The Big Ten appears on the brink of history with March Madness in full swing.
The bigger question is: Can one of the conference’s teams capture the program’s first NCAA Tournament title since 2000?
The Big Ten has two projected No. 1 seeds in the Big Dance in Michigan and Illinois, and two projected No. 2s in Iowa and Ohio State, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. No conference has ever had four of the top eight seeds before.
Overall, Lunardi has nine Big Ten clubs projected to hear their names called on March 14 – Selection Sunday.
According to the NET rankings used by the NCAA Selection Committee, the Big Ten has four of the Top 10 programs: No. 3 Michigan, the Big Ten regular-season champ, No. 4 Illinois, No. 6 Iowa and No. 8 Ohio State.
Ayo Dosunmu and No. 4 Illinois appear to have locked in a No. 1 by virtue of their 73-68 win over No. 10 Ohio State on Saturday. The Illini were coming off a 23-point beatdown of Michigan in a game in which Dosunmu did not play due to a facial injury. The Illini now have posted nine Quadrant 1 (top-25 home, top-75 road) victories.
Under second-year coach Juwan Howard, Michigan, meantime is 18-2 and will be a No. 1 seed for the first time since the 1992-92 season when Howard was part of the famed “Fab Five” at the school along with Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.
The Big Ten now has a new wave of stars, with six of the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award coming from the conference: Dosunmu and sophomore big man Kofi Cockburn of Illinois, Iowa’s Luka Garza, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis.
The 6-foot-11 Garza has been considered the clubhouse favorite to win the Wooden and Naismith awards since he opted to return to campus last summer after flirting with the NBA. He is averaging 23.9 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field.
Still, the 6-5 Dosunmu is giving him a run for his money averaging 20.9 points, 6.2 assists and 5.2 rebounds. The 6-11 Cockburn is averaging 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds, giving Illinois as potent a 1-2 punch as you’ll find in the nation.
When Garza, Dosunmu and Cockburn all opted to return to school and pull out of the NBA Draft last August, it appeared then that the Big Ten was the big winner, and that has manifested as the season unfolded.
Outside of the Big Ten, top-ranked Gonzaga has three Wooden Award finalists in Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and freshman Jalen Suggs.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Big Ten, the conference still must produce an NCAA champion to justify the hype, as I wrote in this space in December.
Since Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State won the conference’s last title in 2000, here’s how the 19 NCAA championships have been divided up (there was no NCAA Tournament in 2020 due to the pandemic:
ACC – 8
Big East – 6
SEC – 3
Big 12 – 1
American – 1
Gonzaga and No. 3-ranked Baylor were considered the co-favorites to cut down the nets for much of the season, but Michigan and Illinois are more battle-tested than the Zags and have to be considered legitimate challengers to cut down the nets.
Also keep in mind that the entire NCAA Tournament will be played in the state of Indiana, so a team like Purdue (18-8, 13-6 Big Ten), which will play all of its games in familiar territory, should be considered a Dark Horse. The Boilermakers will enter the Big Ten Tournament having won five in a row, including wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana.
For what it’s worth, Iona’s Rick Pitino, who has won NCAA titles at Kentucky and Louisville, doesn’t think the Big Ten needs to win a title to justify the hype.
“No they don’t,” he said in December. “A one-game match in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t determine the strength of the league”
Izzo, whose team is on the bubble at 14-11, still wants to see his conference win another title.
“One of these days,” he said in 2019, “we’ve got enough teams knocking on the door, we’re going to find a way to win one.”