No Big Ten basketball team has won a national championship since 2000. Who will be the team that ends the drought?
The Big Ten is consistently one of the best basketball conferences in the country. Just last year, the conference had a banner season with nine teams making the NCAA Tournament — the most in the country.
Of course, as we remember, most of the Big Ten favorites infamously fell early in the tournament. Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State all failed to make it out of the first weekend as top two seeds. Purdue earned a No. 4 seed but also lost in the first round. Michigan was the only one of the nine that found its way into the Sweet 16 and was two points away from the Final Four.
Despite having four of the top eight overall seeds in the tournament, the conference still has not had a team go on to win a national championship since Michigan State did so in 2000.
It’s the longest active streak of any power conference. That streak has created a narrative of the Big Ten being overrated and underperforming in March, and results like this past tournament certainly don’t help.
Yes, the Big Ten hasn’t won a title in over two decades, but the conference doesn’t consistently underperform.
At least one Big Ten team has made the Final Four in 11 of the 20 NCAA Tournaments since 2000, and they’ve had the national runner-up in seven of those tournaments. The conference consistently gets teams to the biggest stage, but no one has been able to get it done.
Eventually, though, that will change. If I had to guess, it will change sooner rather than later, too.
Who will be that team that finally ends the drought? Let’s sort each the 14 teams into categories based on the likelihood of it winning within the next 3-5 years:
The “Not A Chance” Group
Teams: Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State
Apologies to fans of the teams listed above, but this is pretty self-explanatory, no?
Nebraska hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2014 and has finished in the bottom four in the conference in six of the past seven seasons. The Cornhuskers have won 14 total games over the last two seasons.
That’s only slightly worse than Northwestern’s 17 total wins over the last two seasons, and the Wildcats only have one (1) NCAA Tournament victory ever.
Minnesota and Penn State are both in rebuilding situations under new head coaches in Ben Johnson and Micah Shrewsberry, respectively. Neither team is expected to compete for a tournament berth anytime soon, let alone be a challenger for a Big Ten or national title.
Teams: Iowa, Rutgers, Wisconsin
All three of these programs are fine but are far from title contention.
Iowa was in that place year and was led by the best player in program history in Luka Garza and still couldn’t get to the Sweet 16. In fact, head coach Fran McCaffery has never made the Sweet 16 in his 10 NCAA Tournament appearances. Add in the fact that this program is rebuilding somewhat after losing Garza and Joe Wieskamp, so let’s just say the Hawkeyes are more worried about making the NCAA Tournament than winning a title.
The same can be said for Wisconsin, which is losing most of its rotation players from last season. And, yes, the Badgers played in the 2015 National Championship Game but Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker aren’t walking through that door. That may have been the peak of this program and there are questions about the future of the program under Greg Gard.
There are no questions about what Steve Pikiell has done at Rutgers after ending their 30-year NCAA Tournament drought. However, going from one tournament appearance to national title contender is quite the leap for a program to make. This isn’t the kind of program that is going to get there soon.
So You’re Saying There’s A Chance
Teams: Indiana, Maryland
I don’t think anyone would be shocked if either of these two won a national title in the next few years, but I also know that no one outside of Bloomington or College Park would pick these programs to win in their bracket.
Indiana has all the resources to be a title contender with the right coach, and new hire Mike Woodson hasn’t proven he’s not that guy yet (mostly because he hasn’t, you know, coached a game yet). The Hoosiers recruit at a high level and if the Woodson hire works — which I don’t think it will, but there’s a chance — Indiana can lure the talent to get things done.
The same could be said for Mark Turgeon and Maryland. Turgeon certainly has his detractors and I have been one of them, yet it also has to be noted that he has put together championship-caliber rosters in 2016 and 2020. He has proven he can recruit and develop at a high enough level in College Park, but putting it all together has been a problem. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it would be a surprise.
Teams: Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue
It’s weird when Michigan State feels like the outlier of this group when it comes to expectations for the 2021-22 season, huh? But let’s be real, we’re not counting out Tom Izzo and the Spartans from returning to their perch atop the conference sooner rather than later.
The pitch for both Illinois and Ohio State is similar. Both were top two seeds a year ago with excellent coaches with long track records of success and programs that are on an upward trajectory. Neither projects to be a national title contender this year, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either (or both) enter the mix. It’s also a virtual guarantee both will be in title contention within the next few years.
Purdue, on the other hand, is more of a play for this season. The Boilermakers have extremely high expectations as they return all major contributors from last year’s team that was a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The dominant front line of Trevion Williams and Zach Edey is special, and Jaden Ivey could be an All-American.
All that said, Michigan is still the clear favorite to get it done at some point in the near future. The Wolverines have appeared in two of the last eight title games and the program is running strong under Juwan Howard.
He already has won a Big Ten title, earned a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, made the Elite Eight, and landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class in just over two calendar years on the job.
Michigan enters the 2021-22 season as the Big Ten favorite and will be ranked in the preseason top 10 (if not the top five). The Wolverines are on the short list of national championship contenders this season and with Howard’s recruiting track record, they should stay in that mix over the next few seasons, too.
Another Big Ten program may ultimately cut down the nets before Michigan but the Wolverines have to be the clear favorite to end the conference’s title drought.