The Big Ten entered the NCAA tournament full of confidence after a highly competitive and entertaining regular season secured them nine bids, including four of the top 14 seeds.
“I don’t feel afraid of … anybody because we truly have played the best teams in the country on a night-in, night-out basis,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
Some media (ahem) even wrote stories about how good the league was and how this might be the perfect opportunity to end its 21-year national championship drought.
Well, then came a 22-hour stretch that featured:
Oh, and Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens reiterated once again — perhaps clearly enough this time — that he won’t be the next head coach at Indiana.
“I’m a 44-year-old Masshole. I swerve, I eat Dunkin’ Donuts, and I root for the Patriots,” said Stevens, who grew up in Indiana, played college ball in Indiana and previously coached in Indiana.
He might as well have said the Indy 500 is a waste of fossil fuel, pork tenderloin sandwiches are inedible and Deflategate didn’t happen.
Indiana is desperate to return to prominence and Stevens was the dream candidate — even if that dream was delusional. They are still capable of getting a great coach, but when even Brad Stevens is bailing on the Midwest and declaring his support for the Patriots …
It wasn’t all bad, of course.
Illinois rolled and Wisconsin pounded North Carolina. Rutgers won its first NCAA tournament game in 38 years. Michigan, Iowa and Maryland haven’t played yet, so they’ve got that going for them. Rick Barnes doesn’t coach in the league.
The Big Ten still can win that long-awaited national title — or even send enough teams deep into this tournament that it dominates the storylines.
What happened across the first two days though (Michigan State was in Thursday’s play-in round) certainly doesn’t create confidence.
The Big Ten’s hope this year was that the teams were battle-tested after a rugged conference schedule. Yet three teams have already collapsed in crunch time.
“Obviously Michigan State lost in overtime, we lost in overtime and I think Ohio State lost in overtime too,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “So you're going to get into close games in the NCAA tournament.”
Yet in those close games, they each failed to show the toughness, the execution and the passion amid pressure that is required in March.
UCLA rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to win by six in overtime as the Spartans offense became a disjointed mess.
“Just disappointed,” Izzo said. “I mean, we had the game won.”
North Texas finished with an absurd 11-0 run in overtime to beat Purdue. 78-69.
“Just had a series of possessions from offense, defense to start the overtime where we didn't execute,” Painter said.
And Ohio State had a slew of offensive opportunities late in the second half and in overtime before falling 75-72.
“I thought that we just had too many missed opportunities, too many turnovers, too many empty possessions on offense,” Buckeye coach Chris Holtmann said.
These weren’t just losses. There is never an excuse for Ohio State to lose to a 15 seed or Purdue to a 13 seed. But there really isn’t one when the Big Ten is getting out-toughed and outreached — the basic tenets of the league.
Congrats to the underdogs, but this was bad.
And this is a rough year for the Big Ten to start stumbling. The entire tournament is being staged in Indiana, including first weekend games on the home courts of IU and Purdue. The later rounds are all in Indianapolis, the Big Ten’s spiritual home.
And the question now is whether the Big Ten was as good as everyone believed during the regular season and just got tripped up — as tends to happen in this event.
Or was the strength of the league a mirage, the work of teams beating up on each other and thus creating the perception of excellence that isn’t rooted in reality?
The next couple weeks will tell the story. Since Michigan is dealing with a critical injury, Illinois was always the league’s most likely national champion. The Illini looked great, albeit against 16-seed Drexel.
And, of course, there was Rutgers to the rescue — the Scarlet Knights, by beating Clemson, served as a feel-good story after decades of futility.
In the middle of an ugly 24 hours for the league, the Big Ten will take it. Once brimming with confidence, the league now has questions and concerns to answer.
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