How good is the best college basketball conference in America?
So good, it wouldn’t know a national championship from a hole in the ground. So good, it hasn’t had a team cut down the nets in — count ’em — 21 years. So good, its 2021 NCAA Tournament experience has been roughly as pleasant as taking a charge from an ornery elk.
So good, it has been in Michigan-or-bust mode since the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Big Ten littered the top 10 of the national polls with its heavy hitters all season. The league got nine teams — a record — into the tournament. Who didn’t think it was better than the ACC, Big 12, SEC and the rest? We pretty much all did. And we were wrong.
Or maybe we were right. Who knows? It doesn’t really matter now, just like Illinois’ beef with Michigan’s regular-season title doesn’t really matter. The Illini were 16-4. The Wolverines were 14-3. A better winning percentage got the latter team a banner. Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman wrote an impossibly long letter. Yada, yada, yada.
Here’s what matters: Eight Big Ten teams wasted practically no time at all getting themselves booted from the Big Dance. No. 1 seed Illinois got caught spiking the punch bowl against Loyola. No. 2 Ohio State gagged against Oral Roberts. No. 2 Iowa took its typical turnstile defense to a whole new level against Oregon. Over and over, the league blew it — as is its March custom, come to think of it.
And now, East region No. 1 seed Michigan — which looked great Sunday in a 76-58 dismantling of fourth-seeded Florida State at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis — is all the Big Ten and its fans have left. That was true entering the Sweet 16, it’ll be true heading into the Wolverines’ Elite Eight matchup against Alabama or UCLA and it may or may not still be true for longer than that. But if the Wolverines don’t go all the way, it’ll be the 20th tournament in a row won by a team from another conference.
Anyone else remember a fresh-faced, chipper lad named Tom Izzo beaming in triumph after Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell — aka “the Flintstones” — took it to a Florida team coached by an even more boyish lad named Billy Donovan in the final? OK, so Izzo was 45 at the time, not all that young. But Donovan was 34. What ever happened to him, anyway?
That’s how long it has been for the Big Ten, folks. It’s sad. It’s puzzling. It’s more than a little embarrassing.
But calling it a two-decade cold streak doesn’t do justice to the Big Ten’s March irrelevance, because the most recent title prior to Michigan State’s came all the way back in 1989. Yes, now we’ve receded into Nick Anderson-failing-to-box-out-Sean Higgins territory, which is never fun to relive. Illinois’ pain and Michigan’s glory all those years ago was the next-to-last time the Big Ten ended on top, if you can believe it. I just typed it, and I can’t.
The ACC has won it all eight times since 2000 — three times each for Duke and North Carolina, with individual breakthroughs by Maryland (ironically, now in the Big Ten) and Virginia.
The SEC got two titles from Donovan’s Florida heyday and one from John Calipari at Kentucky. The Big East got two titles from Connecticut and one each from Syracuse and Louisville, not that those three schools are even in the conference anymore. But the Big East also got Villanova’s triumphs in 2016 and 2018.
The Big 12 (Kansas in 2008) and the American Athletic (UConn in 2014) have cut down the nets more recently than the Big Ten, too. And they have Baylor and Houston, respectively, as heavy favorites in this tournament to get to the Final Four.
The Big Ten has — stop me if I’ve already mentioned this — Michigan and Michigan alone. Maybe a fresh-faced lad named Juwan Howard will lead the Wolverines to the top. Howard, 48, has accomplished one big thing after another in the sport since launching from CVS, but he’s in only his second season as a head coach.
“We’re grinding, man,” he said. “And we’re doing it collectively. And it’s beautiful just to see the development that is happening before our eyes.”
“Beautiful” and “Big Ten” don’t often go together in March. No need to tell the Wolverines that, though. They’ve already got all the league’s eggs in their basket.