CHICAGO — All season, the Big Ten proclaimed itself the best conference in the country.
They had the analytics, talents and wins to back up the claim. There’s no denying the conference was stacked like maybe never before.
Consequently, the Big Ten earned the most NCAA Tournament bids of any conference ever with nine, two more than any other conference. The Big Ten earned two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds.
Out of the top 16 seeds, five belonged to Big Ten teams.
Watch out, inferior SEC. Out of the way, anonymous Pac-12. Get ready to be steamrolled, midmajors.
Eight of the nine Big Ten teams failed to win more than one tournament game.
Only top-seeded Michigan survived and will play in the Sweet 16. The Wolverines held off No. 8 seed LSU, 86-78, on Monday night to carry the Big Ten torch. It’s on them alone to break the Big Ten’s 21-year drought without a national championship.
So how did this unexpected meltdown happened?
The Big Ten earned 13% of tournament bids. And yet 88.9% of conference teams couldn’t even advance into the second week of games.
Were they overrated all season? Did eight of them simply underperform?
Were they worn down from a 20-round boxing match that was the Big Ten season? Are other conferences underrated?
Maybe a little of all of that?
“This league is great,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell told reporters. “It was great all year. We beat each other up. Maybe that factored into this tournament.”
“When you get nine bids, it says a lot about the conference.”
Of course, you also have to win when you get in.
The Big Ten’s first three tournament bounces were in overtime.
No. 11 seed Michigan State’s overtime loss to No. 11 seed UCLA in a First Four game wouldn’t have been especially stunning except the Spartans blew a 14-point lead.
Friday’s games delivered more eyebrow-raising losses. No. 2 seed Ohio State fell to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, and No. 4 seed Purdue was upset by No. 13 North Texas.
Sunday delivered a bombshell to the Big Ten when No. 8 seed Loyola knocked off No. 1 seed Illinois, controlling the game from start to finish. In other games, No. 9 seed Wisconsin was ousted by No. 1 seed Baylor — as expected — and No. 2 seed Houston eliminated No. 10 seed Rutgers.
On Monday, No. 10 seed Maryland was blown out by No. 2 seed Alabama. And seeing No. 2 Iowa fold against No. 8 Oregon was a shock, in which the Hawkeyes failed to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood stressed the team’s accomplishments after losing to Loyola, citing the Big Ten Tournament title.
“You can’t lose sight of the Big Ten championship,” he said. “You can’t lose sight of the 19 games we won against Big Ten opponents.”
But now, Michigan stands alone.
Of course, Big Ten teams aren’t alone in falling victim to March Madness.
The total seed count (94) in the Sweet 16 amounts to the highest number in tournament history.
In tournament “bizzaro world,” four Pac-12 teams are alive and looking impressive with a 9-1 total record.
A strange year, playing amid COVID-19 constrictions, has been followed by an unexpected tournament.
Big Ten coaches weren’t lying when they boasted of a talented conference. Metrics weren’t miscalculating. But regular-season talent didn’t translate where it mattered most.
Big Ten coaches and players will probably be more careful about trumpeting their qualifications during future regular seasons.