We knew this NCAA Tournament would be a doozy, as unpredictable as ever because of all the COVID-related stops and starts and schedule shuffling. But, uh-oh, it appears we knew even less than we thought we knew.
Initial narrative: The Big Ten is so dominant, 12 or 13 teams could make the Tournament!
Unfolding narrative: The Big Ten blew it again, gorged on its own and got bloated and blasted.
Neither is the whole truth, although the Tournament is ripe for overreaction when trying to judge an entire body of work on one game. But oh boy, this doesn’t look good for Big Ten folks, and if you’re a Michigan fan awaiting Monday night’s clash against LSU, prepare for the stomach flutters.
No. 1 seed Illinois is gone, soundly beaten by No. 8 Loyola Chicago in a Sunday shocker. No. 2 Ohio State is gone, stunned by No. 15 Oral Roberts. No. 4 Purdue is gone, stunned by No. 13 North Texas. No. 9 seed Wisconsin is gone, pounded by No. 1 Baylor. No. 11 Michigan State is gone, bumped off by UCLA. No. 10 Rutgers is gone, dropping a heartbreaker to Houston. Michigan, Iowa and Maryland are the last three Big Ten teams standing, down from a nation-best nine in the 68-team field.
This was going to be a wild Tournament regardless because there wasn’t enough evidence to define conference strengths. Nonconference schedules were shortened and most teams played primarily within their leagues, creating an echo chamber of opinions. Big Ten teams began the season rated highly — based partly on reputation — which allowed other Big Ten teams to lift themselves up by taking turns collecting “top-10” victories in a vacuum.
The analytics supported their lofty status but lacked legitimate comparables from across the country. The Big Ten ended up with four of the top seven seeds in the Tournament — Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa — and that was sliced in half on the first weekend. Should we have seen this coming? Maybe, at least a little. There’s also a chance Michigan and Iowa still will make strong runs, and there’s an excellent chance that Illinois was an excellent team that picked the wrong time and wrong opponent to fall apart offensively.
“At the end of the day, I think we still had good looks,” Illinois star guard Ayo Dosunmu said. “We just couldn’t throw a penny in the ocean.”
That’s one notable change over the years. Lesser-seeded teams aren’t just throwing pennies into wishing wells anymore. Loyola Chicago handled Illinois comfortably, 71-58, and with its pedigree and players — and the power of Sister Jean — it should’ve been much higher than an eighth seed. Loyola reached the Final Four in 2018 and lost to Michigan, so if the Illini weren’t ready, it’s their own fault they’re Nun-and-done. Perhaps they can petition the Big Ten for a co-Final 32 banner.
When No. 1 Michigan takes the court against No. 8 LSU, it’ll be a scant five-point favorite, and that sounds about right. It’s partly a reflection of Isaiah Livers’ absence and an acknowledgment of the Tigers’ talented scoring trio of Cameron Thomas, Javonte Smart and Trendon Watford.
And sure, a growing sentiment that the Big Ten was a tad overrated. A Louisiana writer picked the Tigers to win relatively easily 84-76, and they certainly have the offense to do it. I have a feeling Juwan Howard will apprise his players of shifting perceptions, and how it wouldn’t take much to shift back.
“The Big Ten definitely could’ve performed a little better,” Franz Wagner said. “That’s what we expected, right? A tournament where anyone can lose at any point. … Putting it in perspective, I think the Big Ten still had a great season. But with this tournament, everything that happened before doesn’t matter from here on out.”
The Wolverines (21-4) were workmanlike in an 82-66 victory over Texas Southern, although they got a little sloppy late. Hunter Dickinson scored 16 points but was hounded constantly, finishing with six turnovers and fouling out for the first time.
But it’ll be Michigan’s defense under pressure by an LSU team that scores in bunches and plays defense sporadically. The Tigers’ primary defense is trying to protect coach Will Wade, who has been under investigation for two years after he was heard on an FBI wiretap allegedly making financial offers for players. Rules seem more like suggestions than guidelines at LSU, where former coach Les Miles is now part of a scandal that cost him his job at Kansas.
All of that surely gives LSU a weighty chip. Thomas runs the show for the Tigers (19-9), who have won five of their last six, with the only loss in the SEC title game by one point to Alabama. Watford had a message after that one: “I think we put the world on notice.”
Well, sure, except everyone’s on notice this time of year. Defending champion Virginia was ousted by Ohio (not The Ohio). No. 3 seed Texas lost to Abilene Christian. With so few measuring-stick games, anybody is suspect, and yes, that includes No. 1 Gonzaga, which has barely been tested in three months.
You might suggest the same about the Big Ten, and lots of people are. Fair enough. It was nobody’s fault, only the virus’, that few major nonconference games were played. In the Big Ten, virtually none.
Iowa beat North Carolina and lost to Gonzaga. Illinois and Michigan State both beat a mediocre Duke. Rutgers beat Syracuse. Penn State beat Virginia Tech. No other notable victories anywhere to be found.
Maybe it’s just one strange year and conference comparisons aren’t really valid. Of course, folks from the ACC, Big 12 and SEC will point out it’s more than one year, and the Big Ten hasn’t won the national championship since Michigan State in 2000. But the Big Ten has made 18 Final Four appearances the past 21 years, eight by Tom Izzo.
One other factor must be considered. Big Ten teams generally play more physically and foul more. When games slow and possessions become so important in the Tournament, fouls and turnovers become a bigger factor. The Big Ten has only four teams — Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois —in the top 50 nationally in assist-turnover ratio. Only Iowa and Michigan rank in the top 75 in fewest fouls.
Howard wasn’t digging through the numbers, more interested in simplifying the plan. He played a lot of Tournament games as a member of the Fab Five, and now will coach in his second one.
“No matter who you’re playing this time of year, every team deserved to be here,” Howard said about the run of upsets. “You gotta be locked in, gotta have a little luck on your side, gotta compete.”
The Wolverines did it better than anyone during the Big Ten season, but this will be an entirely different beast against an unfamiliar foe. As we’ve seen so far, everyone, including those from the consensus top conference, is being asked to check their credentials at the door.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com