And so, another coulda-shoulda-woulda NCAA tournament extends the Big Ten’s championship drought.
Going in, Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue all seemed to have the ingredients to win the title. But they came up empty, leaving the Midwestern giant with a feeble one championship (Michigan State in 2000) since 1989.
And no matter what BTN retrospectives try to tell you, Maryland’s 2002 title goes in the ACC column.
Virginia’s shining Monday night moment gives the ACC nine titles over that 30-year span. That edges out the Big East, which has cut down the nets eight times since 1989. The SEC is third, with six titles.
The ACC (333-168) also has the most tournament wins since Steve Fisher removed his interim-coach label by guiding Michigan to the 1989 championship. That capped a run of five Big Ten national champions from 1976 to 1989.
The Big Ten (291-189) is second in NCAA wins since ’89 after nudging ahead of the reconstituted Big East (287-171) this March. The SEC (243-158) is fourth.
And yet, winning it all continues to be beyond the Big Ten’s reach.
What's the deal?
If I knew for sure, I would try to take a lunch with commissioner Jim Delany and try to wangle a consultant’s fee commensurate with the problem.
But since the Big Ten drought remains above the pay grade of rainmakers with much stronger credentials than me, we’ll just have to toss out some theories.
I understand the Big Ten’s football championship struggles. Although its three gridiron triumphs (Ohio State 2014 and 2002, Michigan 1997) in two-plus decades looks good in comparison with its hardwood hard luck.
Short version: The SEC and its Soviet satellite, Clemson, are simply way better.
In basketball, identifying the cause is a trickier deal.
The obvious place to start is with recruiting. The Big Ten recruits well enough. But when you compare it to perennial powers like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas, I don’t know that any Big Ten school consistently is in that group. Maybe Michigan State, but not really.
And then there are the shorter-duration pop-up powers—champions like Connecticut, Syracuse, Louisville, Florida and Arkansas—that garnered more future NBA studs in their heydays.
I’ll leave it to a stats geek to quantify the Big Ten’s shortfall in top-notch pro prospects. But the point is, while the Big Ten has produced some very talented teams, somebody else always seemed to have a little more going on there.
Even with this year’s trio of contenders, one more difference-maker might have put the Spartans, Wolverines or Boilermakers over the top.
The next factor to consider is coaching. I’m a big fan of the current crop of Big Ten coaches, notably Tom Izzo, John Beilein, Matt Painter, Mark Turgeon and Greg Gard. And young coaches like Chris Holtmann and Archie Miller are showing signs they could join that group.
What they need to win it all, I suspect, is some kind of breakthrough season. A monumental set of recruits would help. Some innovative coaching maneuver—either on offense, defense or motivationally—might prove to be the difference.
Look at what Chris Beard—who will be heard from regularly, I suspect—has done with defense at Texas Tech. What John Calipari does with one-and-done recruiting at Kentucky. What Billy Donovan did as a program-builder at Florida. What Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Bill Self have done with year-in-year-out all-around excellence.
That could happen in Big Ten basketball. It’s not like football, where the SEC and Clemson max out their inherent advantage.
Another explanation is that it’s simply the breaks of the game.
Look at this tournament. New Mexico State came within a couple of missed free throws of bouncing Auburn in the first round before Charles Barkley’s alma mater rolled to the Final Four, where late free throws caught up with the Tigers. Purdue seemingly had Virginia on the ropes in regulation before an improbable basket allowed the Cavaliers to push the game into an overtime escape.
These kinds of things happen every year. Then again, I tend to think these breaks of the game tend to even out over three decades.
Which leaves us back at Square One on the question of why the Big Ten, for all of its success, has managed only one NCAA championship in 30 years.
Recruiting. Coaching. Breaks of the game. . .
Round up the usual suspects.