A Big Ten team making the Final Four? Lately that seems like old hat, as the conference has been on top of the college basketball world for the last five years or so. However, getting two teams in to the Final Four is a rare feat indeed.
Well, not so much if you’re the Big Ten, who lead in that category with eight such occurrences by putting both Michigan State and Wisconsin in this year. No other conference even comes close to matching that number of times with multiple teams in the national semi-finals in the same year.
It also means we’ve got a lot of history to sift through to help us navigate what is arguably one of the most insane set of four coaches and teams since the 1993 Final Four. That group featured North Carolina, Michigan, Kentucky and Kansas, Michigan and North Carolina…meaning it featured Steve Fisher, Rick Pitino Dean Smith and Roy Williams.
Whatever your preference, the fact of the matter is, we’re here to talk history of two Big Ten teams in the Final Four. Having had it happen seven times before what do those previous times tell us about the Badgers and Spartans’ chances?
Let’s explore each of the seven previous occurrences.
1976: Indiana and Michigan
This was about the best-case scenario for the conference, and think of it as Wisconsin and Kentucky meeting in the national championship game and not the semi-final. Such was the matchup between undefeated Indiana and conference foe Michigan.
It was also the first time in NCAA tournament history that two teams from the same conference met for the title. We all know it also meant a Big Ten champion was guaranteed. However, the fact that both teams blew the doors off Rutgers and UCLA in the semi-finals established that these were the two best teams in college basketball in 1976.
The Hoosiers won the title and capped off an undefeated season in the process. It was the last undefeated season for a Big Ten team, but also showed that getting to the final weekend together could mean great things for the Big Ten.
1980: Purdue and Iowa
Welcome to the first tournament of the “modern era” of the NCAA tournament, as this was the first 48-team field and the first time seeding was done the way it is today. Both Iowa and Purdue made it as outside of the top 4 seeds in their regions, but it wasn’t to be for either team.
Iowa was taken down by Louisville and Purdue lost to Larry Brown’s UCLA Bruins, but both made it interesting and were single-digit losers in the semi-finals. The Hawkeyes would get the best of the Boilermakers though, winning what turned out to be the last third place game in NCAA tournament history.
Safe to say the year 1980 is one the Badgers and Spartans would like to forget…and it made the Big Ten 1 of 2 in double Final Four appearances.
1989: Illinois and Michigan
If you’re someone in their 30’s chances are this is the first NCAA tournament you can remember. It is for me, and I was just 7 years old. Such was the power of the run of the Michigan Wolverines with Glenn Rice, Loy Vaught and Sean Higgins. The story was more remarkable considering the coaching change and “interim” HC Steve Fisher making a bad situation better through the NCAA tournament.
However, the Illinois Fighting Illini might have been the biggest name going in to that Final Four. The “Flyin’ Illini” of Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Lowell Hamilton, Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty and Stephen Bardo was a formidable lineup indeed.
The two Big Ten foes squared off in the semi-final round, guaranteeing a conference team in the national title game. What a game it was, with Fisher’s squad winning 83-81 and eventually going on to win a national title over Seton Hall in equally dramatic fashion (80-79).
If you’re keeping score at home that’s 2 of 3 for a Big Ten team winning a title when getting two teams in to the Final Four.
1992: Indiana and Michigan
Did you know that the Hoosiers even existed in this tournament? Between Christian Laettner’s “shot heard round the world” in the Elite 8 over Kentucky and Michigan’s famed “Fab Five” there was little in the way of historical attention on the Hoosiers in this tournament.
That’s what happens when you’re coached by Bobby Knight and Duke has a squeaky clean image and a three-point victory to go with it. Duke and Indiana played a classic matchup in the semi-final, but the Hoosiers led by
Michigan got all the way to the final with a scrappy, rough around the edges, group of five freshmen…but were completely blown out in the national title game. Duke handled the Wolverines 71-51 and made the Big Ten 2 of 4 in multiple teams in the Final Four.
1999: Michigan State and Ohio State
These two teams were some of the best in college basketball during the 1998-99 season, with Ohio State having names like Michael Redd, Scoonie Penn and Jason Singleton on board and MSU with Mo Peterson, Mateen Cleaves, Jason Klein, Andre Hutson and Charlie Bell.
Al that star power couldn’t propel either team to the national championship game, which was just the second time in the four multi-Big Ten team appearances.
2000: Michigan State and Wisconsin
Welcome to the last time two Big Ten teams met in a Final Four together, and welcome to deja vu in reverse for these two schools. That’s because in 2000, it was Michigan State expecting to get to the Final Four and Wisconsin as the surprise participant in the national semi-finals.
About the only difference is that these two teams would fight it out to the end in a semi-final matchup, whereas this season the two could only meet in the final. The 2000 matchup went to Mateen Cleaves and the Spartans, winning 53-41 and ending Dick Bennett’s run to an improbable national title.
Tom Izzo’s crew wasn’t done though, as they took down Florida for the national championship and remain the last Big Ten team to win a national championship.
It also means the conference was 3 for 6 in winning national championships with multiple teams in the mix.
2005: Illinois and Michigan State
This was a story about one team oh so close to a national championship once again and another blown out of the water. Actually, both Illinois and Michigan State were involved in blowout semi-final games, it just so happened that Illinois would be on the winning end and Michigan State on the receiving end.
Illinois met up with North Carolina looking for its first national championship, while UNC head coach Roy Williams was looking for his first as well. Something had to give and it was the Illini’s ability to hit a shot down the stretch.
UNC won 75-70 and denied a Big Ten team a chance to win its first national championship in five years…a streak that is still standing to this very day.
So, what did we learn after that history lesson? Well, the chances of two Big Ten teams getting to the Final Four and then making it to the national title game are damn good. In the previous seven times this has happened, a Big Ten team has made the national title game on five occasions.
Furthermore, a Big Ten team has gone on to win the national championship in three of the seven overall occurrences. It also just so happens that making the final bodes well for a Big Ten team in these scenarios, with three champions in five title game appearances.
If history repeats itself this weekend, don’t be shocked to see either of Michigan State or Wisconsin cutting down the nets come April 6th in Indianapolis.