The Big Ten has produced one NCAA tournament champion in the last 24 years, the lone crown going to Michigan State in 2000.
But as Ohio State coach Thad Matta pointed out Saturday, the league has had its share of title-worthy teams in that span, including a couple of recent vintage.
Illinois was undefeated in 2005 before losing in the tourney final. And the 2007 Buckeyes with Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook — all of whom would become first-round NBA picks that spring — ran into defending champion Florida and had to settle for a runner-up finish.
“Illinois had a phenomenal team. So did (champion) North Carolina,” Matta said. “You go back to ’07, and this is how my luck goes. We had one of the greatest teams in college basketball history. We just happened to be playing the team that won the national title the year before and had all five starters back.”
Asked if he believes this is the year for the Big Ten breakthrough, Matta said: “There’s a good chance. … I do think you’ve got great teams. Those teams — and I speak from experience — are battle-tested.”
Two will be on display in the NCAA third round at UD Arena today. OSU (27-7) will meet Iowa State (23-11) at 12:15 p.m., and Indiana (28-6) will face Temple (24-9) at 2:45 p.m. Both games will be on CBS-TV with the winners advancing to the Sweet 16.
The Buckeyes have been a popular Final Four pick since finishing the regular season with eight straight victories on their way to the Big Ten tourney title. But they weren’t held in such high esteem after losing at Wisconsin, 71-49, on Feb. 17 — their third defeat in four games.
When they returned to Columbus that night, the players figured they would drop off their bags and scurry home. But Matta had other ideas.
The Buckeyes had a two-hour team meeting, most of which was, in Matta’s words, a one-way conversation.
“There comes a time when it’s, ‘Let’s spell this out, the black and white of it, about who we are.’ That seemed like the perfect time to do it,” he said.
“It probably helped us in terms of heightening our awareness. We weren’t ready to play that day, so we had a lot of ammunition from film and from how we warmed up that day to kind of open our guys’ eyes (and say), ‘We’re not that good.’ “
During that four-game slump, the Buckeyes gave up an average of more than one point per possession, a rate more in line with what the Washington Generals might do against the Globetrotters. In five of their last six games, their PPP has been under 0.9.
“I think we’re more purpose-driven with guys being — and I use this term — connected. We’re covering for each other and more active and prideful in what we’re trying to get accomplished with defense,” Matta said.
The Big Ten is 8-1 in the NCAA tourney with Michigan and Michigan State advancing to the Sweet 16. The league showing is impressive, but Matta hasn’t exactly been keeping track. He has more pressing matters on his mind.
“We’re all representing one thing and one thing only, and that’s our university,” he said. “I want the Big Ten to do as well as it possibly can. Maybe at the spring meetings, we can all high-five each other because we had a great year. But I think for the most part it’s C.Y.O.A. (cover your own a—).”