• adamzielonka

Why was the Big Ten embarrassed in the tournament?

When LSU jumped to a 15-7 lead over Michigan, I opened a tab and started this research.

How could I not? Had Michigan followed Iowa down the upset hole Monday, it would leave No. 10 Maryland, facing No. 2 Alabama later that night, as the only Big Ten team still standing. It would signify the stark possibility that of nine Big Ten bids to the men’s tournament, exactly zero would survive the first weekend.

So I started to compile a list of the conferences that sent the most teams to an NCAA Tournament in a single year, a list famously topped by the Big East’s 11 in 2011. About halfway through, I realized the NCAA itself had already done that work for me with this article from February, so I fact-checked that against brackets from the appropriate years, searching for discrepancies and peculiarities I needed to know about like First Four berths.

This was all in the pursuit of answering these two questions: How do “mega-bid” conferences usually fare once they begin tournament play? And was the 2021 Big Ten on track to be the biggest disappointment of these of all time?

Besides the Big East’s year of 11 bids, there have been four conferences to send nine teams to the dance, and an additional six have sent eight. The fewest number of wins a “mega-bid” conference has produced in the tournament that followed was two instances of eight, from the eight-bid 2018 SEC and the eight-bid 2010 Big East. Every other conference with this sort of representation in the field managed wins in the double digits; the best winning percentage was .650 by the 2013 Big East, which pumped 13 wins out of just eight teams.

Right now, the Big Ten is 7-8 after two rounds.

It could have been 6-9 if Michigan lost Monday’s admittedly entertaining game to LSU. Three teams (Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State) didn’t win a single game; the other six (Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maryland, Rutgers) would have been one and done.

Yes, that would have been an abject failure. This whole tournament still can be considered one. After all, the worst any of these other conferences ever did was send two teams to the Sweet 16 and no further. Mega-bid conferences more often than not send one representative to the Final Four, and on three occasions, they’ve produced a national champion (2011 Connecticut, 2017 North Carolina and the eventually vacated Louisville banner from 2013). And there's Michigan, on its own island in the Sweet 16, the 2021 Big Ten's last hope.

Why we’re here

I had two reasons to focus a temporary weekly blog on Big Ten basketball, neither of them being some prejudiced disposition that the conference was elite and the rest of the country were shmucks. One, I had personal connections to Maryland and Rutgers that led me to watch many of their games over the winter. Two, the dominance and intrigue atop the league at the time was irresistible. Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois and Iowa all looked like a national title contender at various points of the regular season. It was all about how this season would conclude.

For most of these teams, that humiliating conclusion arrived much earlier than expected. It’s worth inspecting on a case-by-case basis, because “The Big Ten was impossibly overrated and all those teams were a bunch of scrubs all along” is as lazy a take as “The Big Ten was so strong that everyone just beat each other up in January and February, leaving nothing in the tank for the tournament.”

Let’s get Illinois out of the way, in the wake of my declaration 10 days ago that the Illini were the best bet to take down Gonzaga. My most egregious error was the belief that “Illinois has that killer instinct now.” That’s not at all how they looked against Loyola-Chicago in the second round. They trailed most of the game and their frustration leaked out through their body language. Instead of digging down, learning what Loyola’s defense was doing and avoiding mental errors... well, they did none of that. I suppose Brad Underwood should carry lots of the blame here.

Yet it wouldn’t be excuse-making to say that this shouldn’t have been a matchup in the first place, because Loyola was far better than the No. 8 seed they were given. This would have been a hell of a fun upset to watch in the Elite Eight or even the Sweet 16. But it was unjust both to Loyola – to pit them against a No. 1 that early – and to Illinois – to put a team with a top-10 NET and KenPom rating in their opening-week pod, never mind their region.

Some Big Ten losses were more understandable. Maryland, Rutgers and even Wisconsin outperformed their seeds by winning in the first round, then proceeded to face much better all-around squads (and Rutgers still nearly won again!). Michigan State lost (edit to add: in overtime, no less) in the First Four, which is meant to be pretty evenly matched.

But Ohio State, Purdue, Iowa... whaaaat were you doing out there? Why were you the victims of all these upsets? We wouldn’t have to hear all these bad Oral Roberts puns if the Buckeyes took care of business. Instead, they played that game like Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor were Dosunmu and Cockburn. They failed to protect the ball, which shows an apparent lack of preparation to handle business against a very low seed. (Exhibit B of this: Texas losing to Abilene Christian.)

Meanwhile, Purdue just came out flat, not playing at all like the Purdue that ably hung around the top half of the Big Ten all year, the team that integrated new contributors like Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey like it was no big deal. Like Ohio State, the Boilers lost in overtime, but for a different reason: North Texas was just too efficient from the floor, making 47.5% of all shots and 42.9% of its threes.

And I don’t want credit for pointing to Iowa perhaps being vulnerable in the first round against Grand Canyon, because obviously that wasn’t when the Hawkeyes lost. But it’s still a much earlier exit than the program was hoping for to end the Luka Garza era. An underplayed angle to this sport that we should never forget again is that teams built around one megastar are not usually the teams built to last in March.

It just goes to show how different every team’s path to humiliation was. Illinois’ problem, for example, was not Iowa’s, because Illinois has multiple stars and a strong supporting cast that overshadows Iowa’s. It doesn’t matter if there’s a defining link among these teams. Narratives don’t always clean up so neatly like that.

But if there is a “narrative” for now, it’s that the Big Ten wilts when the pressure’s up. Another March comes and goes, another year removed from the league’s last men’s hoops title in 2000... unless the Wolverines come through.

Meanwhile, in the Pac-12...

The Georgetown Hoyas deserved to bask in their accomplishment of winning the Big East Tournament seemingly out of nowhere to secure an automatic bid. But in the days that followed, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. Hype from here to the Potomac that the Hoyas would steal another game, a guaranteed 12-5 upset over Colorado as sweet as Georgetown Cupcakes. In fact, Yahoo said 47% of entrants in its bracket contest picked the Hoyas to win.

As I tweeted after Colorado demolished Georgetown, it was a leading example of East Coast bias. Georgetown was never built to stop McKinley Wright IV, Jabari Walker and the Buffs. The problem was, so few of us watched Pac-12 basketball this year. Teams based in the Northeast megalopolis are more likely to get the attention of certain bracketologists and media members than a seventh-seeded Oregon. Part of this is also Georgetown’s name recognition as a basketball school and Colorado’s lack thereof, but let’s be frank, that’s the case for most Big East teams except DePaul versus most Pac-12 teams except UCLA.

Speaking of UCLA, Mick Cronin had some stuff to get off his chest, too. “You’re finding out that the Pac-12 not being ranked all year was an absolute joke. And some people ought to be ashamed of themselves,” he said after the Bruins upset No. 6 BYU in the Round of 64 (UCLA’s second game).

So kudos to UCLA, USC, Oregon and especially No. 12 Oregon State for their winning weekends. (Only Colorado didn’t survive two rounds, falling to Florida State on Monday.) Their NET ratings weren’t especially high, but USC and Colorado were part of a small handful of teams to enter the tournament top-30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and Oregon had the 16th-rated offense, per KenPom. The signs were there for any of us who chose to look.

Perhaps as solace to the Big Ten, I’d also point out that the other contender for “toughest conference in the country” this year, the Big 12, is also down to one remaining team, lonely old Baylor. Oregon may have taken down Iowa, but USC took down Kansas.

Will we learn our lesson and stay up late to watch Pac-12 teams next year? Probably not, but at least we'll think twice before laughing off Bill Walton’s bracket choices.

Hey, racists

Final note. Both Cockburn and Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell received racist, vitriolic messages over social media after their respective teams bowed out of the tournament. Liddell in particular was called the N-word and told “I hope you die, I really do.”

Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune wrote a great column about the issue, which in part pointed out, “It would be foolish to think other Black players haven’t received similar messages over the years.” I’m glad Cockburn and Liddell had the courage to point out this bigotry at the risk of others piling on; Ohio State, for its part, reported Liddell’s harasser to the police.

Hey, racists: Stop. Don’t do this. There’s literally no excuse. We can spend thousands of words dissecting basketball or other sports, but at the end of the day it really is just a game.

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