The Big Ten has flopped in the NCAA tournament. Was it overrated all along?

Jeff Eisenberg
·4 min read

So much for this year being the Big Ten’s best chance to end its 21-year national title drought.

College basketball’s supposed strongest league has been the NCAA tournament's biggest disappointment.

Nine Big Ten teams secured NCAA tournament bids on Selection Sunday, more than any other league in college basketball. Eight days later, only Michigan is still alive.

The carnage started in the First Four when Michigan State squandered a 14-point lead against UCLA. Purdue then crumbled in the first round against 13th-seeded North Texas and Ohio State became 15th-seeded Oral Roberts’ first upset victim.

The Big Ten’s futility raised more eyebrows when Loyola Chicago started the second round with a wire-to-wire evisceration of top-seeded Illinois. Baylor outclassed Wisconsin, Houston rallied late to survive Rutgers’ upset bid, Alabama buried Maryland under an avalanche of 3-pointers and Oregon practically ran defenseless Iowa off the floor.

While Big Ten champion Michigan finally halted the slide by rallying to beat eighth-seeded LSU on Monday night, the league's overall record in the NCAA tournament is still just 7-8. Making the results more egregious, the entire NCAA tournament is being held in Big Ten arenas or in the conference’s home away from home in Indianapolis.

The stunningly poor showing thus far from the Big Ten raises a couple of obvious questions: Was the Big Ten overrated all season? Or has the league simply underperformed over a small sample size of games that happen to receive the most attention?

Mar 22, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes center Luka Garza (55) and guard CJ Fredrick (5) react after their loss to the Oregon Ducks in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Oregon Ducks won 95-80. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes center Luka Garza (55) and guard CJ Fredrick (5) react after their loss to the Oregon Ducks in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Oregon Ducks won 95-80. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten coaches who have fielded a version of that question the past few days have attempted to defend the league’s honor. Purdue’s Matt Painter noted that the Big Ten’s first three losses each came in overtime. Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell floated the theory that the length of the 20-game league schedule and the caliber of competition may have worn down Big Ten teams before the NCAA tournament began.

“This league is great,” Pikiell said. “It was great all year. We beat each other up. Maybe that factored into this tournament.”

Pikiell’s answer is a pretty flimsy excuse considering the Big Ten was far from the only league to play a 20-game schedule and a conference tournament. Yes, Michigan’s Isaiah Livers and Ohio State’s Kyle Young were absent in the NCAA tournament and several Iowa players were also nicked up, but other teams had key injuries too, let alone the COVID-19 issues that impacted Kansas, Georgia Tech and Virginia.

A bigger factor in the Big Ten’s struggles might be some of the matchups its top teams drew.

A quick, aggressive team like Oregon is built to exploit Iowa’s defensive deficiencies.

And Loyola Chicago was top 10 in every advanced metric. That was no typical No. 8 seed that dismantled Illinois.

The Big Ten established itself as college basketball’s top conference this season based on its performance in non-league play. It won the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and mostly avoided any damaging losses, sending its perception — and its league-wide advanced metrics — soaring.

In late February, the league’s adjusted efficiency margin was higher than any other conference in Ken Pomeroy’s database, which goes back to 2002. Indiana remained in the NCAA tournament bubble conversation even as its overall record dipped below .500.

In retrospect, it’s fair to wonder if humans and computers alike may have overvalued the Big Ten’s non-conference results.

The teams who suffered most from not being able to convene during the pandemic often were those with the most newcomers. Did the veteran-heavy Big Ten benefit early in the season from less roster turnover?

The delayed start of the season and the Big Ten’s 20-game league schedule meant that many teams only played a handful of non-conference games. Did that smaller sample size make it more difficult to judge the Big Ten accurately?

Of course, that smaller sample size argument also applies to the NCAA tournament too. While these games are the most important ones Big Ten teams will play this season, it’s still unfair to wipe out five months of results based on five really bad days.

So is the Big Ten wildly overrated? Or is it drastically underperforming? As usual, the truth is somewhere in between.

This is a conference that likely isn’t as good as it seemed to be a week ago, nor is it as bad as it has looked for the past five days.

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