Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he can't explain why the Big Ten has won only one NCAA title since 1989.
ROSEMONT, Ill. (WDRB) – I intended to give Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo the business about the Big Ten's puzzling record-winning NCAA championships.
You know. One net-cutting ceremony since 2000. That title was delivered by the Spartans with Mateen Cleaves and Mo Peterson in Indianapolis. Ask your great-grandfather to tell you about Cleaves and Peterson. I imagine Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle have never heard of them.
In the following 13 seasons, the ACC has won five national titles, the Big East four, the SEC three and the Big 12 one.
The Big Ten has been blanked. With unshakable confidence, the league still considers itself the best college league on the planet. It's not as crazy as it sounds. Superb players. First-tier coaches. Monstrous crowds.
Izzo was ready for my question. In fact, Izzo was so prepared that he convinced me that the situation is even more bizarre than I imagined.
"I heard today we were the only one (to win it all) in 24 years," he said. "Is that true?"
Yes, actually it is. The last Big Ten school to deliver before the Spartans was Michigan in 1989. Rumeal somebody (Robinson). Pre-Fab Five.
Michigan was beaten in the title game by Louisville last season. Michigan State stumbled against North Carolina in 2009. It's been a team effort. Ohio State, Illinois and Indiana have all been beaten in the final game since 2002.
Rational thinking does not always apply to what happens in March and April. Michigan was seeded fifth in the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines failed to make the final four of the league event and then made the final two of the national tournament. Explain that.
"When you get in the tournament, it's whoever's on fire," Michigan State forward Adreian Payne said. "You can get lucky in the tournament. If you get lucky and you get hot, you're going to be rolling."
"I can't explain that," Izzo said. "That's a good question that I don't have a great answer for.
"I think it's fair, why aren't you (winning titles)? But I don't think it defines us. If we didn't have a lot of teams getting to the Final Four I think that's almost more of an issue.
"If we had two more national championships and a bunch less Final Fours, I don't think it would be as good."
How good is the league supposed to be this year? Speaking at the league's media day in suburban Chicago Thursday several Big Ten coaches were prepared to argue that it will be better than last season when seven teams made the NCAA Tournament.
National observers are not as convinced. Four Big Ten teams – Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin – were ranked in the preseason Associated Press college basketball Top 25, which was also released Thursday. The Atlantic Coast Conference, freshly reinforced with three new teams, had five in the Top 25.
"This league is the best league in the country because top-to-bottom, it's a dogfight every night," said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers. "You have the best coaches in the country. You have incredible players, incredible depth. Attendance-wise, ratings-wise, there's nobody better with the tradition and the history this league has."
The Spartans, Buckeyes and Wolverines are all considered teams that can pursue the national title. ESPN analyst Dan Dakich said he has watched the Wolverines practice and play an exhibition game. He said Michigan has every necessary piece. (Full disclosure: Dakich's son, Andrew, is a freshman walk-on at Michigan.)
Michigan State has Gary Harris, the league's best player, as well as three other starters and a formidable bench. The Spartans have heard that people do not believe they are as talented as Kentucky, the team they play here in the United Center on Nov. 12. That game will be an early national measuring stick.
"They have eight McDonald's all-Americans," said Payne. "What do we have? Two?"
Ohio State attacks and mostly defends with the game's most complete point guard in Aaron Craft. Wisconsin is Wisconsin – deep, disciplined and determined. Iowa returns with every essential piece. Do not sleep on Iowa. The Hawkeyes will make the NCAA Tournament.
Purdue is motivated by missing the NCAA Tournament. Indiana is motivated because the world says there is no way the Hoosiers can replace Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller and two other 1,000-point scorers.
"We know people don't expect much from us," said Jeremy Hollowell, the team's sophomore forward. "It's up to us to prove them wrong."
And it's up to the Big Ten to prove that the league can produce another national champion.