In 2000 the #1 seeded Michigan State Spartans knocked off the Florida Gators by 13 points in the National Championship. The game capped a run of games where Michigan State won every contest by double digits and ended with the Tom Izzo coached team producing three first rounders in that year's NBA Draft (Jason Richardson, Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson). That title, however, would be the last championship won by a Big Ten team.
The conference has had it's fair share of opportunities, though, with Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan all getting to the title game before eventually falling. The lack of a title has created an interesting narrative across the conference, especially as of late. While it seems like year after year the Big Ten has it's foot in the door and is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, conference in the nation...they just can't seem to pull it off.
Enter the 2014-15 Wisconsin Badgers, the latest Big Ten team to make a run for the title. What makes the Badgers journey to the title game even more interesting is how they got there. In one corner you have perennial favorite Duke, a team that has became so accustomed to success that the program can attract the best of the best year in and year out. And the 2014-15 Blue Devils were definitely some of the best heading off to college, with a whopping nine Duke players being McDonald All-Americans, including every single starter on their lineup. As for Wisconsin? Zero, zilch, notta. Guys like Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Traevon Jackson were all three star recruits heading to Madison. As for Duke? Per Rivals they haven't had a recruit rated that low since Tyler Thornton all the way back in 2010.
So what does that mean? Well in a sport becoming more and more defined by one-and-dones and focusing on individual players more so than actual teamwork, Wisconsin has won the old-fashioned way. Instead of focusing exclusively on highly touted recruits, Bo Ryan finds guys that fit his system and will buy in to the program. The Badgers come out and play smart, disciplined basketball that keeps turnovers and fouls at a minimum. With the Badgers not wasting offensive opportunities and not giving up easy points from unforced mistakes, Wisconsin found a way to keep teams at bay. Simply by playing smart Wisconsin put themselves in a favorable position, regardless of the lack of star power. And of course the system, discipline and intelligence shown by the players as a collective whole allowed guys like Frank Kaminsky, virtually unheard of heading into last season, to become the nation's best player this season.
In a sport full of controversy, scandal and an increasing focus on star recruits before they jet off to the NBA...Wisconsin found a way to do it the old-fashion, unselfish way. Playing and coming together as a team Wisconsin spent the entire season bringing something new to the table with a refreshing throwback to past years before college basketball evolved into what it is now.
While the Badgers couldn't pull it off at the end of the day, Wisconsin showed that there's another way to do it besides simply stock up on top level recruits. Wisconsin showed that simply having a legendary coach, playing smart ball and having a group of players come together and go all in is enough to compete with just about anyone. The Badgers couldn't defeat Duke tonight, but they were right there until the very end and could have easily won if a few shots had gone their way. Wisconsin laid down the foundation showing their are other ways to get there.
That being said, the loss was another "what if" for the Big Ten. Most recently the conference was there last year when the Badgers fell to Kentucky in the Final Four, as well as two years ago when Michigan couldn't hold on against Louisville. While the national exposure, ability to compete with the best of the best and impressive tournament success has to have it's benefits when luring players to the conference and promoting the Big Ten as a whole, it's going to be another situation where the conference had an opportunity to win it all and failed. While the Big Ten has sent a steady amount of teams to the finals since 2000, the Spartans are still the last team from the Big Ten to win it all.
Wisconsin may have shown that there's another way to win games and make a run for a title, but they still came up short. The Big Ten had another strong tournament showing, but they still came up short. It's become a recurring story for the conference and one that needs to change if the Big Ten wants to claim the top spot among the conferences. The Big Ten is right there, but they just need to find something to get themselves over the hump.
For all the success the Big Ten has enjoyed, this feeling of coming up short year in and year out has gotten stale. At the very least, though, it should create plenty of incentive for the teams in the conference to want to be the one to beat the streak. It has to happen sooner or later.