to match up with elite big men.
No. 8 LSU vs. No. 1 Michigan
Time: 7:10 p.m.
Location: Lucas Oil Stadium
The Storyline: Considering all that has happened in the Big Ten and that LSU is a formidable and perhaps underseeded opponent, the Wolverines better be on high alert in Indianapolis this evening. Michigan’s defense might be in the spotlight, as it tries to slow down an LSU team that wants to get up and down the floor as often as possible. The Tigers, led by freshman Cameron Thomas and his 22.8 points-per-game average, score nearly 82 points per game. But their defense isn’t great, allowing about 78 per contest. This has the makings of one of the best games of the day. The question for UM remains: How does it play without its most versatile player in wing Isaiah Livers?
No. 10 Maryland vs. No. 2 Alabama
Time: 8:45 p.m.
Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse
The Storyline: The Terrapins might have the kind of defense that causes Alabama fits, because they will clog up the lane and force the Crimson Tide to shoot from the perimeter. And if Maryland can slow the game down, then it might have a chance at another second-round NCAA Tournament upset. But while Maryland’s defense has been consistent this season, it’s the offense that has determined whether the Terps win or lose. It’ll again have to generate points. Eric Ayala is coming off a great game vs. UConn, perhaps that will carry over into today’s contest with Alabama.
Big Ten, ACC sours
The Big Ten isn’t the only traditional power basketball conference that has tumbled in the last 3 days.
The ACC hasn’t looked good, either, with 5 of its 7 teams having been eliminated. Only Syracuse, a surprise entrant into the Sweet 16, and Florida State remain. The fourth-seeded Seminoles will try to punch their ticket to next weekend against No. 5 seed Colorado today.
It’s made for a topsy-turvy NCAA Tournament, in which the typically criticized Pac-12 is 6-0, with 12 seed Oregon State in the Sweet 16, potentially joined today by No. 7 Oregon, No. 11 UCLA, Colorado and No. 6 USC.
But perhaps the craziest stat is this: The 8 teams that advanced to the Sweet 16 Sunday represent 8 conferences. Weird times indeed.