It’s that time of year when those of us who attended Big Ten schools are asked to explain the sad state of Big Ten men’s basketball. We are doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, architects, bankers, chefs and farmers, among many other occupations, but every March, our academic diplomas somehow transform each of us into Dickie V. Looking to many Big Ten grads for answers on this topic is misguided, like asking a university archivist to demonstrate proper form on the bench press or a roofer to explain James Joyce’s “Ulysses.’’ But you detractors persist.
Don’t think we haven’t noticed the mocking tone in your tweets, texts and posts! We know that the Big Ten is “struggling’’ in the NCAA Tournament! You’ve made that very clear! But let me take a stab at explaining things, seeing as how Dickie V once sent me his autobiography with the inscription, “Rick, You’re Awesome Baby!!!’’ So, yes, I am a something of a college basketball expert.
The Big Ten is having an awful NCAA Tournament for what feels like the 10th year in a row. Every March, it collects large quantities of tournament bids, then throws them away in near-record time. Picture a highway littered with tire tread that semi-trucks have shed. That’s what those bids typically look like a few days into the tournament for the Big Ten.
Of the nine teams invited this year, only two remained after the first two rounds. When Michigan lost Thursday in the Sweet 16, it meant only Purdue was left. Then 15th-seeded St. Peter’s “upset’’ the Boilermakers on Friday night and, well, goodbye Big Ten.
Last year, nine Big Ten teams made the tournament and none made the Final Four. Illinois, a No. 1 seed, lost by 13 points to eighth-seeded Loyola in the second round. The conference hasn’t won the national championship since 2000, when Michigan State beat Florida. I’m told President Grover Cleveland, a big Gators fan, was very upset.
Here are some theories on the conference’s difficulties, with a 1 to 10 value given for its validity (10 being most valid):
Crazy Things Happen in the Tournament. There’s no escaping this fact. If you’ve ever filled out an NCAA Tournament bracket, you know it to be true. Nobody saw St. Peter’s making it to the Elite Eight this year, but everybody knew the idea of a St. Peter’s advancing was going to happen because something like it seems to happen every year. Seven out of nine Big Ten teams falling in the first weekend isn’t crazy. It’s become the norm. Validity: 5.
The Big Ten is a Bunch of Choking Dogs. This is college basketball’s version of mass hysteria. One conference team in the tournament sneezes, and every other conference team in the tournament is diagnosed with a terminal disease. I have a hard time buying the idea that third-seeded Wisconsin, knowing that the Big Ten has historically struggled, played badly in a second-round loss to 11th-seeded Iowa State because it was nervous about letting the conference down. The conference co-champions lost because they weren’t that good. Validity: 3.
The Fatigue Factor. This theory presupposes that the Big Ten is the biggest, toughest and most-talented conference in the nation and that getting through the regular-season schedule and conference tournament leaves teams bruised and battered when March Madness arrives. There might be something to this. It is a physical league, always has been. But is it that much more of a meat grinder than the other top conferences? If it is, maybe the Big Ten ought to consider banning tackle basketball. Validity: 6.
There are very few dominant teams in the country. Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed but struggled against Georgia State and Memphis before losing to Arkansas. I never looked at the Zags and saw dominance. I saw vulnerability, much the same way I see vulnerability in almost every team left in the tournament. Anybody can beat anybody else. The dilution of talent in college basketball plays a huge role. Validity: 8
The Big Ten is overrated. We have a winner! Illinois shared the regular-season conference title with Wisconsin, but anyone with any familiarity with college basketball knew the Illini were in trouble when they faced Houston in the second round. The Cougars were just the kind of athletic team that would give Illinois trouble, raising the question: How does the Big Ten co-champion lose early in the conference tournament and then fall to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament? Likely by playing in an overrated conference. Illinois coach Brad Underwood after the loss to Houston: “We will keep getting back here.’’ He meant that in a positive way, but it sounded like a threat. Validity: 10.