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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Steve Greenberg

The Big Ten — with zero titles since 2000 — keeps calling itself the best hoops league. Why?

Coach Tom Izzo and Michigan State are the Big Ten’s last shot to end a 23-years-long national championship drought. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

After losing his team’s regular-season finale to Northwestern, Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell — knowing the Scarlet Knights’ NCAA Tournament chances were shaky — turned to the same go-to platitude he’d been wearing out for weeks.

“Obviously,” he said in reference to the Big Ten, “it’s the best league in the country.”

His Wildcats counterpart, Chris Collins, took it a step further, saying, “I’ve never seen a conference with this amount of great play.”

Alas, on Selection Sunday, the NCAA Tournament would leave Rutgers on the outside of the bubble looking in. The Big Ten would have to settle for eight bids, arguably still more than it deserved.

It has become a broken record: Even though the Big Ten is on season No. 23 and tournament No. 22 since its last national championship — an embarrassing, revealing drought — its coaches won’t stop touting the conference as the apex of college basketball.

“The Big Ten is the best league in the country, in my opinion,” Illinois’ Brad Underwood said heading into a first-round loss against SEC also-ran Arkansas. “It has been for some time.”

If it’s true — or even close to it — who could tell?

Since Michigan State’s famed “Flintstones” crew cut down the nets in 2000, there have been eight national champs representing the ACC, six from the Big East, three each from the SEC and the Big 12, one from the American and — where did we put that calculator? — zero from the Big Ten.

Twelve schools have combined to win the last 21 titles, with Duke, North Carolina and UConn leading the way at three apiece. UConn has switched leagues twice in that span, winning its first two in the Big East, its third in the American and now, back in the Big East and in the Sweet 16, trying to become the first heavyweight to win four titles this century.

According to one leading gambling site, UConn has the fourth-best odds (+900) to win it all, behind Alabama (+320), Houston (+400) and UCLA (+850). Far down the list — ninth out of the remaining 16 teams — is Michigan State (+2500), the last Big Ten team in the field. And those long odds are despite the Spartans being in a completely up-for-grabs East region with Tennessee, Florida Atlantic and their next opponent, Kansas State, which they’ll face Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“It doesn’t matter who we play, when we play, where we play or how, it’s going to be a hell of a game,” coach Tom Izzo said after the Spartans upset No. 2 seed Marquette in the second round. “And I’m looking forward to it.”

Izzo reached into the wayback machine for descriptions of the Marquette game, likening it to the electric, brutally intense ones his 2000 squad played.

“I felt like Mateen Cleaves,” he said, name-dropping that great team’s biggest star.

But these Spartans — who entered the tournament as an unranked No. 7 seed — are nothing like those Spartans. Veterans Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard and Joey Hauser form a solid nucleus, but Walker is the only MSU player who was voted by coaches to one of the top three all-league teams. By comparison, No. 3 seed Kansas State — far from a traditional power — has been ranked since early January and has a pair of stars, point guard Markquis Nowell and forward Keyontae Johnson, who received All-American recognition.

Izzo, 68, is in his 28th season and is the Big Ten’s all-time leader in wins. His teams have made it to 12 Sweet 16s, eight Elite Eights and six Final Fours since he triumphantly basked in confetti alongside Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell in Indianapolis. 

It’s an unmatched track record in Big Ten country, but Izzo’s 2020-21 squad was under .500 in league play and lost in the First Four of the Big Dance. A season later, the Spartans tied for seventh place in league play and made a first-weekend exit. The Big Ten is running out of chances on Izzo’s watch.

“We have to win another championship,” he said before the season. “ ‘We’ meaning Michigan State, but ‘we’ [also] meaning the Big Ten.”

Despite the reality of where things stood, Izzo went on in that same moment to say the Big Ten was the best league in the country. Empty rhetoric? Indeed.

Since MSU won the whole thing, a little more than one-third of the Big Ten’s 147 tournament teams — 53 of them in all — have reached the Sweet 16. That’s not bad. Fourteen have made the Final Four, and there have been seven national runners-up. Again, those numbers are respectable.

But zero titles makes something wild like Purdue getting knocked out the last three years by North Texas, Saint Peter’s and Fairleigh Dickinson seem like less of an outlier than it is.

MSU has made 25 straight tournaments, the second-longest active streak — behind Kansas’ 33 — and the third-longest ever. All of it has come under Izzo, the longest streak for one coach.

But as the long-shot Spartans are trying to keep winning this March, they’re also — fairly or not — lugging around the weight of their conference’s title drought. It’s quite a burden.

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