MINNEAPOLIS — That’s Tom Izzo at the Final Four microphone. Nah, not this week’s Tom Izzo. The younger one, on April 3, 2000 in Indianapolis’ Hoosier Dome. Michigan State has just made him a national championship coach.
He’s calling his new stature a “responsibility, because I think that’s what it is. I hope I’m prepared to handle that responsibility.”
The next day, the Big Ten’s Great Drought began.
Here we are 19 years later, and there has been no end to it. Longest dry spell in conference history. That’s 18 tournaments, and no Big Ten champion. Thirteen conference teams in the Final Four, seven in the title game from six different schools, and no champion. Outstanding teams, great players, legendary coaches, unsurpassed attendance — and still no champion.
Actually, there’s more. The Spartans’ 2000 title is the only one for the Big Ten in 29 years. During that period, the ACC has won 10, the Big East seven, the SEC six. The Big Ten has won precisely as many national championships since 1990 as the Big West. It has endured a lot of could’ves and would’ves, and maybe a couple of should’ves.
Is relief in sight? Michigan State, the Big Ten turns its lonely eyes to you this weekend.
“I’m a Big Ten guy,” Izzo said Thursday. “If we could carry the mantle for our league and end that drought, I’d be double excited.”
Not that it’s high on his team’s motivation list in Minneapolis. These Spartans don’t even know about the streak. Nineteen years?
“Are you serious?” said Xavier Tillman.
“Really?” asked Cassius Winston.
Really. Thus informed, Winston decided it’d be nice to do something about it.
“Especially since it involves winning a championship. That’s the reason we came here. We didn’t come here to enjoy the Final Four.”
To set the stage for Michigan State’s attempt to be a dry spell-breaker, we should review this trail of Big Ten almost-but-not-quites, with a few words from each of seven championship games that got away.
2002 — No. 5 seed Indiana, barely 18 months after its messy divorce with Bob Knight, upsets Duke in the Sweet 16 and ends up as something of a surprise guest in the title game against Maryland. The Terrapins take control the second half and win 64-52.
Coach Mike Davis: “I thank God for this opportunity, because who would have thought Indiana would be playing for a national championship? We had a chance tonight, but Maryland is a much better basketball team than we are.”
2005 — No. 1 ranked and 37-1 Illinois faces No. 2 North Carolina for the title, the last 1 vs. 2 championship game. The Illini are down 13 at halftime, storm back to tie, but lose 75-70 in the last minutes. Illinois could not withstand 26 points from Sean May, who the Tar Heels recruited out of Indiana. Heart of Big Ten country. Sigh.
Coach Bruce Weber: “It goes down in history, not only Illinois history but NCAA history. Tied for most wins ever, No. 1, you get to the championship game. I mean, if you’re not happy with this, I feel sorry for you, because life ain’t getting any better.”
2007 — Ohio State gets to the championship game, which really is more of a coronation for a Florida team on a relentless march to a repeat. The Gators roll to a 40-29 halftime lead and win 84-75.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta on the Gators: “They’ve got really everything. I would put them in the category of probably one of the best teams to win.”
2009 — Michigan State enchants a friendly crowd in Detroit by landing in the championship game, where the theme is how a Spartans’ title would be a wonderful gift to an economically battered state. Except, North Carolina is a dominating team with veterans who stayed in school for this very mission. They’re not about to blink, crush Michigan State in the first half 55-34, and breeze to the finish line 89-72.
Izzo: “First of all, the best team won. That’s an easy statement to make. Even though we did have a cause — we had a bunch of causes — they had a cause, too, and I was pretty impressed by that.”
2013 — Michigan, only a fourth seed, faces Louisville for the title and builds a 12-point first half lead, as reserve Spike Albrecht, with a 1.8 scoring average, hot hands his way to 17 points. But Louisville takes over the second half and wins 82-76. The Cardinals would later have to vacate the title.
John Beilein: “I hope tomorrow when they get on that plane, there’s some smiles on the faces. The sun is going to come up tomorrow. If they’re not smiling, we’re going to make them smile.”
2015 — Wisconsin rocks the Final Four by upsetting unbeaten Kentucky in the semifinals, and has a nine-point lead in the second half against Duke for the title. But the Blue Devils rally and win 68-63, thanks partly to a 16-6 edge in free throws that does not leave the Badgers coach happy about how the game has been called.
Bo Ryan: “A (Wisconsin) team that committed the least number of fouls during the year, a team that got to the free throw line — so these guys played 30-some games that way. It’s just unfortunate that this one had to be played out that way.”
2018 — Michigan returns to the title game for the second time in six years, but unfortunately for the Wolverines, an on-fire Villanova reserve is waiting. Donte DiVincenzo’s 31 points off the bench lead to a 79-62 romp.
Beilein: “That is a very sad locker room right now, not because we lost the game, but because they know something special just ended.”
That’s a lot of near-misses, by a lot of different faces. Sooner or later, the drought has to end, right? It’s up to Michigan State now which one it will be.