By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Well, the Big Ten had its chance.
But like the Chicago Cubs – OK, OK, it’s not that bad – the league’s title drought carries on.
On Monday night, Louisville and Michigan waged an NCAA Championship battle that was as electrifying as any in recent memory, but in the end it was the Wolverines who eventually ran out of juice, losing 82-76 to the powerhouse Cardinals.
“A lot of the times, when you get to the championship, the game is not always great,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after his team had cut down the nets. “This was a great basketball game.”
Indeed it was. And its outcome allowed Louisville to bring the national title back to the Commonwealth of Kentucky, a state that now has two more championships in the past two years than the entire Big Ten Conference has over the past 13.
“This game hurts so much,” Michigan star Trey Burke said afterward. He was talking of course about the pain being felt inside Michigan’s locker room and around Ann Arbor, but the sting of Monday’s loss actually spread throughout most of the Big Ten.
That’s because Michigan’s 2013 tourney run marked the eighth time in the past 13 seasons that the Big Ten has had at least one team in the Final Four and the fourth time a conference member has reached the title game. But, just like every year since Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State whipped Florida 89-76 to win the 2000 championship, Jim Delany’s favorite league has come up short in the Big One.
This year inside the Georgia Dome, the nation’s best conference (the Big Ten) and best player (Burke) simply weren’t quite good enough to top the nation’s best team (Louisville).
And after an incredible 2012-13 campaign during which the Big Ten boasted two different No. 1 teams (Indiana, Michigan) and saw four others crack the Top 10 (including Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois and Minnesota), that was definitely a bummer.
Since UCLA’s reign of domination ended in 1975, the Big Ten’s number of seasons between national championships had been 3, 2, 6, 2 and 11. With so many formidable teams in the tournament this year, four of which reached the Sweet 16, this season appeared to be the perfect time for the Big Ten to finally snap its dry spell.
But a title will still have to wait.
But that hardly means the season was a total loss for the Big Ten, which spent the past five months reasserting itself as a major player on the national stage. Perhaps, even as the major player on the national stage considering the impending implosion of the Big East and the ACC’s and Pac-12’s current downswings.
As the Big Ten begins preparing to welcome two new schools – Maryland and Rutgers – into the league in 2014, the conference’s basketball coaching situation appears to be more stable than ever with Northwestern and Minnesota making new hires, and the scandal-plagued Scarlet Knights preparing to do so.
Beyond that, the Big Ten Network is thriving, talented prep stars continue to sign with conference teams, and after this banner season more of them surely will be on their way soon.
This morning in the Detroit Free-Press, columnist Mitch Albom wrote, “Yes, the Wolverines just lost the championship game. But think of what else they’ve just done. Before you can be champions, you have to be relevant. And for too many years, Michigan basketball wasn’t even relevant … Michigan is a first-rate school with first-rate facilities and a Final Four pedigree. Fans have every right to expect that standard from here on in.”
One could say pretty much the same thing about the Big Ten.
And while I don’t know exactly when, I do know that a national championship will be coming back to the conference. You can count on it.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.