Breaking Down the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Big Ten in the First Round

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMarch 21, 2021

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) drives on Grand Canyon center Asbjorn Midtgaard during the first half of a first round NCAA college basketball tournament game Saturday, March 20, 2021, at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

After the first three days of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, a big lesson has been learned: College hoops' most powerful conference was actually vulnerable the whole time. 

The Big Ten sent a record nine teams to the Big Dance, and after the round of 64, only six remain. The other three were eliminated in dramatic fashion, two by scrappy mid-majors and one by a team that barely snuck into the tournament. We should have known the Big Ten wasn't quite as big as it was made out to be when Michigan State was relegated to a First Four game, but the Spartans were awarded an at-large bid after some good late-season wins over conference opponents. 

The Big Ten hasn't produced a champion in 21 years, last doing so with Tom Izzo leading the Spartans over Florida in Indianapolis, the same city the entirety of the tournament is taking place in this year. The league has sent seven teams to the championship game in that span, but those programs came up empty each time. 

The conference could still produce the national champion, but there might be an argument to be made for the way deep conferences grind teams down throughout the regular season and the league tournaments. Of course, the argument could also be made that playing in these conferences makes teams better and more prepared for the postseason. Both of these things can be true and probably are. 

Plus, this was also a strange year due to the pandemic, and the playing field was anything but equal with programs forced to shut down and postponed games unable to be rescheduled. 

Let's break down the good, the bad and the ugly heading into the round of 32. 


The Good: Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maryland, Rutgers

Illinois and Michigan were each top-seeded teams, and they played like it. No. 2 Iowa, a team that may also have had a case for a No. 1 seed, did the same, rolling over No. 15 Grand Canyon in the West Region.  

The Illini will get an intrastate matchup with No. 8 Loyola Chicago next. With 98 wins since 2017-18, the Ramblers have the most of any of the 13 NCAA Division I teams in the state of Illinois, so there are Midwestern bragging rights on the line in addition to a trip to the Sweet 16. 

The Wolverines easily dispatched No. 16 Texas Southern, one of the First Four winners, with an 82-66 victory on Saturday. Michigan shot 48.1 percent from the field and 34.6 percent from three using a balanced attack. A stifling defense held the Tigers to a single three-pointer in 12 attempts, and the bench held down the fort with starters in foul trouble. 

Head coach Roy Williams saw his 29-0 first-round record come to an end when the eighth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels were upended by No. 9 Wisconsin. Carolina has struggled all season. Inexperienced guards couldn't feed experienced forwards, and it was no different Friday. The program might be in need of a shakeup of some sort, but that's a different story for a different day. 

Robert Franklin/Associated Press

Senior guards Brad Davison and D'Mitrik Trice dropped 29 and 21 points, respectively, on the Tar Heels to get Wisconsin to the next round.  

No. 10 Maryland rolled over a seventh-seeded UConn squad that has been inconsistent all year on Saturday afternoon. The Huskies expended significant energy to try to contain a Terrapins team that shot 51.2 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from beyond the arc. Eric Ayala scored 23 points, including 14 in the first half, while Aaron Wiggins and Donta Scott supported his efforts with 14-point and 12-point performances, respectively. UConn just couldn't match Maryland's stifling defensive effort. 

The most emotional win for the Big Ten came Friday night when No. 10 Rutgers earned its first NCAA tournament win in 38 years, eliminating No. 7 Clemson in the Midwest Region. The upstart Scarlet Knights were poised to make a run a year ago but didn't have a chance to show what they could do.

Here's what we know they can do now: They can crash the glass and defend. They have an experienced team with clear chemistry and a lot of determination.  

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

They also take action beyond the basketball court. 

Senior guard Geo Baker spent the week trying to raise awareness for NCAA reform. On Wednesday, he started the hashtag #NotNCAAProperty, and it spread like wildfire. Baker, as well as other Big Ten players like Michigan's Isaiah Livers and Iowa's Jordan Bohannon, all advocated for changes to name, image and likeness rules. This win further amplifies Baker's voice and his platform. It also further amplifies the Scarlet Knights program.

"We had to fight back this year and prove it again. Our guys did," coach Steve Pikiell said on his postgame Zoom press conference. "I know they weren't happy and satisfied just being here. I know they want to keep playing. They kind of took that approach. Again, great week of practice, great energy before the game. Even at halftime when we were down, they stayed the course, got rewarded. I'm excited for them. And they're excited. It's a resilient group."

But it doesn't get any less challenging for Rutgers nor Maryland. The path to the Final Four isn't easy for any of these Big Ten teams, but these two squads now face the second-seeded teams in each of their regions. 

The Terps might have knocked off an inconsistent team, but they've been inconsistent all season as well. They had their best game at the best time, but now they have to repeat those good things when they face Alabama, a heavy favorite for the Final Four. 

The Bad: Purdue

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The Boilermakers had the advantage of playing in their home region. But on the biggest stage of arguably the biggest basketball state, No. 4 Purdue went to overtime against No. 13 North Texas and then fell flat. The Mean Green advanced with their first-ever NCAA tournament win, and North Texas deserves credit, especially for nearly eliminating the post for the Boilermakers. But a Big Ten team is expected to have the strength to be able to penetrate.

Coach Matt Painter said it was nothing the team hadn't seen before. They have faced opponents that loaded up the paint and been able to adjust, but the Boilermakers made bad decisions and bad passes that proved costly in the end. They turned the ball over 11 times and let North Texas shoot all over them. 

"I think they emphasized it a little bit more and beat us from that area, more from the perimeter than maybe other people do," Painter said. "But I thought it was nothing a whole lot different than anybody else has done, like I said. I just thought they did it a little bit more and just held in there a little bit more to make those guys more decision-makers and passers instead of scorers."


The Ugly: Ohio State, Michigan State

The ugliest loss in the Big Ten wasn't No. 2 Ohio State's going down to Oral Roberts, a tiny school in Tulsa that had not won an NCAA tournament game since 1974. It was a few fans that took the L for cyberbullying. 

One day after the Buckeyes were eliminated, forward E.J. Liddell posted screenshots of some extremely disturbing messages (Warning: NSFW language) he received from Ohio State fans. One fan said he wanted to kill Liddell. Another said he was a "disgrace" for missing a one-and-one with a chance to win the game, and that Ohio State "hates" him. 

Liddell expressed frustration with the messages, saying he's only human, and received an onslaught of support. At the end of the day, it's just a game. No one deserves messages like that for any reason, let alone a basketball game. 

Robert Franklin/Associated Press

As for Michigan State, the Spartans played ugly all season. And UCLA, the team that eliminated them in a play-in game, might be better than we gave them credit for. But the ugliest part of this loss was what happened at halftime. 

Tom Izzo and forward Gabe Brown were caught in a heated altercation as the Spartans headed toward the locker room. Brown showed visible frustration at the buzzer, directing his ire toward teammate Malik Hall after his inability to defend a pick-and-roll led to an open jumper just before time expired. Izzo intervened, and Brown directed his anger at his coach.

At one point, cameras caught Izzo grabbing Brown by the arm and speaking angrily to him in the tunnel. It was a bad end to a forgettable season. 

Joshua Langford said the game was his last for Michigan State, with the fifth-year senior opting against pursuing a sixth year of eligibility for the Spartans. Forward Aaron Henry might have also played his last game in green. He checked out his NBA options last year, so he has a big decision to make in the coming months. 

This wasn't exactly the dominant start to the tournament many projected for the Big Ten, but part of the fun of March Madness is the upsets. The Cinderellas have made their presence known, with four teams seeded 13th or lower advancing past the first round.

The Big Ten might have been the deepest college basketball conference this season, but even the best conferences aren't immune to the madness of one of the most unpredictable tournaments in sports.