In like a lion and out like a lamb.
That’s about the way March went for the Big Ten, too.
With a Final Four berth on the line, the league’s last hope, Michigan, could not cope with UCLA’s Johnny Juzang (28 points on 11 of 19 shooting) or the Bruins’ defense.
After Chaundee Brown hit a three-pointer that tied the game at 46-46 with 5:23 left, the Wolverines missed their final eight shots and lost 51-49. It was a season-low in scoring for Michigan.
That assured that the national championship drought will continue for the Big Ten, which hasn’t won it all since Michigan State in 2000. And that’s the only Big Ten title since 1989.
This tournament will go down as especially painful. Four of the top eight seeds (No. 1 Michigan, No. 1 Illinois, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 2 Iowa) were among the Big Ten’s nine tournament teams.
The problem was, disaster lurked. Of the 14 upsets by teams that were seeded five lines lower than their opponent, the Big Ten was the victim in five.
No. 1 Michigan lost to No. 11 UCLA. No. 1 Illinois lost to No. 8 Loyola. No. 2 Ohio State lost to No. 15 Oral Roberts. No. 4 Purdue lost to No. 13 North Texas. And No. 2 Iowa lost to No. 7 Oregon.
We knew March Madness, given the pandemic alterations, was likely to be crazier than ever.
We didn’t know it would inflict so much pain on the Big Ten.
A marvelous regular season set the post-season bar high for the Midwestern stalwarts.
A fierce regular-season conference race, in which Michigan edged Illinois for the crown, with Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State also notching impressive seasons, seemed to assure that the Big Ten would have a thick enough hide to deal with the pressures of the NCAA tournament.
That was not the case.
Once again, the Big Ten flamed out. The taunts of ``over-rated’’ will be echo for a long time when it comes to a season that had looked so promising.
There will be the usual explanations. . . Bad shooting nights. The pressure on favorites to beat fired-up underdogs. Bad matchups. And on and on.
The bottom line, though, is that the Big Ten wasn’t as good as advertised. And didn’t muster its best efforts at the most important time of the season.
The regular season was a wonderfully entertaining ride, filled with joyous moments for many teams.
The NCAA tournament, on the other hand, was marked by disappointments—missed opportunities and the anguish of a one-and-done tournament.
While this season was played under the shadow of Covid-19 peril, it also provided moments of escape from a monumental national crisis that still alters so many aspects of life.
Here’s hoping the pandemic will be just a blip in the rear-view mirror when another basketball season rolls around.
One thing seems certain: Big Ten basketball teams will put aside the disappointments of this year’s March Madness and be even more determined to do better a year from now. That's why they play. And why we watch.