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The 11th-15th best B1G hoops teams since the B1G stopped winning national titles

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Episode 10 of a VERY SPECIAL series

No!!! Not the station manager from WKRP!!!

[Link to teams 16-20]

First off, sorry there was no installment last week. Thanks for the dozens of cards, flowers, and edible arrangements, but everything is fine. Last week was chock full of hoops in the present, so we just shoved things back a week. Additionally, the last three installments will drop on a Tuesday, so Mondays can be all about the 2022 tournament. With that out of the way, let’s dive in!

15. 2021 Michigan Wolverines: 23-5/14-3; KP: 29.67, #3; SRS: 22.00, #4; 1-seed, lost to UCLA in Elite Eight

Make all the jokes you want about the B1G conference title criteria under Covid, but Michigan was great last year. Top 10 in both offense and defense, per KenPom. Could score inside and outside. Baylor and Gonzaga looked like the class of college hoops for virtually all of ‘20-’21, but Michigan wasn’t too far off...until March. The blowout loss to Illinois raised eyebrows, and tough losses to MSU (to end the regular season) and Ohio State (in the B1G tournament) suggested that Michigan might be coming to the pack just a bit, as Illinois became the sexy pick as most likely to challenge the Gonzaga/Baylor duopoloy (which nobody ended up doing, of course).

However, Michigan righted things for the NCAA tournament. After summarily dispatching Texas Southern, the Wolverines gutted out an 86-78 win over LSU, one of the most talented and dangerous 8-seeds in recent years. Following that, Michigan frankly throttled Florida State, likely the ACC’s best team last year, in the Sweet 16, 76-58. With 11-seed UCLA waiting in the Elite Eight, Michigan seemed to have a third Final Four appearance in nine years in sight. Of course, we all know that UCLA continued their Cinderella run by cranking up the defense to the tune of a 51-49 upset.

Still, there was much to celebrate for Michigan. Hunter Dickinson had a fantastic freshman season. Mike Smith was terrific as a grad transfer. Isiah Livers excelled as a three point threat. And Franz Wagner brought some of the family do-it-all skillset to the roster. There were two wins over Wisconsin and Maryland (both round of 32 teams), wins over two 2-seeds (Iowa and Ohio State), and wins over tournament qualifiers Rutgers, Purdue, and Michigan State. The B1G had a very disappointing NCAA tournament last year, but Michigan had little to do with that.

14. 2008 Wisconsin Badgers: 31-5/16-2; KP: 26.68, #5; SRS: 19.59, #6; 3-seed, lost to Davidson in Sweet 16

The Baby Boilers swept this UW team. Including the B1G tournament, the Badgers went 19-0 against every other conference foe. Every loss came to a team that won an NCAA tournament game, and there was a thrilling road win over Texas, who would go on to make the Elite Eight, which featured one of the best offense/defense sequences you could hope for out of a single player (Michael Flowers in this case):

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year following the loss of all-time leading scorer Alando Tucker, the Badgers instead rode a balanced attack—six players averaged between 7.6 and 14.2 points—to a second consecutive 30-win season. The B1G was down a bit in 2008, but Wisconsin still beat Sweet 16 participant MSU twice and also swept Indiana, who was a top 15 team much of the year until the wheels came off late.

Once in the tournament, the Badgers rolled through Cal State-Fullerton and a dangerous Kansas State team led by freshman sensation Michael Beasley. The ride ended in the Sweet 16 as Cinderella Davidson, led by you-know-who, turned a game that was tied at halftime into a bit of a laugher after Badger PG Trevon Hughes went out with an injury.

All the same, it’s a short list of B1G schools that won the league outright, won the conference tournament, and made at least the Sweet 16 (five teams in the period being covered here), and this team is one of them.

13. 2012 Michigan State Spartans: 29-8/13-5; KP: 27.87, #3; SRS: 21.32, #5; 1-seed, lost to Louisville in Sweet 16

Draymond Green’s senior year had the makings of a storybook season. Regular season title (shared with OSU and Michigan). Conference tournament title. 1-seed. Possibly a 3rd Final Four in four years. But then Louisville ruined the fun with an upset in the Sweet 16 (revenge for MSU’s Elite Eight win in Green’s freshman year, perhaps).

The season began inauspiciously with losses to North Carolina (Elite Eight) and Duke (Elite Eight), but 15 consecutive wins later, it was clear MSU was for real. Along the way, Sparty knocked off Florida State (3-seed), Gonzaga (7-seed), Indiana (Sweet 16) and Wisconsin (Sweet 16). January saw three road losses (including @ Northwestern???), but MSU had a two-game lead with two games to play. Unfortunately, following a road loss to Indiana and a tough 1-point home defeat to Ohio State on Senior Day, MSU ended up splitting the crown.

Perhaps with a little extra motivation, Michigan State won the conference tournament, beating Wisconsin for a third time, then winning the rubber match with OSU in a 68-64 war behind 21 points from unlikely hero Brandon Wood:

Michigan State escaped an upset scare in the second round by easing past a Rick Majerus-helmed Saint Louis Billiken team (#13 in KenPom and a 9-seed!!) 65-61. But Louisville was waiting in the Sweet 16 and the March run was over prematurely. Regardless, the season put the capstone on one of the better four-year careers in recent B1G memory, and Green went on to prove himself at the next level.

12. 2001 Illinois Fighting Illin: 29-8/13-5; no KenPom ranking; SOS: 23.32, #6; 1-seed, lost to Arizona in Elite Eight

Bill Self’s first Illinois squad tied for the B1G regular season title with Final Four bound MSU and made an Elite Eight run that ended at the hands of title game participant Arizona. Curiously enough, the game with Arizona was those teams’ third matchup of the season, which has to be a record among teams not in the same conference.

The first, won by Arizona, came in the championship game of the Maui Classic. The day before, Illinois had defeated Maryland—who would go on to make the Final Four—in the semifinals. Six days later, Illinois would lose to eventual national champion Duke by a point in Greensboro as part of the ACC/B1G challenge. That’s right: by the end of November, Illinois had already played 34 of the 2001 Final Four. Michigan State was the fourth, and Illinois won the sole meeting between those two at home in February. Somehow, Illinois did NOT have the #1 strength of schedule in 2001.

The 13-3 conference record featured losses only to tournament teams—Penn State (Sweet 16), Iowa (Round of 32), and Ohio State (5-seed)—en route to sharing the title with MSU for the second time in four years. Once in the NCAA tournament, the Illini rolled past Northwestern State and Charlotte before thumping Kansas 80-64, to make the Elite Eight and a rubber match with Arizona. Unfortunately, in a very physical game, Arizona attempted 56 FTs (yes, 56), making 43 (vs. 19 made FGs) and escaped with an 87-81 win (Gilbert Arenas led the Wildcats with 21 points).

11. 2005 Michigan State Spartans: 26-7/13-3; KP: 25.67, #5; SRS: 20.47, #7; 5-seed, lost to North Carolina in Final Four

If you’re young, but able to do a little research, you might be surprised to see a team that didn’t even win the B1G this high. But there’s no shame in finishing second to the ‘05 Illini. In fact, but for a 62-59 loss in the Kohl Center where UW closed on an 11-0 run, and an OT road loss to Indiana, MSU could’ve gone 15-1 as well. Were they as good as ‘05 Illinois? Of course not. Their only H2H meeting was in Breslin and Illinois still won comfortably. But this was a really good Spartan team that was underrated in their own time and continues to be so. And they provided the blueprint for the now-patented Izzo March run.

The regular season saw the above three losses, plus non-conference losses @Duke (1-seed, more in a sec) and George Washington (A-10 division and conf. tournament champs...remember Pops Mensah-Bonsu?). MSU dropped the B1G tournament opener to an Iowa team that made the tournament, and that probably led to their ridiculously low 5-seed.

After dispatching Old Dominion and Vermont (who upset Syracuse) in the opening weekend, Sparty got down to business. In the Sweet 16, MSU avenged the regular season loss to Duke and took out the 1-seeded Blue Devils. What you should know about this game is that MSU was simply the better, more athletic team. The MSU D hounded J.J. Redick into a 4-14 shooting night, and Duke had no answer for Shannon Brown and Mo Ager. You should watch all 6 minutes of highlights, but I’ve got the embed set to what just might be my favorite B1G play not involving the Wisconsin Badgers:

Go ahead and watch it again. I’ll wait.

Duke did make a run, but MSU responded and were off to face 2-seed Kentucky in the Elite Eight. That game was a 2OT classic (but did not feature Mo Ager throwing down on J.J. Redick). Fine, here’s an embed of highlights from that, too:

After taking down those two bluebloods, Sparty was off to the Final Four. Three bluebloods proved to be one too many, though, as eventual champ North Carolina erased a five-point halftime deficit behind a 54 point second half explosion.

2005 MSU was probably the 3rd best team in the country. And 2005 was a pretty good year for college hoops. Bad luck to be stuck in the same league as 2005 Illinois, but in a sense, this is just the inversion of what happened with the two teams in 2001 (see above and...next week).