COLUMN: Big Ten should re-evaluate conference tournament schedule as March woes continue
COLUMBUS — Ohio State surged into the Big Dance in 2021 thanks to a Big Ten Tournament run — all the way to the title game, where it lost to Illinois in overtime. Both the Buckeyes and league champion Illini were bounced from the NCAA Tournament by the end of the first weekend.
Fast forward a year. Purdue and Iowa both made the Big Ten Tournament title game, riding momentum into March Madness — only to both be embarrassed by much lower seeds in the tournament.
Sensing a trend? Purdue certainly did Friday night, when it made the ugliest top-seeded no-no in tournament history, losing to a Fairleigh Dickinson team that didn’t even win its league and was regarded as the worst team to make the tournament. The Boilermakers shot 36 percent from the floor and 19 percent from 3. Blame poor performance. Or just blame the Big Ten for tiring out its best team for the third straight year.
Common thread: all five of these teams were hot in March, playing at least three straight days all the way until Sunday of Conference Championship Week — then turning around and traveling for the NCAA Tournament on shorter rest than most teams across the country with Final Four aspirations.
The Big Ten needs to move its conference tournament up a day. Get it away from Selection Sunday. Give its best teams an extra day of rest. Stop setting itself up for becoming the annual laughingstock league of March Madness.
It’s not entirely on the Big Ten. And to be clear, I get it: CBS calls the shots and places the Big Ten Tournament final on Sunday afternoon every year. But as the early-round losses keep piling up, the league office needs to ask itself: Is that worth being the annual dancefloor for mid-majors to dance on during the first week of the tournament every year?
The answer should be no.
It’s not making an excuse for a Purdue team that built its roster around a 7-foot-4 giant in the paint — and then couldn’t find ways to best use him late Friday night. Or an Ohio State team that was a streaky, vulnerable No. 2 seed in 2021 far before it took the floor against Oral Roberts. Or an Iowa program that has always been an annual March choke-artist under long-time head coach Fran McCaffery.
But it certainly doesn’t help that while the Big 12, ACC, Big East and other top leagues wrap up conference title duties a day before Selection Sunday, the Big Ten insists on playing right up until the bracket reveal, making its best teams enter the Big Dance on one fewer day of rest than the other big boys. The conference needs to notice this — and correct it.
As does the Atlantic 10. That league’s champion, VCU, went down in the first round to a St. Mary’s team that had 10 days off, while the Rams had four.
As does the American Athletic Conference, which made Houston and Memphis duke it out last Sunday afternoon, only to watch Memphis fall in the first round of the dance and Houston tread water as a No. 1 seed that is banged up at nearly every position on the floor. The Cougars have gone from title favorite to upset alert due to their injuries — and because Saturday, they’ll be playing their fifth game in nine days.
The Big Ten isn’t complete on the sideline watching the Big Dance from afar yet, as Penn State — league tournament runner-up — will take on No. 2 seed Texas on Saturday after getting hot last weekend. Maryland will have a chance to shock top overall seed Alabama on Saturday, too. Michigan State, Northwestern and Indiana are still alive, as well. The league can still make noise into the second weekend.
But the league’s regular-season and tournament champion? It’s out after an all-time upset. That’s a fate that is plaguing teams who make it to the final day Big Ten Tournament far too often in the last three years.
For a conference that prides itself about the prestige of its basketball, the Big Ten needs to be better in March. It needs to get back in the Final Four for the first time since 2019 and win a national title for the first time in more than 20 years.
And it needs to stop tiring out its best teams on Selection Sunday.
If it doesn’t, expect more of what Ohio State and Illinois suffered in 2021. And what Purdue and Iowa did in 2022. And what the Boilermakers had again Friday night.