We all know in our hearts that the Big Ten is the best conference in America. The fact that we’ve led the nation in attendance since time immemorial shows that our fanbases are big, our stadiums are big-time, and that Midwestern winters are brutal. But there are fans of other conferences (the SEC and ACC, mostly) who don’t care about such things. Their argument is simple (some would say simplistic): “Banners, Bro!” As a Purdue fan, that argument particularly grates.
Let’s be real, Wake Forest and LSU fans, you’re coasting on the success of your blue blood programs. Those banners your conference won were won by Duke and Kentucky and North Carolina. I’ll give some credit to Florida and Syracuse and Maryland for winning it all (especially since Maryland is part of our family now), but you have to give some credit to the Big Ten for sending so many different teams to the national championship game. Besides, the Big Ten’s alleged blue blood has been anemic since about 1993. Michigan State is doing their best to pick up the torch that Indiana dropped, and let’s hope that they win this year. Otherwise, here’s a look back at what prevented the Big Ten from cutting down the nets every season since our last one.
Arizona happened. The Big Ten had two No. 1 seeds, Illinois and Michigan State, and both fell to Lute Olsen and the Wildcats. Illinois fans would get their revenge in four years, however.
Maryland hadn’t joined the Big Ten yet.
The Big Ten was just awful in 2003. The conference champion was Wisconsin, and the Badgers only earned a 5 seed for their trouble. This was the era where RPI was still king, so even though Illinois was No. 5 in KenPom, the Illini were stuck with a four seed. Michigan State made the Elite Eight but lost to top-seeded Texas.
Maybe the worst season in Big Ten history. The door was open for us. St. Jospeh’s was a No. 1 seed, and Georgia freaking Tech made the Final Four. But the conference champion (Illinois this time) was a 5 seed again, and our best team (Wisconsin) was No. 6 in KenPom but a 6 seed in the Big Dance. These were the years when I was in middle school, so I remember them as a kind go golden age of basketball, but man... the reliance on RPI was even worse than I remember.
For my money, the 2005 Fighting Illini are the best team in the Big Ten that never won it all. They were one point away from an undefeated regular season and 18-0 Big Ten record, and they made one of the greatest comebacks in tournament history to knock off Arizona and reach the Final Four. Sean May and North Carolina were just too much in the title game.
This is the most embarrassing year for the Big Ten. We went 0-for-the-Sweet-Sixteen. Our best teams were Ohio State and Illinois. The Buckeyes got blown out by Georgetown, and the Illini lost a nail-biter to Washington.
Greg Oden and Mike Conley looked like a juggernaut and made the title game, where they met a bigger juggernaut in the Florida Gators, who repeated as NCAA champions.
Brian Butch and the Wisconsin Badgers put a top-5 KenPom team on the board. They were slightly underseeded as a 3 seed, but hey, nobody had yet realized that slowball gooses a team’s efficiency. The Badgers made the Sweet Sixteen, where they ran into a little old 10 seed. But that 10 seed had a player you may have heard of—Steph Curry.
Michigan State made it as far as they could reasonably expect—that National Championship Game. There they met a Hansbrough-led Carolina team, and I don’t care how good Sparty might have been (and they were pretty good with Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan), nobody was beating the 2009 Tar Heels. In what is still the most dominating performance in modern tournament history, nobody played Roy Williams’ team within 12 points the entire way.
This is one of the years that stings the most, not because a dominant Big Ten team lost, but because of who they lost to. Lucas and Morgan were back for Michigan State. They only managed to eke out a 5 seed in the regular season, but this was one of those years where the expression “January, February, Izzo, April, May...” solidified, as Tom took the green and white back to the Final Four. Sparty won their first four games by 3, 2, 7, and 1 point. Then they met Butler, and their luck ran out They should have beaten Butler, and almost did, but in a first-to-50 game, Butler won 52-50.
Sullinger, Lighty, Buford, Craft, and Diebler. That Buckeye team was the No. 1 team on KenPom from January until the end of the season. They lost to Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. A Kentucky team, by the way, that only eked out a two-point win in its first round game against Princeton. The NCAA Tournament is random and cruel and anyone who looks for meaning within it is just gazing into a probabilisitic abyss. (Except for that 2009 UNC team.)
Lighty and Diebler graduated, but Deshaun Thomas came into his own, and Thad Matta rolled out another high-octane Buckeye team that oscillated between No. 1 and No. 2 on KenPom all year. This time it was a different blue blood, Kansas, who clipped the Buckeyes, who fell in the Final Four 64-62.
OK, maybe this one stings the most. Michigan made the Final Four with an amazing comeback against Kansas, beat Syracuse to make the title game, and then lost to [vacated]. Some people will argue that Hookergate means that Michigan is the retroactive 2013 National Champions, but no. Only wins get vacated; losses remain on the books.
-2014 and 2015 Postseason
Yes, March is random, but there’s poetry in the Madness, I tell you what. The 2014 Wisconsin Badgers lost a heartbreaker to a scrappy Kentucky team in the Final Four. One year later, Kentucky was undefeated coming into the Final Four, and this time it was the Badgers that upset the Wildcats. The Bo Ryan era ended with Bo never getting a ring, the only blemish on what is arguably the best Big Ten coaching resume of all time.
A mediocre year for the Big Ten, with no teams making the Elite Eight. Maryland lost to Kansas, Indiana lost to North Carolina, and Wisconsin lost to (God, typing it makes me want to vomit) Notre Dame.
Another 0-for-the-Elite-Eight. Purdue was the best team in the league, but only the 19th best team in the country, and the Boilermakers ran into a more athletic Kansas team.
This is another year like 2009—yes, the Big Ten made the title game and lost, but it’s not a What Might Have Been year because of who our boys lost to. Jay Wright’s 2018 Villanova Wildcats were another team that won six games by double-digits. They were always going to win it all, particularly against a Michigan team whose path to the title game was 3-6-7-9-11.
We’ll see after this weekend.