Tourney Time is Almost Here – Will the Big Ten’s Title Drought End?

March is almost here, and with it brings one of the best times of the sports calendar. Yes, the hype and hysteria that is a month full of basketball – starting with the conference tournaments, the bracket reveal on Selection Sunday, and then the wall-to-wall hoops that will consume our lives for that wonderful first weekend of the tournament – it’s almost here, and like many of you, I’m eager to get things started and see where we end up when all is said and done and the nets are cut down in Phoenix. 

One of the big questions this year for fans of the Big Ten is one that hasn’t gone away over the last decade-plus of tournament play: when will the conference finally, (emphasis on finally), break its long drought of not winning a national championship? 

Going into this year, the 1999-2000 Michigan State team featuring Morris Peterson, Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell, et al, that bested Florida at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis was the last from the conference to reach the mountaintop of College Basketball. Many others have come close – Indiana in 2002, Illinois in 2005, Ohio State in 2007, Wisconsin in 2015 and Michigan in 2018, just to name a few. All of those teams were runners up, but never were able to get the job done. 

So, can someone end the drought this year? Ultimately, most people will look at Purdue as the possible streak buster – but will probably do so cautiously after seeing Matt Painter’s team get ousted by a 16-seed in Fairleigh Dickinson last season, one year after falling to the 15-seed St. Peter’s in the Sweet 16. 

While it’s clear to me, and to many of the other folks who watch college hoops that Purdue, Houston and UConn have largely separated themselves from the rest of the pack at this point in time, it’s hard to ignore the bad moments in tournament history for the Boilers. (Hey, if history does repeat itself, maybe Purdue will indeed win this year’s title. Virginia did the same in 2019 after losing to a 16 seed the year prior. Just sayin’). 

Beyond Purdue, I think the Big Ten has a few good teams that can make noise in this year’s tournament, but I’m not 100% sold on teams like Illinois or Wisconsin to contend with the very best in college hoops when all is said and done. 

As of this writing, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has six teams from the Big Ten making the NCAA Tournament field. The “bracket guru” says Purdue is the top-overall seed in the tourney, with Illinois as a four, Wisconsin as a five, and Northwestern, Nebraska and Michigan State as nine-seeds. A respectable number of teams in the field, but the chances of multiple teams making a deep run are limited, in my opinion. 

The oddsmakers back up the notion that Purdue is the standard-bearer for the Big Ten in this year’s tournament. Glancing at some of the NCAA championship futures, DraftKings lists both Purdue and Houston as having the second-shortest odds to win the title at +750. UConn has the shortest at +500. Illinois is the next closest Big Ten team at +3,500, Wisconsin and Michigan State both come in at +5,500. 

All things considered, it’s Purdue or bust for the Big Ten to break their long streak without a championship. If the Boilermakers can’t do it, it will be another offseason of asking – who and when for fans of the league when it comes to the next champion. 

Spencer Wagen is the host of “Spencer on Sports”, weekdays from 4-6 PM on 1600 ESPN. You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @SWOnTheRadio