Once-promising B1G season ends with a NCAA tourney thud
A Big Ten season that was so full of promise — at any one time during the regular season as many as 9 teams could be ranked in the AP Top 25 — ended on a court in Lucas Oil Stadium, with top-seed Michigan failing to cross the 50-point threshold in a loss to 11th-seeded UCLA.
And with that, a 51-49 Michigan loss in the Elite Eight late Tuesday night, the Big Ten was toast, out of the NCAA Tournament before the Final Four. That the event is in Indianapolis, in the heart of Big Ten country, without a team from the league (but featuring four teams from West of the Mississippi), only adds to the insult.
It was nothing short of an embarrassment for a conference that touts itself as the best in the country. It was anything but when it mattered most.
Perhaps it’s only a regular-season power conference, featuring physical teams built for a marathon but not a sprint. The Big Ten brings slugfests nearly every night, with the thought being that almost anyone can beat almost anyone. Any given Sunday, right? Maryland, a team few thought would make the NCAA Tournament this season, beat Wisconsin and Illinois early in the conference slate, but was that — as it turns out — a good thing? Or was it a harbinger for what was to come? It showed us that Illinois, a team that many eventually came to believe had the best shot to upend Gonzaga in an NCAA championship game, also was susceptible to losing to a mediocre team.
Maybe the Big Ten struggles out of conference, when it can’t simply bang against the opponent, when its great big can’t square off against the other team’s great big. And maybe those matchups, against a smaller, quicker, potentially more athletic club, are hard to prepare for in a short window.
It’s a hard one to figure out. It’s not as if the Big Ten doesn’t have great players. Luka Garza is among finalists for national player of the year awards, if he doesn’t just straight up win them. Ayo Dosunmu could play for anyone in the country, and be a difference-maker in getting a team to a Final Four, or to a national title. Trevion Williams would rack up near double-doubles no matter where he was playing.
But they didn’t carry their teams, at least this March.
It’s maddening, especially for a conference that is trying to not only get into the Final Four — it’s done that with regularity in the last couple decades (and before) — but to win the title. That hasn’t happened since Michigan State won it all in 2000.
This was supposed to be a year that the Big Ten could put up someone to at least challenge the Zags. It flooded the field with nine teams (13% of the total) including 4 that were seeded in the top-8. If seeds held, the Big Ten would have had 5 teams in the Sweet 16 and 2 in the Final Four. Those are good odds. But seeds didn’t hold. Only Michigan made the Round of 16, and it lost in the Elite Eight when it ended its game vs. UCLA after missing its final 8 shots.
And the Big Ten didn’t simply succumb to better teams. That might be explainable. Michigan became the 6th team — of the 9 Big Ten entries — that lost when it was favored. Yikes.
So what now? The Big Ten will play again next season, although it likely won’t be as deep as it was — supposedly — this year. Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Rutgers, and maybe others, are set for major personnel losses. Michigan could be back (depending on roster changes) and Purdue and Ohio State are poised to contend, probably on a national stage.
But nothing much that happens in the regular season will matter, at least in terms of national perception. This March will end today. The Big Ten will hope the next one brings better fortunes.