The Midwest’s March mystique

The Big Ten consistently underperforms in the Big Dance despite sending a multitude of teams.

Purdue is one of many Big Ten men’s basketball teams that underachieves in March Madness. The Boilermakers have had a top 5 seed in eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments, yet they consistently struggle to advance past the first rounds of play. (Adam Bouse / Unsplash)

The Big Ten is breaking trends this year.

Through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, USC’s future conference has compiled a 6-4 record as four of the conference’s six teams made it through the first round and an additional two teams made it to next weekend’s Sweet Sixteen.

But a winning record has not been common for the conference in recent years, as the Big Ten compiled a 6-8 record as a conference in last year’s March Madness and has not played to a winning record in the tournament since 2019. 

The league consistently earns a large number of bids to the Big Dance compared to other conferences but has shown that it does not necessarily deserve that: The Big Ten has not had a national champion in men’s basketball since Maryland’s 2002 squad. 

In comparison, the ACC has had eight championships in that time frame and the Big East has earned six. Those conferences, with consistent national powerhouses, should receive more at-large bids due to the clear pedigree of the teams in the league.

Somehow, though, the Big Ten consistently earns a high number of bids for a conference that’s on a 22-year streak without a championship. While conference realignment might help the conference do better in March, the teams joining the conference — USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington — have mixed records when it comes to the Big Dance.

UCLA has the best track record of the four, with a whopping 115-45 record in March and 11 national championships. But the last time the Bruins won one of those 11 was in 1995. UCLA has been to the Final Four on four occasions this century, with three appearances coming in the 2000s.

As for the other three teams, there’s not much success. Oregon — the only team of the four new Big Ten teams to make this year’s edition of March Madness — has compiled a 27-17 record in the tournament, USC is at 17-23 in the Big Dance, while Washington has willed itself to a 19-18 record. The Ducks are the only ones of the trio to win a national championship, but that came all the way back in 1939.

As such, these four teams — particularly the ones not named UCLA — are perfect to continue the traditions of the conference. The Trojans, Ducks and Huskies have combined for 56 trips to the NCAA Tournament, but have advanced to the Final Four a mere five times. 

It is very difficult to win the national championship;  that’s why only one team does in a field of 68, and the team has to make the tournament first. But the Big Ten has performance anxiety in the Big Dance. 

No. 1-seeded Purdue (31-4, 17-3 Big Ten) and No. 3-seeded Illinois (28-8, 14-6) still have the chance to break their conference’s trends, but the Boilermakers have been at the heart of the Big Ten’s struggles, falling to teams they were heavy favorites against in back-to-back years.

Maybe Purdue just underestimated the lower seeds it lost to in 2022 and 2023 and will finally be able to break through and reach its third Final Four in school history this year. The Boilermakers will have stiff competition the rest of the way through, with the No. 5-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs (27-7, 14-2 West Coast Conference) next on their docket and the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the region waiting in the other half.

But at some point, trends have to come to an end, lest they become history. If it’s not the Boilermakers and Fighting Illini ending the conference’s losing streak, the Big Ten will add four new teams — but realistically, just the one in UCLA — who can help bring a national championship back to the league.

Thomas Johnson is a junior writing about USC’s move to a new conference and all of the implications surrounding the transition in his column, “Big Ten Bites,” which runs every other Monday.

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