Bilas on board with sweetest story of NCAA tourneyMichigan State's Gary Harris, left, poses with the championship trophy as Adreian Payne kisses it after they defeated Michigan 69-55 in an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Big Ten Conference tournament on Sunday, March 16, 2014, in Indianapolis. Lacey Holsworth, lower right, who is battling cancer and has become close to Payne, looks on. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Autumn's lament across the Midwest, often punctuated on Jan. 1, is what the heck happened to the Big Ten as a football conference? Only the most delusional believe the league is what it once was – which isn't to say it can't one day return.
Good news always follows, though.
Fall turns to winter and winter turns to March, and no matter how much complaining there is in football about regional population trends, harsh weather scaring off recruits and other leagues supposedly being more cutthroat, basketball arrives and the Big Ten flourishes.
For decades on end now, almost without fail, the Big Ten has trotted out some of the best teams, best players and best coaches to put together thrilling seasons in some of the game's best on-campus venues.
Basketball is the Big Ten's rock, undeniably great. Same as it ever was.
And yet, the league enters this week's NCAA tournament in the midst of one of sports most inexplicable streaks. It can't seem to do one thing that used to come somewhat routinely – win the national championship.
Not since Tom Izzo and a bunch of kids from Flint, Mich., clipped the nets in 2000 to give the league its 10th title all time, has a Big Ten team won the NCAA tournament.
This is the second-longest period without a championship in league history. It's surpassed only by the 15 seasons between Ohio State's 1960 title team and Indiana's 1976 perfect season. The main culprit for that was UCLA, which won two-thirds (10) of the titles during that stretch.
There's no John Wooden out there now. Nine different teams have won it all during this stretch. It's resulted in five championships from the ACC, four from the Big East, three from the SEC and one from the Big 12.
Yet none for the Big Ten, no matter how good the league is year in year out; no matter how many All-Americans, future lottery picks or NBA All-Stars it showcases; no matter how many top two seeds (13), appearances in the Final Four (9) and trips to the national title game (5).
Somehow a league that is anything but broken just can't find a way to break through.
"I was the lucky one who got [to play] the team that won it the year before and everyone came back," Matta said with a laugh. "I know my excuse."
Which brings us to this year, which might as well be the year. The league isn't just past due, it enters a wide-open field with a slew of contenders.
"I don't know if you have that one dominant team that you say they should win the national championship," Matta said.
The league has six entrants, including a pair of two seeds – Michigan, the national runner-up a year ago and Wisconsin, which may be the best and most versatile group of Bo Ryan's tenure in Madison. Both were talked about as potential one seeds before Selection Sunday.
There is an Ohio State club that reached the Elite Eight last year, was ranked in the top five in midseason and remains dangerous. Rising Iowa and Nebraska are in as dark horses.
Then there is the most trendy expert pick, Michigan State, which despite being seeded fourth is finally healthy, rolled through the Big Ten tourney and is seeking its fifth Final Four appearance since that last national title.
So, no time like the present?
"I'm ecstatic that people think we're going to be good, but they thought that at the beginning of the year," Izzo said of the Spartans' preseason No. 2 ranking. The actual season found them losing eight games (six of them against league foes, though).
There is simply no explanation for this stretch of falling short, except this is March Madness. It's extremely difficult to win this event. Luck, pluck, timing and opportunity always play a roll.
Coaches can only shrug and point to the fact that the opponent can determine everything. Michigan's John Beilein said he never worries about seeding, just opponents. What's good for one club may be a nightmare for another, he says. He isn't alone.
"There are some teams that are better matchups for other teams," Ryan said. "Does the score always indicate that at the end? No, but it increases chances. But what those are all the time, just don't know."
This seems like a matter of swinging and swinging until the title finally falls. There have been plenty of chances, most notably the five losses in the Monday title game: Michigan (2013), Michigan State (2009), Ohio State (2007), Illinois (2005) and Indiana (2002).
[Related: Early exit for the Wolverines?]
The most frustrating part may be that the Big Ten is a vastly superior league in depth, action and quality, than its rival, the SEC. Yet the latter has managed three champions during this stretch, Florida in 2006 and 2007, Kentucky in 2012. And the Gators, winners of 26 straight, are a No. 1 seed again this year.
The Big Ten doesn't need to do anything to jolt its programs to life, though. The local talent base that is drying up for football remains plentiful in basketball, which is opposite of the SEC. The 30 likely starters for the league's six NCAA entrants feature 24 Midwest players (if you count Ontario, Canada). Most hail from the blue-collar towns and cities of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.
That's been enough for high-caliber coaches to produce seasons and seasons of terrific action, great teams and national contenders.
Just not, strangely, the last club standing.
"It's interesting," Matta said.
He, and the rest of the Big Ten would prefer the interest of a victory parade though.
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