The Big Ten conference has been known as a football conference for much of the last 25 years. When people think about the Big Ten, they envision classic showdowns between Michigan and Ohio State on the gridiron, or Wisconsin and Iowa battling at Camp Randall.
However, recently, the conference has made a case as the best basketball conference in the nation, with recent trips to the Final Four by Michigan State and Wisconsin. The addition of Maryland to the Big Ten has boosted their prowess on the hardwood, adding depth near the top of the conference.
This year, however, the conference has been extremely disappointing, failing to get a single team in the top 16 in the inaugural in-season look at the NCAA tournament bracket. This would imply that the Big Ten would fail to have a single top four seed in March, making a deep tournament run unlikely. So what happened to the Big Ten this season?
Indiana has fallen off the planet.
Coming into the season, Tom Crean’s squad was pegged as the best in the conference, with expectations through the Assembly Hall roof. Saying that they have fallen short would be the understatement of the year. They are 15-12 (5-9 in conference) and are in 11th place in the Big Ten. They were run off the floor in a 30-point loss to Michigan, and have come up flat in a number of close games, notably against chief rival Purdue at home. They lost star wing player OG Anunoby during the year, but even before his injury they were underwhelming given the preseason hype. Veterans like James Blackmon Jr. and Thomas Bryant have not been able to keep them afloat, and with a season this disappointing, it is unlikely that Crean will be coaching Indiana next season. Any time a team that was predicted as a potential Final Four team in the preseason falls completely flat, the perception of the conference will be hurt overall.
Michigan State has struggled.
There is no team that has been more consistent in March in the Big Ten than Tom Izzo’s Spartans (besides maybe the Badgers). After battling through a difficult non-conference schedule, MSU still hasn’t found their footing to make their typical late season run. Star freshman forward Miles Bridges has been their best player, but outside of him they have not found consistent scoring from other players. Saturday’s showdown against Purdue offered an opportunity to notch a signature win on the road in classic Izzo fashion, but they were handled fairly easily in West Lafayette. Also, senior Eron Harris was announced to be out for the season. It would take a serious run in the Big Ten tournament and a strong close to the year to see Michigan State back in the big dance.
Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio State are all underwhelming.
When the Big Ten is at its best, two of the aforementioned three teams are borderline top 25 squads. This year all of those teams are hanging around .500, with Ohio State truly struggling at 5-10 in conference. Iowa is coming off back-to-back top five finishes in conference, but after losing star forward Jarrod Uthoff they have struggled mightily. Michigan is one of the more fascinating and perplexing teams in the conference. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin pace a team that is good enough to top Wisconsin, one of the conference’s top teams, but then they drop a game to Ohio State at home. Without a signature win out of conference, Michigan remains a long shot to make the tournament.
There have been some pleasant surprises in the Big Ten as well. Northwestern currently sits in the 4th slot in the conference and appear to be headed to their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. Minnesota has gone from a cellar-dweller to a potential tournament team, bolstering their resume with a win at home against Michigan. Wisconsin, Purdue, and Maryland have all performed up to expectations, and with the right draw, all three could make a Sweet Sixteen run, if not deeper. With all that said, there is no way to classify this Big Ten season as anything other than a disappointment. There is a chance they salvage it with a team making a deep tournament run, but it is much more likely that there are no Big Ten teams in the final 16.