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Why the Big Ten was not overrated this season despite March struggles

Let them gang up on the Big Ten. This was a historically-great conference this year.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines stand alone as the only team left in the NCAA Tournament to hail from the Big Ten. A conference that was widely considered the best in college hoops has a lone survivor of the nine schools that made it in.

This has resulted in countless headlines and debates on whether or not the conference is elite or simply a facade.

The Big Ten is not overrated.

We must look at March Madness as a whole before I support this claim, however.

The basketball world is run by the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament this time of year, as its viewership nearly quintuples the NBA on average during this span (8.5 million vs 1.8 million). The NBA is made up of the best basketball players in the world but during this period, it is in the shadow of a league filled with largely 18-to-22-year-old young men.

This begs the question, what allows this objectively less talented league to outperform these world-class athletes?

The argument of elite play or attachment to a school is fair, but these seem vastly insignificant in comparison to the two reasons that March Madness is so successful — parity and fortuitousness. A 40-minute single-elimination game favors itself to the lesser opponent, resulting in upsets being an occurrence that is miraculously both expected yet exhilarating.

Oral Roberts is nowhere near as good as Ohio State. Analytics and the eyeball test will back that up. Yet, when the Buckeyes shot 21 percent from the three-point line and only hit on half of their free throws, it is not a surprise that they lost to the Summit League Tournament Champions. Looking at the other three other teams in the Big Ten that were upset (Purdue, Illinois, and Iowa), each team shot below their season average from behind the arc, which of course makes their losses much less of a surprise.

Does this excuse their poor performance? Of course not. But it does vindicate the randomness within the sport.

The Big Ten is not elite because it is top-heavy. It has more to do with the depth of the next tier of teams. That is what made the 2020-21 season so unprecedented. It explains why the league went 6-2 in the first round, despite both the fourth-seeded Boilermakers and second-seeded buckeyes losing their opening game. Looking strictly at seeding — which isn’t always the best metric — the league overperformed in round one as Wisconsin, Maryland, and Rutgers all pulled off unanticipated victories.

The Big Ten experienced a similar trend in the 2019 tournament as the league went an incredible 7-1 in the first round before going 3-4 in the second. The league’s depth is both its biggest strength and largest weakness, as its consistent lack of top-tier teams is a large reason why a Big Ten team hasn’t won a National Championship since 2000.

The odds are stacked against the Big Ten to snap that drought this season. Michigan is the lone remaining team of the 16 in the field, so the math is not totally in their favor. The good news is that the regular-season champions were the best team in the conference this year, so not all hope is lost.

Whether or not you believe the Big Ten is overrated depends on how you want to move the goalposts. Judging conferences by their championship contenders at the top of the standings might be one way to do it. But the true quality of a league depends on how each team performs up and down the standings. More often than not, any Big Ten team could lose on a given night outside of a few bottom feeders at the low end of the standings.

The postseason can be arbitrary and random, and it is why we love this time of year. Snapping that championship drought would go a long way to gaining respect back for the league. Here is to hoping water finds its level sooner rather than later.