INDIANAPOLIS — The Big Ten entered the men's NCAA tournament having two more bids (nine total) than any other league, the best conference KenPom rating in the country, two No. 1 seeds and two more No. 2 seeds. In all, the league had five of the top-16 seeds in the tournament.
For all its bungled COVID-19-related football troubles of the fall, the conference seemed to be destined for a big showing on the hardwood this spring. This was the year, it felt like, to snap that 21-year national title drought in men's hoops.
On Monday morning, with the first three days of the Big Dance behind us, the conference is down to three teams. Its conference tournament champion (Illinois) is gone, losers to No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago on Sunday. No. 2 seed Ohio State didn’t last past the first day. Neither did No. 4 seed Purdue, the closest in proximity to Indianapolis than any other of the 68 tournament qualifiers. Michigan State lost in the First Four, and Wisconsin went down on Sunday, as well as Rutgers, which blew a nine-point lead in the final five minutes to Houston.
The three remaining Big Ten squads try Monday to secure a trip to the Sweet 16: No. 10 seed Maryland (against No. 2 Alabama), No. 2 seed Iowa (against No. 7 Oregon) and No. 1 seed Michigan (against No. 8 LSU). None of them feel like guaranteed wins. In fact, the Wolverines, the league’s regular-season champ, are without injured starter Isaiah Livers.
Couple the Big Ten’s tournament record so far (6–6) with the Pac-12’s record (6–0) and you’ve really got some serious madness here in March. Those two leagues’ regular seasons were somewhat opposites. So were we all fooled by the Big Ten’s regular-season slate? Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the league didn’t test itself much out of conference. They mostly played nonconference games against the ACC, which, it turns out, isn’t that strong this year.
Not everyone agrees. That includes Purdue coach Matt Painter, whose Boilermakers joined the Buckeyes as the two Big Ten teams whose losses came in overtime.
“We had a great year this year as a conference,” he said. “From 1 to 14, it was obviously the best conference. Obviously, when you do that and get the most teams in, and then you have some really close losses, people want to push back and say, ‘Well, you didn’t maybe have quite the year that you thought.’ No, we had as great a year as a conference. You’re one point away in three different games from winning, and you don’t win.”
Some of the opponents that took down Big Ten squads include Loyola Chicago (they were probably under-seeded), Oral Roberts (only the ninth 15 seed to beat a No. 2 seed), North Texas (finished third in C-USA), UCLA (the Pac-12!) and Baylor (this one is understandable).
What we’ve really learned here is that A) COVID-19 has somewhat leveled the playing field this year and B) the tournament, as it always has been, is a single-elimination, crapshoot event that you shouldn't read too much into.
Still, here the Big Ten sits with its title hopes down to three teams on the final day of the first weekend.
Loyola Chicago is back in the March spotlight, but make no mistake—it left the glass slipper at home this time. (By Pat Forde)
The women's tournament kicked off Sunday, with thwarted upsets being the theme of the day. (By Emma Baccellieri)
Even Jim Boeheim couldn't help but crack a smile and play the crowd after his son helped Syracuse land yet another surprising Sweet 16 berth. (By Pat Forde)
Sweet 16-bound Oral Roberts is the truest form of a Cinderella that the Big Dance has seen since Florida Gulf Coast’s run in 2013. (By Ross Dellenger)
Day 3 of the men's NCAA tournament is in the books. Miss anything?
Best Thing We Saw
After beating No. 1 seed Illinois, Loyola Chicago’s Twitter account whacked the Illini while they were down, making sure we all know who runs the state.
Pick 'Em: Men's and Women's
SI's Kevin Sweeney makes his picks for Monday's second-round men's games:
No. 2 Iowa over No. 7 Oregon: The well-rested Ducks will put a scare into the Hawkeyes, but Oregon has no answer inside for Luka Garza.
No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 8 Oklahoma: Contrary to Brady Manek’s comments, the Sooners haven’t seen a team like Gonzaga this year. Zags roll.
No. 11 UCLA over No. 14 Abilene Christian: ACU’s defense will make life difficult, but the Wildcats aren’t good enough on offense to pull a second upset in three days.
No. 13 Ohio over No. 5 Creighton: Creighton barely escaped UC Santa Barbara, but gets picked off in this spot. The Bobcats can score with anyone.
No. 1 Michigan over No. 8 LSU: LSU is far more talented than your average No. 8 seed, and Michigan sans Isaiah Livers is vulnerable. A steady dose of Hunter Dickinson will be enough, though.
No. 5 Colorado over No. 4 Florida State: It’s hard to believe Colorado will shoot as well as it did against Georgetown, but McKinley Wright IV and the Buffs will find a way.
No. 2 Alabama over No. 10 Maryland: Maryland’s only chance is to slow down the pace, and Alabama is really good at not getting bogged down. Tide roll.
No. 6 USC over No. 3 Kansas: He’s no Tanner Groves, but Evan Mobley is pretty darn good. He’ll be the best player on the floor in this one.
SI's Molly Geary makes her picks for eight of Sunday's women's first-round games:
No. 6 Rutgers over No. 11 BYU: The Scarlet Knights had won nine straight after their COVID-19 pause before a defeat to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament.
No. 3 Georgia over No. 14 Drexel: Fresh off an impressive SEC tourney showing, the Bulldogs won't be an easy out.
No. 7 Northwestern over No. 10 UCF: This will be a true grind-it-out game, but I'm taking the Wildcats to survive it.
No. 11 South Dakota over No. 6 Oregon: After a Day 1 of chalk, we need a first-round upset somewhere, right?
No. 5 Missouri State over No. 12 UC Davis: The Bears, winners of 17 straight, showed their promise when they beat Maryland earlier in the season.
No. 7 Alabama over No. 10 UNC: Jasmine Walker will have a big day from the perimeter to carry the Tide past the Tar Heels.
No. 5 Gonzaga over No. 12 Belmont: The Bruins have won 10 straight, but the Zags' defense will hold off this upset push just enough.
No. 7 Iowa State over No. 10 Michigan State: The Cyclones shoot the three well, shoot free throws exceptionally well, and take good care of the ball. All come just a bit in handy in March.
The Pac-12—or should we say, the Conference of Champions—continues its red-hot run on Monday, with Oregon, Colorado and USC upsetting Iowa, Florida State and Kansas, and UCLA hanging on to survive upstart Abilene Christian. Somewhere, Bill Walton finds nirvana. —Jeremy Woo
At the Buzzer
Crank up the Muss Bus. Eric Musselman, the third-year coach at Arkansas, has the Hogs back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996. From 1990–96, the Arkansas men advanced to six Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights, three Final Fours and won a national title. Over the last 24 years, they’ve never advanced past the second round. You think Musselman is excited? Here’s his postgame reaction: