TOLEDO — Call them the Idles of March.
Of the nine Big Ten teams that received an invitation to the NCAA men’s tournament, eight of them will watch the second weekend from home, leaving only top-seeded Michigan to carry the half-mast flag of the wounded league.
It really is something.
The reputed best conference in the country has done the electric slide right out of the Big Dance.
Illinois. Iowa. Ohio State. Purdue. Wisconsin. Rutgers. Maryland. Michigan State.
Gone, all of ‘em, booted after a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, two-left-feet opening — and closing — week that has begged an obvious question: Is it possible the Big Ten was criminally overrated?
Did the Big Ten built its powerhouse reputation in an echo chamber of mediocrity?
Or is its bad March a one-off symptom of the most unpredictable tournament in sports?
As always, the truth lives somewhere in the middle.
First, let us address the typical Big Ten narrative.
You know what I’m talking about: Big Ten teams beat each other up during the cage match of a regular season. Big Ten basketball doesn’t translate to March. The Big Ten is a fraud.
It misses the mark.
In fact, the Big Ten’s small showing on the big stage — a fall lowlighted by Ohio State’s 75-72 loss to 15th-seeded Oral Roberts in the first round — isn’t typical at all.
While a 21-year national title drought gets the headlines, the league connects on more punches than not this time of year. Since 2011, when the tourney expanded to 68 teams, the Big Ten has sent an unsurpassed seven teams to the Final Four — Ohio State (2012), Michigan (2013, 2018), Wisconsin (2014, 2015), and Michigan State (2015, 2019) — and generally taken care of its early-round business. Before this year, its teams were 44-14 in first-round games, a .759 winning percentage that was the best among the power conferences.
Point is, there’s nothing mediocre about the Big Ten.
And there certainly wasn’t this year.
I mean, we heard about it all winter. The humans thought the Big Ten was great — it became the first league to have four teams on the first two seed lines in tournament history — and the computers thought it was the GREATEST CONFERENCE EVER (or, at least, since sliced … actually, make that the Doritos Locos Taco; KenPom only goes back so far).
Everybody couldn’t have been wrong, right?
So, no, I’m not going to read a ton into the craziest edition of the craziest of tournaments, especially one in which the top Big Ten teams had less than ideal early matchups. It did not help, for instance, that top-seeded Illinois played Loyola-Chicago, a legit contender masquerading as a No. 8 seed; or that second-seeded Iowa played Oregon, a quick, offensively elite team perfectly suited to shred its woeful defense; or that Ohio State had to play … the 10-loss, fourth-place team in the Summit League (OK, I’ve got nothing there!).
Now, all that said …
The Big Ten isn’t off the hook, either.
There are no excuses for this scale of a disaster, especially the most tired one in the book.
“This league is great,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said after the Scarlet Knights’ loss to Houston in the second round. “It was great all year. We beat each other up. Maybe that factored into this tournament.”
Nor is it possible to completely write off the conference-wide futility to the whims of March.
When the Big Ten has as many teams left standing as the Summit League, it’s fair to wonder if its stature was inflated by the nature of the pandemic season.
The Big Ten had a few nice wins outside the league, including Wisconsin over Loyola-Chicago, Ohio State over UCLA, and Rutgers over Syracuse. But with an abridged nonconference schedule, teams had limited opportunities to test themselves outside the league. They instead built their reputation with wins over each other, creating a perception of strength we had no reason to question.
Should we have?
Maybe, but in the end, I suspect the big-picture takeaway is that there really isn’t a big-picture takeaway.
A very good conference simply picked a very bad week to play its worst basketball of the season.
That’s the beauty and madness of March.