Ranking the B1G's top 10 Final Four moments of the last half-century
The Big Ten isn’t part of today’s Final Four in Indianapolis.
So to help us fill the void, let’s take a look back at the conference’s top-10 moments of the last 50 years.
10. Beilein’s boys lose in finals
Let’s start with the last appearance by a Big Ten team in the Final Four, only a few years ago in 2018. John Beilien’s team had enjoyed a solid season, but got hot at the right moment, winning the Big Ten Tournament — the Wolverines had been the 5 seed — and taking that momentum into the NCAA Tournament. UM beat upstart Loyola Chicago in the Final Four, ending one of the great Cinderella stories of the tournament, before facing Villanova in the championship. But the Wolverines, who had a program-best 33 victories, ran out of gas, falling 79-62 in the title game, and seeing their 14-game winning streak come to an end.
9. Illini fight comes up empty
The 2005 Fighting Illini were one of the most entertaining teams over the last couple decades, led by Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams. They led the nation in assists and were second in points scored, many of them from the 3-point line. Coached by Bruce Weber, Illinois very possibly was the best Big Ten team since the Michigan State title team in 2000. It won 37 games, tying what was then an NCAA record. But it couldn’t win No. 38, when its second-half comeback fell short to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game.
8. Hoosiers’ run falls short
Although Indiana won the Big Ten regular-season title in 2002, not much more was expected of the Hoosiers. They earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, then caught fire. There were some thrillers, probably none more so than the Sweet 16 contest vs. Duke in Rupp Arena, when IU squeaked out a one-point victory. And then it beat Oklahoma in the Final Four, setting up a title game against Maryland, an ACC team then. But the Hoosiers, led by Jared Jeffries and a bunch of other excellent role players, couldn’t find their offense vs. the Terrapins, losing 64-52. It was quite the run for Mike Davis, only a couple years after he’d taken over for Bob Knight as the head coach.
7. Big Ten vs. Big Ten
In 2000, it seemed like the Big Ten had a good chance of having an NCAA champion, considering it put two of the four teams into the Final Four. The problem was that Michigan State and Wisconsin had to play each other in a national semifinal. For the Spartans, that was an expectation; they were a No. 1 seed and tournament favorite. It wasn’t so much for Wisconsin, a tournament 8 seed who had gotten hot, having beaten Purdue in the Elite Eight to get to Indianapolis. In the first half of an ugly game vs. the Spartans, it looked like Wisconsin’s slow-it-down style might win out. But MSU used a 13-2 run to start the second half to take over and advance to the title game.
6. Webber’s ill-timed timeout
In the 1993 title game against North Carolina, Chris Webber knew that the Wolverines needed a timeout in the closing seconds. The problem is that he didn’t know Michigan didn’t have a timeout. It was the second straight NCAA title game for the Fab Five, and while the first ended in a blowout loss to Duke, this one ended in heartbreak. With North Carolina leading by 2 points, Webber secured a missed free throw, then raced up the court only to call a timeout directly in front of his bench. Did someone shout at him to do so? No matter. It was a technical foul, allowing UNC to seal the victory.
5. Fisher’s takeover
In 1989, Steve Fisher took over the controls of Michigan after head coach Bill Frieder had been dismissed, setting up an odd circumstance for one of the country’s best basketball teams. But Fisher led the group that included Glen Rice and Rumeal Robinson on a great NCAA Tournament run, as he turned up the offense. The Wolverines scored more than 90 points in each of their first 4 tournament victories, including 102 in a smashing of Virginia in a regional final. Then Michigan, a 3 seed, got to Seattle’s Kingdome for the Final Four, where he played in a couple classics, first knocking off fellow Big Ten challenger Illinois, before needing overtime to get by Seton Hall.
4. Magic night
The 1979 NCAA Championship game brought on a new era of collegiate athletics, because of the big personalities involved. It was Magic Johnson’s Spartans against Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. What a matchup. Magic got the better of the dual, which would last years into the NBA, when the Spartans won their first-ever national championship by beating previously-unbeaten Indiana State by 11. Johnson was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player after what was then the most-watched college basketball game ever.
3. Smart is money
Keith Smart took the ball toward the baseline, pulled up from about 15 feet and let his jumper fly. When it fell through against Syracuse in the 1987 championship game in the Louisiana Superdome, he had delivered Indiana the last of its 5 national titles. It was quite the team, led of course by Knight but with a stud local hero in sharp-shooter Steve Alford. But Smart, a junior from nearby Baton Rouge, was the hero for the Hoosiers against the Orangemen, as he rallied the Hoosiers from a 3-point hole in the final minute.
2. The “Flintstones” win the title
At the time, it was easy to like the Michigan State “Flintstones,” the trio of basketball players from Flint, Michigan — Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell — who took the Spartans to the NCAA title in 2000. It’s the last of the Big Ten’s championships, a span that continues now for 21 years. MSU was the best team in the Big Ten during the regular season, then won the tournament title, before keeping up the momentum in the NCAAs. The Spartans weren’t challenged much in the tourney, winning every game by double-figures, including in the championship game against Florida. MoPete’s 21 points, and Cleaves’ heroics despite an ankle injury, proved to be the difference.
1. Indiana is perfect
Gonzaga might soon join the 1976 Hoosiers with a perfect season, but as of now Indiana stands alone in the last half century. Indiana was 32-0 in 1975-76, as they marched through the season on the strong play of Scott May, Quinn Buckner, Kent Benson and others. Only 7 times since 1976 have teams finished a regular-season unbeaten, but each team lost in the NCAA Tournament, aside from the Zags, who have 2 more games to win this season to match the Hoosiers. But in ’76, IU was in a class all its own, marching through the season, then taking on fellow Big Ten foe Michigan in the title game. But the Wolverines were no match, as IU won the title in an 86-68 final.