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College Basketball: Is the Big 10 Overrated?

ByBryan Armetta

Published on Tue Apr 27 2021

|

5 min read

College Basketball: Is the Big 10 Overrated?

Following UCLA's unexpected takedown of the top-seeded Michigan Wolverines, the Big 10 found itself without any representatives in this year's Final Four.

In a normal year, this wouldn't be cause for concern. Other members of the Power 5 such as the ACC and SEC were also disappointed to find their teams eliminated before the final weekend.

For the Big 10, this was not a normal year.

The conference entered the tournament with a staggering total of nine teams, the most in the nation. Two of those teams, Michigan and Illinois, were placed as #1 seeds, while Iowa and Ohio State were #2's. It seemed as if this was the league's best chance to end a national championship drought stretching back to Michigan State's 2001 title.

Safe to say, things did...not go as planned. Michigan State blowing an eleven point halftime lead to UCLA proved to be a harbinger of things to come, while the Pac-12 proved analysts wrong with a strong March Madness showing from all five of their representatives. (To be fair to Sparty, a loss to UCLA did ensure that the Bruins would take down Michigan in the Elite Eight, so you could call that a win).


Top Dogs Fall Flat

Ohio State's upset loss to unheard-of #15 Oral Roberts in the Round of 64 headlined an opening weekend that saw just one school, Michigan, advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching fact for OSU fans was that despite the team's horrid three-point shooting (21

), turnovers (16 to Oral Roberts' 6) and free-throw percentage (50
), the Buckeyes suffered a mere three-point overtime loss. Regardless, their defeat was a major blow for the Big 10, followed up by other disappointments in Iowa (told you so), Purdue, and Illinois.

Illinois, perhaps the most popular non-Gonzaga pick to win this year's championship, fell especially flat against scrappy Loyola-Chicago in the Round of 32. Instead of attacking the rim with confidence, it seemed as if the top-seeded Illini were the #8 seed rather than the Ramblers in a game that they seemed to trail from the opening tip.

What was most shocking about Illinois was how the team looked relative to their performance in the Big 10 tournament, which saw them take out other conference heavyweights like Ohio State and Iowa. In reality, the three of them quickly proved to be paper tigers, diminishing the quality of their games against each other during the regular season in the process.

Iowa's defeat to Oregon exposed the team's greatest weakness: perimeter defense. A sharp-shooting, well-coached team in Dana Altman's Ducks were able to exploit this to great effect. A stellar 11 for 25 shooting performance from three for Oregon practically nullified a Herculean 36-point effort from Hawkeye center Luka Garza in what was likely the final game in a storied collegiate career.


Underdogs Impress

While most of the favorites looked subpar, there were still some reasons for optimism amongst Big 10 fans. Rather than the "elite" taking care of business, it was some of the scrappier teams in the conference that proved their worth in the tourney.

Maryland was arguably the strangest team in the Big 10 this season, capable of splendid triumph or immense sorrow on any given night.

Against UConn, the inconsistent Terps finally put it together, delivering an impressive performance to shut down Dan Hurley's favored Huskies. It was a game that Maryland seemed to control from start to finish, winning 63-54 and never truly letting Connecticut back into the game. While the team got blown out by Alabama two days later, there are plenty of reasons to believe Mark Turgeon will have Maryland looking more like last season's Big 10 regular season champs in 2022.

Fellow #10 Rutgers had a slightly tougher time getting past #7 Clemson, but staved off the Tigers on the strength of their stellar defensive play. The win built on one of the feel-good stories in college basketball this season, as Rutgers won their first NCAA Tournament game in 38 years.

Following their Round of 64 victory, the Scarlet Knights faced the unenviable position of facing off against #2 Houston. Expected to lose, Rutgers surprisingly held a ten-point lead with just ten minutes left to play. Things fell off the rails from there; after Houston took a one-point lead with just under a minute to go, Geo Baker had a costly turnover that effectively ended the game.

Despite the loss, the season was an overwhelming success for Rutgers. They established themselves as a hard-working, defensive-minded unit that could go toe to toe with an eventual Final Four team. Seeing where head coach Steve Pikiell can take this program next season will be fascinating.

So, what to make of the Big 10's NCAA Tournament?

On one hand, every one of the conference's top teams, excluding Michigan, fell woefully short of pre-tournament expectations. While it's fair to say that Ohio State would have beaten Oral Roberts 95 times out of 100, the reality is that the Buckeyes (along with Iowa, Purdue, and Illinois) choked when it mattered most.

On the other hand, some of the Big 10's lower seeded teams performed admirably in the tournament, taking down teams many favored them to lose to. In Rutgers' case, they nearly took down one of the four best teams in the nation. Even if you believe that their contenders weren't very strong, it is nearly impossible to deny that the conference has depth.

It probably isn't fair to proclaim that the teams that make up the Big 10 are "bad" conference; as of today, six of the conference's twelve teams rank within the top twenty-five in KenPom's Adjusted Efficiency Margin. No other conference in the country comes close.

Still, none of that matters in the tournament. With bold promises and favorable seeding, the Big 10 fell flat. While these are still good teams, it wouldn't be incorrect to suggest that the general public missed the mark in assessing them. The continuation of a decades-long title drought only adds more fuel to the fire.

Next year, with what should be an expanded out-of-conference schedule, we should have a better grasp of where the Big 10 stacks up with schools across the nation. Regardless of what happens, it may behoove the selection committee to exercise more caution when judging these teams and just how strong their resumes are.

Until then, the Big 10 will have a whole year to listen to the noise before they can prove their worth in March.

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