The Big Ten has been one of the very best conferences in men’s college basketball for the last several years. This year, the conference has staked its claim as the best with nary an argument. Four Big Ten teams currently sit in the AP Poll top ten. They have members littered across the KenPom national rankings, with ten teams in the top 40.
While the Big Ten is experiencing an apex of their recent collective success, one final piece is missing. A conference member has not reached the proverbial mountain top since the turn of the century. Michigan State won the national championship in the year 2000, and the conference has not had a national champion since, the longest such drought in its history.
In the last 20 years, 14 Big Ten teams have reached the Final Four. During that span, the Big Ten has seen seven teams reach the national final. Every time, they have been left at the altar. Indiana (2002), Illinois (2005), Ohio State (2007), Michigan State (2009), Wisconsin (2015), and Michigan (2013 and 2018) all settled for the silver medal.
Of course, there are several Big Ten contenders this year. With apologies to Michigan State, Rutgers, Purdue, and Wisconsin, here is a look at the teams that could cap the conference’s banner season by hanging a championship banner.
The Buckeyes have actually lost four straight games, but three of those have been to other teams on this very list. The skid started when the Bucks dropped a classic to rival Michigan. More recently, they matched Illinois until faltering in the final minute. The Buckeyes have played one of the toughest schedules in the country and have proven they can hang with anyone. Their offense is unique, led by Duane Washington firing jumpers and E.J. Liddell owning the paint and midrange. Winning the turnover battle and playing solid defense will be the keys for Ohio State in March.
Ever since national player of the year candidate Luka Garza announced he was returning for this season, Hawkeye fans have been expecting their best year in over three decades. Iowa has largely delivered, having been ranked in the top 10 for most of the season. The Hawkeyes offense is lethal. Garza and his 23.8 points per game suck defenders into the paint, leaving any of Iowa’s myriad of sharpshooters open for 3. The Hawkeyes as a team shoot a dazzling 39.6% from three-point land. It is no secret that Iowa’s weakness is their defense, but if all goes according to plan they will outscore opponents all the way to the Final Four.
The Illini also welcomed enthralling news in the offseason when both guard Ayo Dosunmu and big Kofi Cockburn announced they were returning for this season. Both players have shown marked improvement and are enjoying fantastic All-American type seasons. Coach Brad Underwood has the Illini playing excellent team defense as well. The Illini have a complete team; a big man to get easy buckets, great guard play, and a star in Dosunmu to lead the way. It is easy to envision Illinois cutting down the nets in April.
Relying on a freshman and two transfers, Michigan has been the surprise of the 2021 college basketball season. In just his second year, Head Coach Juwan Howard has been masterful, finding the right roles for each of his players and getting the team to always play hard and together. The Wolverines have been very consistent as a team, but every game a different player could step up and be the star. Sometimes it is point guard Mike Smith, a transfer from Columbia who makes smart decisions and outside shots. Sometimes it is Franz Wagner, a versatile savant who may be even better than his brother Moritz. Recently, the Wolverines star has been freshman big man Hunter Dickinson, who is mature beyond his years and offers a deft old-school game of power and craft.
Illinois and Michigan have certainly earned their way into the national championship conversation with Gonzaga and Baylor.
With so much depth and elite teams at the top, the Big Ten hopes 2021 is the year they finally return to the top of the mountain.
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