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Nearly 14 years ago to the day, a more youthful Tom Izzo, then in his fifth year as Michigan St. head coach, scaled a ladder, cut down the net and raised it over his head with joyful exuberance. His Spartans squad, spearheaded by NCAA tournament MOP Mateen Cleaves and additional future NBA draft picks Morris Peterson and Jason Richardson, triumphed over Billy Donovan’s surprising Florida team 89-76 for their second ever national title.
In was not only a shining moment for Magic Johnson U, it also placed the Big Ten atop the power ranks, an accolade many expected to continue for years to come.
Flash forward to the present.
A lot has changed since 2000. Mobile technology has graduated from black and white dots to full-color video. Miley Cyrus has traded in sweet for salacious. And Mike Krzyzewski’s hair has moved maybe an inch. For the supposed premier conference in the land, the decade-plus stretch has been filled with underachievement, disappointment and not a single championship plaque.
It’s not as though the conference has fallen off the face of the earth. Over the past 14 seasons, 73 Big Ten teams have danced, emerging victorious in first-round tournament games at an impressive 72.6-percent clip. The league has also cranked out nine Final Four participants, the same number as the ACC and second only to the Big East (10). Michigan St. (2001, 2005, 2009 and 2010), Ohio St. (2007 and 2012), Illinois (2005), Indiana (2005) and Michigan (2013) all reached the pinnacle of college hoops. However, every one fell short. During that stretch, five Big Ten teams had a shot at a title. Five times they went home empty-handed. Really the Big Ten is to college basketball in the 2000s what the Buffalo Bills were to professional football in the 1990s – always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Numerous excuses have been bandied about trying to explain the slide. The league’s general style of play is too methodical, too slow. Compared to other conferences the depth of top-shelf talent isn’t there. Because it’s so loaded from top-to-bottom, schools beat one other to a bloody pulp during the conference season, wearing them too thin for the NCAA tournament …
Once again, despite its failures, expectations for the nation’s top-rated conference are high. According to the master of tempo-free stats KenPom.com, a whopping five Big Ten schools rank inside the overall top-30. No other league in America has more than three teams in that range.
This year, the league has six opportunities to prove skeptics wrong. Sadly, though, its odds of ending the trophy drought appear long. Here’s a breakdown of why each B1G team is bound to fall short.
Michigan Wolverines (25-8, No. 2-Midwest)
Why they fail? Admittedly, Michigan boasts the best chance to hoist a championship plaque. Big Ten POY Nik Stauskas has one of the quickest releases in the game and has developed his driving skills to the basket. When on fire and working in synchronicity with Glen Robinson III, the Wolverines are practically unstoppable on offense. However, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford are uninspiring inside meaning strong-defending teams with muscle in the post are an unattractive matchup. Their struggles against Illinois' active zone in the Big Ten tourney could provide opponents with a blueprint. Tennessee is a potentialy dangerous team in the Midwest region that could pose a problem.
Wisconsin Badgers (26-7, No. 2-West)
Why they fail? Picked by yours truly to reach the Final Four weeks ago, the Badgers, with the Nebraska snafu to finish the regular season the lone exception, have played stellar basketball for the past month-plus. Like Michigan, they too have reasonable odds of reaching Arlington. Achieving that is contingent on how well Frank Kaminsky performs offensively. The seven-footer’s versatility poses matchup problems for just about everyone. When driving the lane and drilling jumpers, he opens up the perimeter for Ben Brust, Josh Gasser and Traveon Jackson. Still, this is not Bo Ryan’s stiffest defensive teams and, at times, the Badgers have experienced prolonged droughts. Fall into a funk, and they won’t meet my lofty expectations.
Michigan St. Spartans (26-8, No. 4-East)
Why they fail? Nobody truly knows what version of the Spartans will materialize. It could be the one that took Iowa behind the woodshed two weeks ago and rolled to the Big Ten title game. Or it could be the one that committed an uncomfortable number of turnovers and looked completely bewildered offensively at home against Illinois. When all parts are healthy and functioning, State has the makeup of a Final Four contender. They share the sugar, are fiery from three and lock down defensively. However, this team will advance as far as Keith Appling will take them. The point guard, who’s dealt with a nagging wrist injury for months, contributed minimally in the box score down the stretch, but has started to come alive. When he’s scored 12 or more points this season, Sparty is 12-0. Given State’s polarizing nature, they are very much a team that could advance to the Final Four, or exit by the Sweet Sixteen.
Ohio St. Buckeyes (25-9, No. 6-South)
Why they fail? Aaron Craft is super glue. He sticks to everything. Tenacious and tireless on defense, he is the reason why the Buckeyes rank No. 4 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and top-20 in five additional defensive categories. Due to its grind-it-out, half-court nature, Thad Matta’s club typically forces teams into uncompromising positions, a characteristic, similar to a Virginia, Cincinnati or San Diego St., that makes it dangerous. But disoriented on offense, it lacks the firepower necessary to advance deep. LaQuinton Ross is its only useful scorer. Overall, the Bucks have netted a vanilla 1.07 points per possession. A win or two is possible, but don’t expect a magical run.
Iowa Hawkeyes (20-12, No. 11-Midwest)
Why they fail? There isn’t a smellier sock in the drawer than the Hawkeyes. Once tabbed a sleeper Final Four team by several pundits, including some obnoxious balding writer, they’ve fallen on hard times. Ranked inside the top-20 in adjusted defensive efficiency at one point earlier this season, they’ve tumbled outside the top-120 in the category. Poor spacing, rotations and transition D have wrecked havoc, masking its formidable offense. With tons of length and athleticism, the Hawkeyes have potential, but unless it somehow breaks out the clamp, they won’t survive their play-in matchup against Tennessee. Disagree? See the Northwestern disaster in the Big Ten tournament.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (19-12, No.11-West)
Why they fail? No one believed preseason Tim Miles’ team had a fighting chance of making the NIT, let alone the NCAAs. Picked to finish dead last at Big Ten Media Day, the Huskers were expected to be the whipping boy of the conference. Wow were we wrong. Sparked by stat sheet stuffers Terran Pettaway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford and featuring a top-30 defense, the Huskers improbably won 11 games in league play, eight of those in their last nine. Because it challenges shots consistently and is peaking at the right time offensively, this is a team that could inflict serious damage. However, anything beyond the Sweet Sixteen would be an aberration. Keep in mind Nebraska has never won a NCAA tournament game.
Here are five additional favorites that could flounder:
Kansas Jayhawks (Record: 24-9, Seed: No. 2 Region: South)
Andrew Wiggins, widely believed to be the best freshman, if not the top player, in the country preseason, has finally started to live up to the mammoth expectations. Carrying the Jayhawks on his back with Joel Embiid sidelined, he averaged 31.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.0 steals per game in his last three. Back up the truck, NBA execs. Though his play has been Carmelo-like, the excessive workload and high reliance on the youngster lends cause for pause. If Kansas plans to survive and advance beyond the opening weekend, it must become more balanced, especially sans Embiid. Tarik Black and Perry Ellis have to take control of the paint. Meanwhile, guards Nadir Tharpe and Wayne Selden need to drill shots from deep and distribute. Most importantly, it's imperative the Jayhawks, collectively, limit the self-inflicted wounds. They've committed turnovers on 19 percent of their possessions. Barf. KU brims with talent, but morphing quickly into a 'team' is critical to its tourney success. New Mexico, a possible second-round matchup, would give the Jayhawks all they could handle.
What 'Nova has achieved this season is nothing short of remarkable. Off the radar in national polls and picked to finish middle of the pack in the Big East preseason, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Credit Jay Wright. College basketball's sharp-dressed man ironed out the wrinkles early, maximizing his kids' effort earning key out-of-conference wins against Kansas, Iowa and St. Joe's. With the exception of lopsided loses to Creighton, they also held ground in Big East play. The 'Cats are one of four teams nationally that ranks top-20 in offensive and defensive efficiency. They are balanced on both ends of the floor, often using defense to create offense. 'Nova's three-guard lineup of James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacano, when on, are downright deadly. However, as shown in its shocking tumble against Seton Hall in the Big East tournament, when the trio is off, elimination is inevitable. JayVaughn Pinkston is an excellent post player, but the 'Cats, who score nearly 35-percent of their points from downtown, are too three-dependent. Teams that extend on defense and relinquish little inside are problematic. UConn, a possible second-round opponent, is one team in their region that does exactly that (0.92 pts/poss allowed). Not good.
Only a few moons ago, many in Central New York were debating whether this was the greatest Syracuse team ever. Based on its epic fall from grace, those same fans now house concerns of whether it will survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Their dread is completely understandable. The Orange are one of the nation's nastiest defenses. The sheer length and athleticism of C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas, Baye Keita and Jerami Grant is frightening. When operating at a high level, the 2-3 zone they deploy can demoralize, forcing turnovers and questionable shots. However, as proven by lightweights Boston College and Georgia Tech, it's far from indestructible. Teams that feature plus mid- and long-range games can and will soften it. Defense, however, isn't the primary issue impacting the Orange. Confounded by offensive lulls over long stretches, they must get steadier production out of three-point marksman Trevor Cooney and super frosh Tyler Ennis. When the pair are off, the Orange sorely lack balance. They have played better with Grant back in the lineup, but there are too many weaknesses in the scouting report to consider them a legitimate contender. Expect Otto to get squeezed.
There is no bigger predictor of success in the NCAA tournament than team balance. As stated previously, the average offensive/defensive efficiency rank among the 116 Final Four participants since 2003 is 18.14/18.16. The Aztecs easily meet the latter qualification, but regarding the former, they're not even in sniffing distance. SDSU is a smothering, transition-centered squad blessed with appreciable length, athleticism and discipline on D. It's forced turnovers on 21.1 of opponent possessions and ranks top-20 nationally in several defensive categories. Against weak ball-handling teams, they will roll. However, against opponents able to break pressure and keep flow restricted to the half-court, they will struggle. The Aztecs rank north of No. 180 in the country in effective field-goal, two-point, three-point and free-throw percentage. In other words, points are often a premium. Outside Xavier Thames, they don't have a scorer to count on. Aztec nation will point to the glowing record and signature non-conference wins against Creighton and Kansas, but don't be deceived. Unless they rev the engine on offense, SDSU won't last beyond the Sweet Sixteen.
John Calipari's recruitment of one-and-done players simply isn't working. Kansas, which fielded an entirely new starting lineup to start the year, was able to reload without losing its punch. However, the 'Cats, throwing one ghost jab after another, have. The consensus No. 1 team preseason has resembles a collection of individuals and not the sum of all parts. This is a team that can still defend and, thanks in large part to Julius Randle's baseline talents, ranks No. 1 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, but its disorganization and high number of turnovers explain its precarious position. Turnovers, especially committed by point guard Andrew Harrison, and a constant stream of bricks from three (32.2 6PT%) explain the underachievement. Essentially, they don't have the toughness or glue guys necessary to advance deep in a single elimination format. Ousted by Robert Morris in the opening round of the NIT last year, they are likely to suffer a similar fate as an unfavorable No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament this season. Don't be seduced by their SEC tournament title appearance, superfan Ashley Judd or the name, the Wildcats are a one-and-done at best.
Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:
• No team that has lost its opening-round conference tournament game has won the national title.
• Excluding 2009, at least one No. 2 seed has been eliminated by Round 2 every year since 1997. Last year, Georgetown fell victim.
• Fifteen 8/9 seeds have upended a No. 1 since 1985. Wichita St., which reached the Final Four last year, was the most recent.
• No. 5 seeds have lost 35.3 percent of their first-round matchups since '85.
• No. 3 and No. 6 seeds beware. Four No. 11 seeds have reached the Sweet Sixteen since 2010.
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