This article is part of our March Madness series.
March used to be a banner month for the Big Ten. In the first two decades of this century, no league was better at maximizing its opportunities in the men’s NCAA Tournament. From 2000 to 2019, the Big Ten reached 16 Final Fours, most of any conference, and 48 Sweet 16s, two shy of the ACC’s 50 — despite the fact that the ACC earned 37 top-two seeds and the Big Ten totaled only 21. In the last year of that span, Michigan State crashed the Final Four in vintage Big Ten fashion: Coach Tom Izzo took issue with his team’s draw from the selection committee, and then the Spartans made the final weekend by upsetting a top-seeded Duke squad with three future top-10 NBA draft picks.
But all of a sudden, and almost all at once, the league’s heavyweights have started imploding on the sport’s biggest stage. Only two of the Big Ten’s nine NCAA Tournament teams — No. 11 seed Michigan and No. 3 seed Purdue — have advanced to this year’s Sweet 16. That’s more than the league could say last year, when only No. 1 seed Michigan made the second weekend out of the nine Big Ten teams in the tournament.
Considering the draws that Big Ten teams have been awarded, three Sweet 16 teams in two years amounts to a pitiful showing. Three top-two seeds failed to reach the second weekend last season, as No. 1 Illinois lost to No. 8 Loyola of Chicago, No. 2 Iowa fell to No. 7 Oregon and No. 2 Ohio State suffered the tournament’s biggest upset, against No. 15 Oral Roberts. In this year’s first weekend, the Big Ten’s regular-season co-champions (Wisconsin and Illinois) and conference tournament champion (Iowa) flamed out.1 Using the pre-tournament odds in FiveThirtyEight’s forecast model, the chance of Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa all failing to reach the Sweet 16 was less than 1 in 8 (12 percent).2
The Big Ten was already the subject of one long-standing, highly publicized NCAA Tournament drought: The league hasn’t won a national title on the men’s side since Michigan State did so in 2000. But other than that, the Big Ten had been thriving in the Big Dance. In Bart Torvik’s performance against seed expectation metric, from 2000 to 2019, the Big Ten had 24.1 more wins than would be expected based on the seeds its teams earned. That was almost double any other league: The SEC had 12.3 more wins than expected, the Horizon League had 10.3,3 and no other conference had more than 4.0.
When the NCAA Tournament returned in 2021 after the COVID-19 cancellation of 2020, each of the five Big Ten teams seeded eighth or better performed below expectations. In addition to Illinois, Ohio State and Iowa, Purdue lost as a No. 4 seed in the first round against North Texas. Michigan reached the Elite Eight but then lost to No. 11 seed UCLA, and Wisconsin, Maryland and Rutgers — seeded ninth, 10th and 10th, respectively — won their first-round games but advanced no further.
Depending on Purdue and Michigan’s fates, the league could finish below average again this year. Purdue has a 46 percent chance of reaching the Final Four in FiveThirtyEight’s model, buoyed by a fortunate draw against St. Peter’s, but only an 8 percent chance of ending the national title drought. Michigan has a 31 percent chance to advance past Villanova on Thursday and faces 1 percent odds of winning a championship.
In Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency ratings, the Big Ten has suffered no significant decline in overall quality: It’s the third-strongest league in the country this year, down from first in 2020 and 2021, but it finished fifth as recently as 2018.4 And the league has had teams finish in the top five in adjusted efficiency in three of the past five years.
So the cause of the Big Ten’s recent tournament flops is hard to discern. After all, conferences don’t lose games, teams do — for different reasons, and these games show high variability. Overall, the Big Ten is apparently suffering from some general underperformance and perhaps a bit of bad luck. In 33 NCAA Tournament games over the past two seasons, Big Ten teams have made 211 of 664 3-point attempts (31.8 percent). Based on those teams’ pre-NCAA Tournament shooting percentages, weighted for the number of attempts in each game, we would expect those teams to make 238 3-pointers, or about 0.8 more per game. We saw that play out last weekend: Wisconsin shot 2-for-22 (9.1 percent) against Iowa State after Iowa went 6-for-29 (20.7 percent) against Richmond.5
The Big Ten’s NCAA Tournament history is littered with overachievers: Going back to 1985, the Big Ten has placed 25 teams in the Final Four, second only to the ACC, but those teams have made it with an average seed of 2.8, compared to the ACC’s 2.0. From 2000 to 2019, 10 Big Ten teams beat their seed expectation by more than two wins, including six Tom Izzo teams. Only one fell short of seed expectation by the same margin6 — in part because the Big Ten had lagged behind most of its high-major peers in top-two seeds, which have to win more games than lower seeds to avoid underperformance.7 Last year, the conference received three top-two seeds, including two No. 1 seeds in the same tournament for the first time since 2001, and two (Illinois and Ohio State) promptly underperformed by at least two wins.
It’s too early to tell whether the Big Ten’s recent underperformance is a blip or a new trend. But if these results continue, perhaps a correction in the conference’s perception will be in order.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.