Together, only two short words make up the most chimerical phrase in the sport of college basketball: battle tested.
This description is applied to teams as they exit exceptionally competitive conferences and enter the NCAA tournament, as no one seems to have ever examined the sheer volume of evidence that suggests that “battle tested” most often translates to ” beaten down”.
When Connecticut emerged as the NCAA champion at the record-breaking Big East conference in 2011, which sent more of its members into March Madness than any league before or since, the fact that the Huskies were “Battle tested” has often been cited as a success reason.
So why did so many other Big East teams fail that year?
The same was true for North Carolina in 2017, when the Tar Heels won the championship and the ACC set their personal best with nine participants. They did very well. Every other team in the league was on fire, including No.2 seed Duke in that infamous game across the border in South Carolina against the Gamecocks.
And that’s true today of the Big Ten Conference and its nine NCAA record-breaking participants. The Big Ten can still produce the national champion. Illinois believes he has a chance, as does compatriot No.1 Michigan. But the league lost two top-four seeds within hours on the first day of the tournament, second-seeded Ohio State and fourth-seeded Purdue, both in the southern region.
The Buckeyes lost in overtime to Oral Roberts. Properly warned, the Boilermakers could not avoid the same situation, having had to rally to force OT against North Texas but having performed poorly once there.
And the truth is, we probably shouldn’t be that shocked.
Gonzaga is frequently criticized by Power Conference fans for earning leading NCAA tournament seeds while participating in a league that is not statistically powerful. And yet the Zags are the only Division I team to have made it through the last five Sweet 16s, including a trip to the championship game in 2017. The average Final Four squad over the past decade has come from a league that produced 4.5 NCAA tournament teams.
Over time, with the help of this Huskies Championship, what is remembered the most about the 2011 Big East is the huge amount of bids won by the league. What seems to be forgotten is that the rest of the league has gone up in flames. The unnamed UConn teams went 7-10 in the 2011 NCAAs. Of the five teams ranked in the top four rows, the Huskies were the only one to reach the Sweet 16. Marquette was the only other Sweet 16 participant in the league. Three teams lost to double-digit seeds.
It was not unusual. ACC received nine offers in consecutive years, 2017 and 2018, and its teams performed poorly or exceptionally.
In 2017, other than the Carolina Championship team, there were no other Sweet 16 participants. The other eight teams went 5-8. The following year, ACC champion Virginia became the first No.1 seed to lose to a 16 seed, and No.6 Miami lost to double-digit seed Loyola. Chicago. The league produced four Sweet 16 teams, but none made the Final Four. The ACC only managed a 10-9 record that year.
There was evidence of significant wear and tear among this Big Ten’s teams as the league moved forward into a season that once contained the possibility of a record 11 NCAA bidding. But Indiana has played 81% of its schedule against opponents from Quad 1 and Quad 2, and in the end, the harassed Hoosiers were losing seven of their last eight games and falling out of contention for an offer.
Minnesota beat Michigan to improve to 11-4 on Jan. 16, and was still 13-7 after three straight losses with a few wins. But the relentless schedule and a few major injuries have led to losses in eight of the Gophers’ last nine games and no chance of an NCAA bid.
Archie Miller of Indiana and Richard Pitino of Minnesota both lost their jobs.
Did they appear battle tested upon exiting the gate?
Or just tired?