Jim Delany has been the boss of the Big Ten since 1989, but the league’s longtime commissioner has never seen a men’s basketball season quite like this one.
Sure, there have been years during that span when the Big Ten champion had five losses. The last time was 2011-12, when Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan finished 13-5 and shared the regular-season title.
Purdue clinched the Big Ten title outright Thursday night with four conference losses. But preseason favorite Wisconsin suffered its sixth loss in the league Thursday, its fifth defeat in its past six games. Maryland was on top of the Big Ten midway through conference play, but the Terrapins collapsed with five losses in seven games before beating lowly Rutgers.
“It’s a very unique year,” Delany said. “I don’t remember one like this. We have some very good teams. The gap between the best and the least is the smallest gap I’ve seen. It’s close. ... No one is being predicted to be a Final Four team.”
Most conferences are judged by how strong they are at the top. Do they have a Final Four contender? Do they have a team that could win the national championship? No matter what the talent looked like for the rest of the league, the Big Ten typically had at least three teams that could compete with anyone.
Not this year. The top teams were lucky to beat the bottom-feeders in the Big Ten each night — and that killed the conference’s reputation nationally.
This season set a Big Ten record for overtime games with 17.
The Gophers, who played in five of those OT games, won eight games last season. But they’ve matched that win total with their current win streak alone. The NCAA’s biggest turnaround belongs to Richard Pitino’s team, with 23 wins and counting. They even had a shot at sharing the Big Ten championship going into this last week.
But in a sign of how bad the perception is of the Big Ten, the Gophers were left out of the Top 25 rankings Monday despite what at the time tied UCLA for the longest win streak (seven) among power conference teams.
The NCAA tournament selection committee set the stage for ignoring Big Ten teams when it left Wisconsin and Purdue, top-15 teams at the time, out of the first-ever early list of potential top 16 seeds in the field. The Badgers didn’t prove anyone wrong.
The Boilermakers, who only lost to Minnesota at home in league play, still might not get higher than a No. 4 NCAA seed after winning the Big Ten title. Indiana was arguably a more talented conference champion last year, but the Hoosiers only got a No. 4 seed.
So how can the Big Ten earn some respect back? That probably won’t happen until March Madness. We’ll see how many teams from the league even make the NCAA tournament. Seven are projected now. Illinois and Iowa are on the wrong side of the bubble — and unfortunately for them, winning in the Big Ten does not mean as much this year. But at least there were no boring games.
“We have lots and lots of competitive games,” Delany said. “It’s truly been a unique year and one that has been a lot of fun. I think the [Big Ten] tournament will be great in D.C.”
PLAYER TO WATCH
Nate Mason, G, Gophers
The junior is playing the best ball of his career at the right time. He is averaging 19 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists, while shooting 88.9 percent from the foul line in the past 10 games. The Gophers haven’t had a first-team All-Big Ten player since Vincent Grier in 2004-05. That drought could end this year.
game of the weekend
(17) Duke at (5) North Carolina
7:15 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: The Tar Heels are still on top of the ACC, but they lost some steam, falling to Virginia 53-43 on Monday in the lowest-scoring game during the 14-year tenure of Roy Williams. Now he must rally his team in the biggest rivalry. Duke defeated UNC 86-78 at home on Feb. 9.
Best one yet?
The Big Ten tournament was already going to be unique with the first trip to D.C. But the fact that there were so many close games this season makes it the most intriguing Big Ten tournament in years — maybe ever. You can’t count anyone out from making a run to the final, except maybe Rutgers.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
Marcus Fuller’s rankings, with five teams to watch:
1. Purdue (24-6, 13-4)
Outright champ: The Boilermakers outlasted Maryland and Wisconsin to win their first Big Ten title since 2010. They clinched the championship by winning seven of the past eight games, including six in a row.
2. Gophers (23-7, 11-6)
No respect: Minnesota and UCLA are the hottest teams among power conference programs, both with eight-game win streaks. UCLA is a possible No.1 NCAA seed, though. The Gophers feel disrespected being left out of Top 25.
3. Wisconsin (22-8, 11-6)
4. Maryland (23-7, 11-6)
Go Terps: Gophers fans will be rooting for the Terrapins to beat Michigan State on Saturday. That would secure at least a top-four seed and a double-bye for the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament, regardless of what the Gophers do at Wisconsin on Sunday.
5. Michigan St. (18-12, 10-7)
6. Northwestern (21-9, 10-7)
Play of the century: Northwestern fans will never forget Nathan Taphorn’s unbelievable full-court pass to Dererk Pardon for the buzzer-beating layup against Michigan. Even though the Wildcats were likely already in the Big Dance.
7. Michigan (19-11, 9-8)
8. Illinois (18-12, 8-9)
Do it for Coach: Did Illinois players realize that John Groce’s job was seriously in jeopardy? Sure seems that way with the Illini getting on the NCAA tourney bubble after winning five of six, including four in a row.
9. Iowa (17-13, 9-8)
10. Ohio State (17-13, 7-10)
11. Indiana (16-14, 6-11)
12. Penn State (14-16, 6-11)
13. Nebraska (12-17, 6-11)
14. Rutgers (13-17, 2-15)