This year was supposed to be different.

The Big Ten had half of the No. 1 seeds. Beyond that, it had 4 of the top 8 teams overall in the tournament, which was a record for any conference. Beyond even that, the Big Ten had a nation’s best 9 total teams dancing in March, which no other conference had more than since the Big East had 11 teams crack the field in 2011.

This was supposed to be the year in which the Big Ten won its first national title since 2000. It was supposed to be the flex it had been waiting for in one of the two big revenue sports.

Before the Big Ten could even think about flexing, though, it cramped up.

Just 2 games into the Round of 32, the Big Ten had 5 of its teams eliminated (Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin). It was how the losses happened that stood out. Nobody expected Wisconsin to beat Baylor in the Round of 32, and as much as Tom Izzo’s squad always sparks March believers, the Spartans bowing out early wasn’t an earth-shattering development.

What was an earth-shattering development? For starters, Ohio State becoming the 9th 2-seed to ever lose an NCAA Tournament game to a 15-seed wasn’t the best look. Had that been a one-off, the narrative going into the Round of 32 still would’ve favored the conference who dominated the top of the standings.

Nope. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

Purdue’s late-season surge was spoiled by 13-seed North Texas in overtime on Night 1. Had the league even suffered just those losses, the masses probably would’ve avoided making it the butt of the NCAA Tournament jokes.

Then Illinois happened. Or rather, Loyola happened.

(Let’s agree that Loyola should no longer need the “Chicago” association attached to it.)

Loyola, AKA the team who the Fighting Illini ducked for the last 3 years, took down the Big Ten’s top team. Like, the 1-seed who beat 4 top-10 teams in a 2-week stretch en route to a Big Ten Conference Tournament title. Like, the squad who had perhaps the best chance of any non-Gonzaga team to cut down the nets. Like, the conference champs who had the all-world duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn that was built to dominate in March.

It’s never a good look when the league who declares itself the best in the country has 3 of its top 5 teams miss a ticket to the second weekend (they all lost to 8-seeds or worse). The coach of one of those teams, Matt Painter, still tried to flex for the league (note that this quote was before the Illinois loss).

“We had a great year this year as a conference,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday night after the Boilermakers’ 78-69 loss to North Texas (via The Associated Press). “From one to 14, it was obviously the best conference. Obviously when you do that and get the most teams in, and then you have some really close losses, people want to push back and say, ‘Well, you didn’t maybe have quite the year that you thought.’ No, we had as great a year as a conference. You’re one point away in three different games from winning, and you don’t win.”

Painter isn’t really wrong. And while his comments came before Sister Jean’s Ramblers shocked the world (again), that 1 game didn’t make Illinois a fraud. It ran into a perhaps under-seeded Loyola team who was unquestionably better than the Illini for 40 minutes. Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State lost overtime games to teams who showed they were plenty worthy of making it to the NCAA Tournament. Any other time of year, that’s just another ho-hum loss.

But it’s not any other time of year. It’s March. And when you’re the conference who can’t win the big one, that counts triple.

This is the league who lost in 7 national championships since Michigan State was the last Big Ten team to win it all with the Flintstones in 2000.

  • 2002: Indiana loses to Maryland (then in the ACC)
  • 2005: Illinois loses to UNC
  • 2007: Ohio State loses to Florida
  • 2009: Michigan State loses to UNC
  • 2013: Michigan loses to Louisville
  • 2015: Wisconsin loses to Duke
  • 2018: Michigan loses to Villanova

(The ACC has 8 national titles in that stretch.)

Sure, some of those teams like 2007 Ohio State with Greg Oden and Mike Conley were up against dynasties. That 2009 Michigan State squad and 2018 Michigan probably both fell into that camp. It’s still baffling, though.

The question coming into March was whether the league could end that drought, and what an opportunity it would be with the ACC in the midst of an atypically down year with its traditional powers. At this time last week when Illinois was in the midst of its coronation in Indianapolis, there was a “Big Ten vs. the field” argument to be made. Now, however, it’d be lucky just to get a team to the Final Four.

One of these 4 teams would have to get that job done:

  • No. 1 Michigan
  • No. 2 Iowa
  • No. 10 Maryland
  • No. 10 Rutgers

Is it possible that it happens? Sure, though Michigan without Isaiah Livers doesn’t bode as well as it could’ve, and Iowa is in the same region as undefeated Gonzaga.

Add it all up, and it’s hard to spin this tournament as anything but a colossal disappointment for the Big Ten. Meanwhile, other leagues like the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 set themselves up well to flex late into March.

Well, not Texas. Texas once again set itself up for yet another team/the entire internet to throw up the “horns down.”

In a way, the Big Ten experienced what the SEC often does during bowl season. Illinois losing to Loyola was Auburn losing to UCF in the Peach Bowl.

Check that. In a way, Illinois’ loss is worse. Beyond the fact that it’s the smaller in-state school who did the damage, Illinois was supposed to the the league’s best team. Auburn was the SEC’s third-best team when it got beat by UCF. It wasn’t like Auburn still had a realistic path to the national championship. Illinois did.

Everything was supposed to be set up for the league. The regular-season dominance, legit title contenders, the lack of blue bloods in the field, etc. Shoot, they even got a head start on the host city Indianapolis by virtue of having the Big Ten Tournament there.

But instead, the Big Ten did what it’s done far too often. It got to the big stage and it let someone else shine.

Perhaps this will be a bit of an afterthought in a couple weeks thanks to Michigan or Iowa. It certainly doesn’t feel like it, though.

It seems like another golden opportunity wasted in March.