Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Padding the Stats: Big Ten NCAA Tournament Review and 2021-22 Outlook

March 31, 2021

Four teams are still standing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. None of them are from the Big Ten.

That’s a tough pill to swallow for a conference that placed nine teams in the tournament including two No. 1 seeds, two No. 2s and a No. 4.

Credit to Maryland and Rutgers for pulling off 7-10 upsets, but both teams ran into No. 2 seeds in the second round and their runs came to an end there.

Michigan was the last Big Ten team left in the tournament, but the Wolverines bowed out with 51-49 loss to No. 11 UCLA in the Elite Eight on Tuesday. I, like many others, picked the Wolverines to fall to Florida State in the Sweet 16 after learning about Isaiah Livers’ injury. Juwan Howard did a great job coaching up his team and a lot of different guys stepped up without Livers, who I think is as important as any player on that roster.

It finally caught up to them against the upstart Bruins, however. Michigan established itself as one of the three best teams in the country at full strength, but I think Livers’ injury knocked them off that pedestal an an Elite Eight finish is still pretty successful, all things considered.

Coincidentally, UCLA also ended Michigan State’s run — in the play-in game.

No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Purdue, both in the South Region, were upset in the first round, by No. 13 North Texas and No. 15 Oral Roberts, respectively. The Golden Eagles at least made a run to the Sweet 16, but it still wasn’t a good look for the Buckeyes to lose that game.

No. 1 Illinois and No. 2 Iowa were probably the Big Ten’s best chance at making a deep run post-Livers injury, but they both failed to make it out of the first weekend.

Illinois rolled over No. 16 Drexel in the first round. In the second, Kofi Cockburn and the freshman guards showed up for the Illini, but their dynamic veteran backcourt of Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier combined to shoot 5-of-20 from the field with six turnovers against the stout defense of No. 8 Loyola-Chicago as the Ramblers won 71-58.

As for the Hawkeyes, they beat No. 15 Grand Canyon by 12 in the first round then gave up 95 points to Oregon in the second. Luka Garza got his to the tune of 36 points on 70% shooting, but it took Joe Wieskamp 17 shots to get his 17 points and the other three starters went scoreless. Iowa looked to have made strides on defense down the stretch of the regular season, but it didn’t show in the tournament.

Wisconsin also hammered North Carolina in the 8/9 game before falling to No. 1 Baylor by 13 in the second round.

The Final Four features teams from the West Coast Conference, the Pac-12, the Big 12 and the American Athletic Conference.

Does this mean the Big Ten was a total fraud of a conference and didn’t deserve any of the praise it received all season? Of course not. No. 12 Oregon State making a run to the Sweet 16 after going 10-10 in the Pac 12 and losing to Wyoming and Portland in the nonconference and No. 11 UCLA going from the First Four to the Final Four after riding a four-game losing streak into the NCAA Tournament show how random the tournament can be. Heck, Oral Roberts, the Cinderella of the tournament with two absolute killers in Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor, finished fourth in the Summit League.

The Big Ten graded out at KenPom as a historically great conference this year. The league had some really good teams, but I think the lofty rankings had more to do with this crazy pandemic-altered season throwing the metrics out of whack than anything else. The Big Ten was strong last season and returned a lot of talent, so teams went into the season in good standing, and there weren’t enough nonconference games to overcome that preconceived notion that Big Ten teams were great. So once they got into conference play, nearly every game was either a good win or an acceptable loss.

A look at KenPom right now shows the top three teams all in the Final Four with No. 15 UCLA rounding out the group. Nos. 4, 5, 7, 11 and 13 are all Big Ten teams.

When you look at the Big Ten’s postseason performance as a whole, it includes overachievement by a few teams, misfortune for one in particular and a few teams falling on their faces. The last of those will be remembered the longest, however, and the conference will have to overcome that heading into next season. Ultimately, what you do in March matters more than anything else (even if that isn’t a great way to evaluate a season as a whole).

What’s interesting is the Big Ten has a chance to look drastically different. Michigan has five seniors plus a potential NBA Draft early entrant in Franz Wagner whose futures are up in the air. Juwan Howard also has a phenomenal recruiting class on the way.

Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu is entering the NBA Draft, and we’ll have to see if Kofi Cockburn leaves as well after testing the waters last year. Those two were the cornerstone of the Illini’s success.

Luka Garza’s storied Iowa career is over, and he was the biggest reason the Hawkeyes were a top 10 team all year.

Ohio State has a few important seniors with decisions to make, but Chris Holtmann has a chance to return a strong core and he’s already added former Penn State point guard Jamari Wheeler as a transfer.

Purdue didn’t have a senior on its roster, and while it’s lost two players to the transfer portal, neither one played a big role. Four of the Boilermakers’ top seven scorers were freshman, so Purdue seems poised to make a big leap.

I’d be surprised to see Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans to struggle as much next season as they did this year, especially with the late-season surge that landed them in the Tournament. Rocket Watts is in the portal, but Izzo has replaced him with Tyson Walker, a scoring point guard from Northeastern.

Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State all made coaching changes and are dealing with significant roster turnover while Rutgers and Northwestern are dealing with significant contributors entering the portal.

I don’t think the Big Ten is going to carry the same reputation into 2021-22 as it did this year. Hopefully the conference will have a full nonconference slate to give teams a chance to find themselves and build up their metrics and their resumes (and perhaps wash away some of the shame from this year’s Tournament). With so much change in the Big Ten — and all across the country with more than 1,000 players in the portal already — the opportunity is there for Nebraska to make a push. Now it’s up to Fred Hoiberg and his crew to take advantage in year three.

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