I believe college basketball teams at the highest level are judged on one thing and one thing only — how they fare in the NCAA Tournament.
If you agree with me on that, then you’ll probably agree with most of what you’re about to read.
If you disagree with my basic premise — and believe that regular-season success should be heavily weighed — then we will, as they say, have to agree to disagree.
I don’t give a damn, really, what my team does in the regular season.
I’m a lifelong Syracuse fan, as anybody who knows anything about me already understands. If Syracuse goes 30-5 and finishes in the top 10 during the regular season but loses in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, I would consider that a HUGE disappointment.
Yes, there would be good memories from a good regular season. But as I mentioned before — for better or worse — I judge my team on the NCAA Tournament.
As a national power that’s used to getting to the Sweet 16 and an occasional Final Four, my expectations for Syracuse always have and I hope always will be extremely high. This year’s team had a ho-hum regular season, but there will be another banner hanging in the Carrier Dome as the Orange have reached the Sweet 16 for the 16th time since I became a fan in 1985.
There’s one key word I’m talking about here — expectations.
If you’re a Penn State basketball fan, you basically have zero expectations. Basketball is merely what gets you through the winter, and if the Nittany Lions are at least somewhat decent and reach one NCAA tourney a decade, that’s about all most people expect.
But if you’re a fan of a major program that has great tradition and, you know, actually cares about succeeding in men’s basketball, then I can only assume and would hope that your expectations are very, very different. Like me, a strong regular season is nice, but it’s essentially meaningless if you flame out in the tournament.
Speaking of flaming out in the tournament, that is exactly what the Big Ten did this year. The league — which pounds its chest all season long with claims that it’s the best conference in the country — embarrassed itself over the past four days.
Nine Big Ten teams made the tourney. Only one reached the Sweet 16 — Michigan, a 1 seed.
Ohio State, as a 2 seed, lost to 15 seed Oral Roberts. It was the ninth time a 15 has beaten a 2, and it was a disastrous end to the season for a Buckeyes team that was smoking hot a month ago as it climbed all the way to No. 4 in the rankings.
Illinois was the first No. 1 seed to lose, falling in the second round to an outstanding and underseeded Loyola-Chicago squad (the Ramblers are an 8 seed). The Illini have two of the 10 best players in the country and two first-round guys who will make tons of money in the NBA in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, but they couldn’t handle for Cameron “Officer Farva” Krutwig and coach Porter Moser.
Iowa (2) lost to Oregon (7) in the second round.
Purdue (4) lost to North Texas (13) in the first round.
Wisconsin (9) clobbered North Carolina (8) before losing to Baylor (1) in the second round. No shame at all here.
Rutgers (10) won its first tournament game since Ronald Reagan was in office (1983) by defeating Clemson (7) in the first round, then had a nice showing in a 63-60 loss to Houston (2).
Maryland (10) beat UConn (7) before getting destroyed by Alabama (2), 96-77.
Michigan State (11) lost a First Four game to UCLA (11) in OT, 86-80.
If you’re keeping track, four Big Ten teams lost to lower seeds, one lost to an equal seed, and three lost to higher seeds.
Add it all up, and you have to come to one conclusion. The Big Ten was a B1G Fraud this season.
Yes, no doubt, the league is tough. It’s an incredible grind. Any team can beat any other team on a given night.
So, absolutely, it might be the toughest conference in the country in that respect.
But toughest does not mean best.
Toughest means most even.
Best means, when all the chips are on the table, who is going to win?
The Big Ten’s terrible performance in this tournament proves, without a doubt, that it was the most overrated conference in the history of college basketball this season.
If you think that’s going too far, consider this: Penn State was given credit for playing the toughest schedule EVER during the KenPom era, and most of that was due to simply playing its Big Ten schedule. (Yes, the Lions also played Virginia Tech, VCU and Seton Hall also, but the Big Ten slate shaped the metric.)
Again, there is no doubt that playing all of these Big Ten opponents on a nightly basis is difficult on all the teams. The league cannibalizes itself because everyone beats up on each other all season.
But again, if you agree with my basic premise that college basketball teams at the highest level are judged on the tournament more than anything else, then you have to shake your head and be highly critical of the Big Ten.
College basketball fans and media often spend the entire season poking fun at the Pac 12, but that league has gotten the last laugh this postseason. It has gone 9-1 in the tournament and has four teams in the Sweet 16: Oregon State (12), UCLA (11), Oregon (7), USC (6).
Are those four teams better than the four best teams in the Big Ten? At first glance, you may think not. But Oregon clobbered Iowa by 15, and UCLA beat Michigan State in head-to-head conference battles. USC humiliated Big 12 runner-up Kansas by 34.
Then there’s Oregon State. The Beavers didn’t have a good regular season, going 14-12, but took three straight to win the Pac 12 Tournament and have won their first two in the NCAA tourney. They beat a solid Big 12 team, Oklahoma State (4) and considered underseeded, to reach the Sweet 16.
Oregon State is a classic example of how the regular season doesn’t matter at all sometimes, because you can make a lifetime of memories by getting hot at the right time in the tournament. They’ll be hanging a Sweet 16 banner in Corvallis, and that banner will be more meaningful than any banner Illinois will hang this season.
As many people know, the Big Ten has not had a team win a national title since Michigan State all the way back in 2000. Michigan has a shot this year, but it’s highly doubtful with second-leading scorer Isaiah Livers out injured.
This league has a problem when it comes to March, and some of it HAS to be that the teams beat each other up so much throughout the regular season that they don’t have as much left in the tank come tourney time.
The style of play in the Big Ten also is a major factor. It’s a rugged league where big men still matter, while advancing deep into the tournament, as everyone knows, usually comes down to outstanding guard play.
I just hope this tournament serves as a reminder going forward that college basketball pundits shouldn’t be so quick to heap so much praise on the Big Ten for how much better the league is than all other conferences.
Sure, playing Big Ten competition night in and night out is tough. But winning NCAA Tournament games is even tougher, and those wins during this month matter a hell of a lot more than pounding your chest talking about how good you are for the past few months.