Opinion: Just two days in, the Big Ten is showing its true colors

Dan Wolken, USA TODAY
·4 min read

INDIANAPOLIS — One of the defining questions of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament was whether the Big Ten would flex the superiority that computers and metrics told us it possessed all season long.

Merely halfway through the first round, we have a resounding verdict: The Big Ten wasn’t as good as we were led to believe.

With Michigan State’s late-game meltdown against UCLA in the First Four, followed by Ohio State’s earth-shattering upset loss to Oral Roberts on Friday and Purdue’s overtime faceplant against North Texas, no league has been more disappointing to start this year’s tournament than the Big Ten.

It’s still too early to call it a complete flop. Illinois, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, looked good Friday in its opener and still has a chance to make a really deep run. Wisconsin shot the ball great and delivered a 23-point win over North Carolina in an 8-9 game. Michigan, Iowa and Maryland take the floor Saturday, and maybe the outlook will seem a little brighter after they play.

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Zed Key and Duane Washington Jr. (right) leave the court after Ohio State lost to Oral Roberts in overtime.
Zed Key and Duane Washington Jr. (right) leave the court after Ohio State lost to Oral Roberts in overtime.

But the historic nature of this season in the Big Ten, which got nine teams in the tournament and dominated the discourse for the last few months, looks a little different now that these teams have seen some legitimate out-of-conference competition.

When you have this many teams in the tournament, you can’t expect first-round perfection. Once the results start coming in, though, you have to judge them against what we thought about these teams collectively before the tournament.

Any way you look at it, Friday was a pretty bad day.

The fundamental truth about the Big Ten’s strength this season is that it was built almost entirely on these teams playing each other.

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams in most leagues — and especially the Big Ten — played pared down non-conference schedules. When you go back and look closely at who these teams beat early in this season, it wasn’t particularly impressive. Michigan played nobody in the non-conference. Iowa beat North Carolina and lost to Gonzaga. Purdue’s best non-conference win came against Notre Dame. Ohio State got one over UCLA, and Wisconsin’s signature non-conference win was Louisville, which just missed the tournament.

But for whatever reason, the computer numbers and analytics thought those Big Ten teams were all pretty good. And once they started playing and beating each other in conference play, it pulled all of them up to the point where six of the top 15 teams in the KenPom rankings were from the Big Ten. It even got a middling team like 15-12 Michigan State into the tournament because it had the so-called quality wins the committee looks for.

Were these teams really as strong as the numbers suggested? That’s always a hard question to answer, and perhaps a one-and-done basketball tournament isn’t the best way to go about drawing those conclusions.

But it should cause at least a little concern that the same Buckeyes team that played Illinois to the bone last Sunday in the Big Ten tournament championship game turned around and lost to an Oral Roberts team that only shot 36 percent. It should raise some eyebrows that Purdue didn’t look like the better team against North Texas for even a minute of that game, was fortunate just to get it to overtime and then completely fell apart.

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Upsets happen in this tournament, but those are games that the Big Ten was heavily favored to win. The metrics may have told us those teams were among the 20 best in the country, but our eyeballs saw a different story unfold Friday.

We may well have a Big Ten team or two make a deep run here, but this kind of underwhelming start calls into question whether the league was ever as good as those computers thought.

Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: March Madness: Big Ten not as strong as we were led to believe