The first weekend of the NCAA tournament is the greatest in college basketball, and this first weekend was the greatest in living memory. A sixteen seed finally knocked off a one seed. For the first time ever, a region lost all four of its top seeds before the Sweet Sixteen. And a couple of buzzer beaters made us wonder whether a certain nun didn’t call down a little help from above, and I don’t mean from Mark Emmert.
As a basketball fan, it’s hard to ask for more. But as a Big Ten fan, we could have. Two teams in the Sweet Sixteen is respectable, but it hardly sets the Big Ten among the nation’s elite. The Big 12 and ACC each got four.
Purdue. I argued that losing Haas wasn’t as big a deal as many people thought, but it’s still impressive that the Boilermakers weren’t among the carnage that tore through top-seeded teams on Sunday. Purdue’s role players impressed, and Matt Haarms and his hair took the nation by storm. Dakota Mathias his a huge three, and Vince Edwards did a little bit of everything as the Boilers outlasted the Butler Bulldogs.
The only black mark against Purdue was Carsen Edwards. The first team all-Big Ten guard had an abysmal day; one in every four shots hoisted by the Boilermakers was a Carsen Edwards miss. Despite a year that saw Edwards’ decision-making improve by leaps and bounds, for one day he looked like the Carsen Edwards of last year.
The good news for Purdue is that Carsen Edwards is a goldfish—he has no memory. Whether his last shot went in or out has no bearing on whether he’ll pull the trigger on the next one. That’s been good for Purdue this year since more often than not his shots find nylon, but the Old Gold and Black won’t survive another performance like Sunday’s.
Michigan. OK, so a three seed beating a six seed at the buzzer isn’t overachieving, but John Beilein stating that Jordan Poole has an excess of swag and then celebrating in the locker room with a poncho definitely is. People love this Michigan team. That’s partly because Mo Wagner is maybe the most unique player in the country. It’s also because John Beilein is a cross between everyone’s favorite college professor and your cool grandpa who’s always proud of you.
And, let’s face it, it’s because that other team from Michigan is much less likable. We’ll get to Michigan State in a minute, but more than one person has pointed out that Michigan and Michigan State have football and basketball programs that are mirror images of each other. Michigan basketball and Michigan State football have coaches who overachieve with lesser talent, while Michigan football and Michigan State basketball, ostensibly the most important sport at their respective schools, have coaches the fans consider legends but who keep coming up short in the postseason and against their rivals.
After this past weekend, it’s possible John Beilein is the best basketball coach in the state.
Michigan State. We all know the saying: January, February, Izzo, April. But after three years in a row without a Sweet Sixteen appearance, it’s time for Tom Izzo’s Mr. March moniker to be, if not retired, then at least put on a leave of absence.
This was the best roster in East Lansing since the Flintstones. Jaren Jackson Jr. was a one-and-done, which Tom Izzo never gets. Miles Bridges decided to forgo millions to come back to school, and in November he was probably a frontrunner for national player of the year. Nick Ward is an all-around beast, and Cassius Winston shot over 50% from three on the year.
But good coaching can overcome good talent. Tom Izzo knows that better than anyone, but this year it was Izzo who was on the opposite end of that equation, getting outcoached by one of college basketball’s all-time legends in Jim Boeheim. Syracuse may have limped into the NCAA tournament, but that zone is difficult to prepare for, especially for a Big Ten team. No one in our league runs a zone defense consistently.
Ohio State. I don’t feel great about putting Ohio State here, because back in November there were people (like yours truly) who thought the Buckeyes would finish thirteenth in the Big Ten. Nobody believed in Ohio State except for Dan Dakich, and he was biased. But the Buckeyes were the surprise of the league, and Chris Holtmann won a well-deserved Big Ten Coach of the Year Award.
The Buckeyes lost to Gonzaga, a team that had already beaten them once. That was always going to be a tough matchup. But given that Xavier was the weakest one seed in quite some time, there were a lot of people who had Ohio State busting through to the Elite Eight. That was the optimistic scenario. The pessimistic scenario was a second loss to Gonzaga. Obviously, the pessimists were right. I don’t feel terrible about the Big Ten dropping that game, but it does represent a missed opportunity.
The rule of thumb is that you should expect to lose one team per round. With two Big Ten teams out, we’re running par for the course. And with no losses in the first round, something no other power conference can say, we avoided any truly major upsets.
I give the conference a solid B for its performance in the first two rounds. Looking ahead, Purdue has a tough row to hoe, but Michigan is the best-seeded team on their side of the bracket, and they have a giant German who is a matchup nightmare. I said after Selection Sunday that Michigan was our best bet to make the Final Four, and that’s still true.
The Big Ten didn’t embarrass itself, and we still have a chance to win it all. I’ll take it.