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Big Ten Futility Ends This March — Take It To The Bank

Duke and North Carolina are finally out of the Big Ten’s way. This is it. Illinois and Michigan are going to be No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

So this is the year that one of the most amazing runs of failure in American sports is finally going to end. And if not, then it never will.

The Big Ten has failed in the NCAA Tournament for 20 years running. Or maybe that’s 20 years hulking, bruising, walking and tripping over their feet. Not one college basketball national championship since Michigan State in 2000.

I know it doesn’t sound exactly like the Chicago Cubs going more than 100 years before they finally won the World Series a few years ago. Or the Chicago White Sox going nearly that long. Or the Chicago Blackhawks going half a century. Come to think of it, the Chicago Bears haven’t won in 35 years. What’s with Chicago sports, anyway?

I digress. This isn’t about Chicago sports, unless you count the University of Illinois, which hasn’t won the college basketball national championship since. . .

Ever.

The Illini are going to win it this time. Take that to the bank. A little gambling advice: When you fill out your brackets Sunday after the NCAA Tournament field is selected, just start by putting Illinois on the championship line. Thank me later.

I’ve been saying that for weeks, before the Illini humiliated then No. 2 Michigan on the road without their best player. And then they got guard Ayo Dosunmu back. Dosunmu, who apparently had a broken face from a hard hit against Michigan State, came back Saturday at powerhouse Ohio State.

He wore a protective mask and looked like a superhero or the Incredibles or something. They won again. So they have maybe the best guard in the country, one of the best centers in Kofi Cockburn, some nasty physical defense.

National champion: Illinois.

Thank me later.

The Illini will be a No. 1 seed and so will Michigan. Ohio State might be a No. 2. Iowa will be up there. The Big Ten is loaded. And Duke will be in the NIT, the consolation tournament. And North Carolina? A non-factor.

This college basketball season has been defined by the failures of the sport’s bluebloods. The theory seems to be that these poor, troubled tradition-rich schools can land only 75 percent of the nation’s elite players for some reason now, and with COVID interruptions, they were only able to practice with that 75 percent less than usual.

I’m sorry, but boo hoo. They still have all the advantages over Illinois. And certainly they had advantages over No. 1 Gonzaga, who most people think will go undefeated and win the title this year.

But Duke and North Carolina have combined to win six of the 19 championships since the Big Ten won one.

It really has come down to those teams, and maybe Kentucky and Kansas, getting all the superstar high school kids. The winner in basketball tends to be the team with the most superstars. And as The Athletic pointed out a few weeks ago, since 2001, the Big Ten has landed only 38 McDonald’s All Americans. That’s only the fifth most of any conference. The ACC, led by Duke and Carolina, has landed 129.

First-round NBA picks since then? The ACC has produced 97. The Big Ten 48.

Sure, you can argue that the ACC is better and thus moves more players into the draft. But the thing is, college sports isn’t like the pros, where the worst team gets the first pick in the draft.

In a sport where the top high school kids really would rather just go to college for one year before going to the NBA, they need to look at the best place to spend that year. Where can you go to make your dreams happen in a hurry?

The ACC lands the McDonald’s All-Americans, wins national championships, gets the most attention and sends players to the NBA in the first round.

The Big Ten is known for plodding on the basketball court and then losing. 

That’s the genesis of the Big Ten’s embarrassing slump. Like I said, it’s not like the Cubs, who were awful for most of those 100-plus years and never had a chance.

The Big Ten keeps getting close, keeps having hopes, and then keeps failing. The conference has been to the national championship game seven times since Michigan State’s win, losing by more than 11 points a game. Wisconsin had Duke beat in 2015 before the Blue Devils scored 10 straight in the final four minutes. Illinois was getting crushed by North Carolina in 2005, came back and nearly won.

But now, Duke and North Carolina don’t matter. The Big Ten is loaded. The entire NCAA Tournament will be in Indiana, which is Big Ten country.

The Big Ten just has to get over the hump. The byproduct of a championship mixed with the bluebloods’ failure could change the future.

Eventually, the Cubs won, the White Sox won, the Blackhawks won, the Bears. . .well, let’s forget about them for a minute. This is it. Put your money on Illinois.

Thank me later.

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Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

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  1. Six game stretch, anything can happen. Illinois, Michigan, Iowa may have a say in the finals. Not buying it yet. There are 64 other teams that could get hot. Wait to put your money on anyone until you see what kind of draw they get. Gonzaga, and Baylor could have a big say in this as well. Thank me later.

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