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Will Big Ten finally win NCAA tournament?


Twenty-one years ago, Tom Izzo and Mateen Cleaves linked arms at center court and watched the playing of “One Shining Moment” together. Cleaves wore a clipped national championship net around his neck. Tears of joy ran down his face.

It was the culmination of Michigan State’s second, and the Big Ten Conference’s 10th, national title in the then-62-year-old event.

It was also the start of one of the most stunning streaks in college sports.

No team coming out of the Big Ten has won it since.

This isn’t some thinkpiece analyzing all the factors that have gone into this drought. There will be no complaining about demographic shifts or underperforming programs.

None of that applies. This is truly an inexplicable quirk. Bad luck. Bad night. Whatever. It just keep happening.

Which is why there is no reason for the league not to break through this year, when it has nine men’s tourney teams, including a record four among the top two seeds in each region — No. 1s Illinois and Michigan, No. 2s Iowa and Ohio State.

The entire event is even being played in and around Indianapolis, the league’s spiritual home, including first-round games on the campuses of Indiana and Purdue. Izzo even joked he was going to stop by Purdue coach Matt Painter’s house for brunch one morning.

Simply put, this has to end at some point.

The Big Ten conference logo is shown on the floor during a college basketball game between Rutgers and Illinois on March 12. (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Big Ten conference logo is shown on the floor during a college basketball game between Rutgers and Illinois on March 12. (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Big Ten is excellent at basketball, virtually every year. The schools invest heavily in the sport. High-quality, even Hall of Fame coaches, still pace the sidelines, while young innovative ones seek jobs there.

Fans fill arenas. The Big Ten Network delivers huge revenue checks. Midwestern high schools still churn out enormous amounts of talent. Mediocrity is not tolerated — three non-NCAA tourney schools are replacing coaches this year.

This isn’t football, waxing on about how Minnesota once won three national championships — in the 1930s.

The Big Ten has had its chances. In the 19 NCAA tournaments since MSU won it all (there was no event in 2020), 112 league teams have received tournament bids, 13 have reached the Final Four and seven have played in the national title game.

None have won on Championship Monday.

It makes no sense.

There is no argument that the Big Ten was the most competitive and high-end conference in America this year. A league-record nine teams are in the NCAAs — Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Maryland and Michigan State.

“This is the best league,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

It features five of the top 14 overall seeds — Illinois (3), Michigan (4), Ohio State (6), Iowa (7), Purdue (14). That’s a lot of bullets in the chamber.

And a lot of battle-tested teams, even the non-high seeds, who may get a jolt from not getting away from the meat grinder.

“I don’t feel afraid of … anybody because we truly have played the best teams in the country on a night-in, night-out basis,” Izzo said, whose 11th-seeded Spartans are playing UCLA in the play-in game Thursday.

Michigan State went just 15-12 this year, but nine of the losses were to Big Ten teams that reached the NCAAs, six of them to the above-mentioned top seeds. The Spartans also beat Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State.

“I’m not nervous,” Izzo said.

That’s the Big Ten’s mantra this year, especially when an unbeaten Gonzaga, a clearly gifted but somewhat untested team is the tournament favorite.

“I think our league has prepared us, and everybody else in this league, for what’s coming,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. Five of the Hawkeyes’ eight losses are to No 1 or 2 seeds.

Will that matter? You never know. This is a single elimination event, the “best” team doesn’t always win and the Big Ten has figured out how to lose in just about every conceivable faction.

In 2005, North Carolina edged out an iconic, then-37-1 Illinois club (Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Bill Self) in the finals. Florida did the same to a Greg Oden-Mike Conley Jr.-led Buckeye juggernaut in 2009.

Wisconsin slayed a then-unbeaten Kentucky team in 2015, only to run out of gas two nights later against Duke. A 2009 Michigan State club maximized itself to the title game before an all-time great Carolina club buzz-sawed them. John Beilein got Michigan to the finals twice, just missing both times. Indiana, then a five seed, shocked everyone to reach the finals in 2002, but an outstanding Maryland team (then of the ACC) stopped them.

There is no pattern. UNC, Duke and Connecticut have each won three titles during this stretch. Florida and Villanova two each. The ACC has won eight, the Big East seven, the SEC three and the Big 12 one.

The entire Big Ten … none.

That was then. What comes now?

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