The coach of the Big Ten’s last national championship team believes the conference’s 20-year title drought could end this season.
“We’ve got four or five teams that are on top that could do it,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said. “There’s enough good teams that we could get a couple teams in the (Final Four).”
The Big Ten hasn’t won a title since Izzo coached Michigan State to the 2000 crown, unless you count Maryland’s 2002 championship when it was still an Atlantic Coast Conference member. But the league rarely has boasted as much strength as it does now.
Big Ten schools make up three of the top five teams in the latest AP Top 25: No. 3 Illinois (20-6), No. 4 Michigan (19-3) and No. 5 Iowa (20-7). Ohio State (18-8) is ranked ninth.
That gives the league plenty of confidence in its postseason hopes heading into the Big Ten Tournament that kicked off with two games Wednesday in Indianapolis — Minnesota’s win over Northwestern and the later contest between Nebraska and Penn State.
“I think you’ve seen the bottom and the middle get stronger,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “And I think this year specifically you have the top that’s elite. I think we’ve had one or two teams at times be elite (in the past). By elite, I mean Final Four-worthy. I think there’s four teams right now that are probably in that category. I don’t think in my time here we’ve ever had that.”
The Big Ten benefited this year by having draft-worthy prospects such as Iowa’s Luka Garza and Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu return to school. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson headlined the crop of impact newcomers.
That formula added up to a banner season.
“No other conference comes close when you look at the quality of teams top to bottom,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Former UCLA coach Steve Lavin discussed the depth of the Big Ten by making references to the 2011 season, when the Big East earned 11 NCAA Tournament bids – including the St. John’s team he was coaching. That season ended with UConn winning the national title despite finishing ninth in the Big East standings.
The Big Ten’s lack of recent titles has harmed the league’s reputation, deserved or not.
“To me, conferences that are consistently represented in the Final Four is an indication of a strong and healthy conference,” said Lavin, an analyst for Fox Sports.
Since Michigan State’s 2000 title, a Big Ten team has lost in the championship game seven times: Indiana in 2002, Illinois in 2005, Ohio State in 2007, Michigan State in 2009, Michigan in 2013 and 2018, and Wisconsin in 2015.
“Personally, I’d love to see a couple teams get there again,” Izzo said. “I’d like to see a Big Ten (team) win it. It’s a shame, but that’s how you’re judged.”
Illinois is the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten and won its lone regular-season matchup with Michigan, which earned the conference’s regular-season title and the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament by virtue of its higher league winning percentage.
That hasn’t stopped Illinois from pointing out that it played a full 20-game conference schedule. Michigan shut down its program for three weeks due to the pandemic and played only 17 conference games.
Illinois figures to have Dosunmu for the Big Ten Tournament after he missed three games with a concussion and a broken nose. Dosunmu returned in a mask to score 19 points as Illinois beat Ohio State in its regular-season finale.
“I feel like a superhero with the black mask on,” Dosunmu said.
Iowa’s Joe Wieskamp and Michigan’s Eli Brooks both hurt their ankles in their teams’ respective regular-season finales, leaving their status uncertain for this week. Iowa already lost forward Jack Nunge to a season-ending knee injury in late February.
Michigan State (15-11) seemed all but out of NCAA Tournament at-large consideration until it collected late-season victories over Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan. The Spartans now are likely to get an NCAA bid no matter how they fare this week.
Minnesota (14-14) spent much of the season in the Top 25 but had lost its last seven games entering the tournament to drop below .500. Minnesota beat Northwestern, 51-46, on Wednesday night to get back to .500. Indiana (12-14) has lost five straight.
Wisconsin (16-11) remains in good shape for an NCAA bid but has lost five of its last six. That is a dramatic change from a year ago, when the Badgers won their final eight games before the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament got canceled.
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