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Is Big Ten basketball historically bad this season?

This conference is having a down year, with no teams ranked above 17th. How bad is it?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten Conference is not having a great year for basketball.

Right now, the top-ranked team in the conference in the most recent AP poll is Wisconsin, at #17. Purdue is ranked 21st, and Maryland sneaks into the poll this week at #25.

Ranked above Wisconsin are 16 teams, including:

  • Five ACC teams (UNC, Florida State, Louisville, Notre Dame, Virginia)
  • Three Big 12 teams (Kansas, Baylor, WVU)
  • Three Big East teams (Villanova, Creighton, Butler)
  • Three Pac-12 teams (UCLA, Oregon, Arizona)

Perennial powerhouses Gonzaga and Kentucky are also ranked ahead of the highest B1G team. To make matters worse, the conference does not have a great nonconference resume either. The B1G only has three victories against teams in the current top 16, one from Purdue (against Notre Dame), and the other two from Indiana (against Kansas and UNC). That’s right - despite all of their many struggles this season, the Hoosiers still arguably have the two best wins in the conference.

Overall, against the current top 16, the Big Ten teams are a combined 3-24 this season. That isn’t good! Thus, it’s easy to conclude that the Big Ten is pretty much butt this year.

This got me thinking: Sure the B1G is butt right now, but is it historically butt? Let’s take a look.

For reference, I reviewed past seasons on Kenpom, whose data goes all the way back to 2002. This year, the conference so far has an average efficiency margin of +13.41, and is ranked as the fourth-best conference. This is actually higher than last year’s final metric (+12.89). However, last year’s mark takes into account crappy old Rutger, who sunk the conference with its whopping -10.61 efficiency rating (good for 279th out of 351 D-1 teams, I hope Jim Delany likes what he sees). 2014-15’s final adjusted EM is slightly lower than this season’s mark; however, that year had a dominant Wisconsin team that ran away with the B1G title. Rutger was also bad that season (go figure), yet somehow one of their two conference wins was against the Badgers.

To get to the next year with this low of an efficiency margin, you have to go all the way back to the 2007-08 season. This year was the only season to date since 2004 when a B1G team did not get at least a 2-seed in the tourney. But even that season had its moments - Michigan State was a top-10 until all the way through February, when it faltered down the stretch. And speaking of faltering down the stretch, I don’t need to remind readers what happened to IU that year. On the other hand, the Baby Boilers sparked a resurgence in Purdue, and Wisconsin was ranked sixth by season’s end. So overall, that season was fine. Before that, 2007 had the Thad Five, 2006 featured a very balanced league with seven teams in the final Kenpom top-40, and 2005 had the Deron Williams/Dee Brown Illinois team.

That brings us to 2003-04. If there’s a season that rivals this one in the B1G for pure butt, it’s this campaign. Wisconsin as usual plodded its way to strong efficiency marks on both sides of the ball at a glacial pace, but an Illinois team that started off slow came into its own and won 10 straight games to clinch the conference title. The only other team to make the tourney was Sparty, who as usual struggled early but had a strong showing in conference play. (Side note: it’s amazing that the same Wisconsin and MSU memes have held true in this league for almost 15 years now.)

Other than those? No other teams in the tourney. Just the Illini, Badgers, and Spartans, seeded 5th, 6th, and 7th, respectively. The adjusted efficiency metric that season? +9.46. Yikes. The 2003-04 season was worse overall for the conference, but regardless, this is the most butt the B1G has been for 13 years.

Of course, the conference has struggled in the NCAA tournament recently as well - since 1989, the B1G has only won the tourney once, thanks to the Mateen Cleaves-led Michigan State team of 2000. So not only are we in a bad season, but we’re also in a longtime title drought, not just at IU but in the conference overall.

As for the future, the outlook isn’t great either. Only one of this year’s recently announced McDonald’s All-American class is committed to a Big Ten school - Jaren Jackson to Michigan State (though to be fair, his La Lumiere teammate Brian Bowen is uncommitted but leaning toward MSU). And the attrition in the conference should be high as well. Nigel Hayes will graduate, OG Anunoby and Thomas Bryant could jump to the pros, Caleb Swanigan might leave, and Miles Bridges is probably a one-and-done for Sparty.

Earlier this decade, the Big Ten was having a renaissance. Now, the conference is no longer a powerhouse, and the downward trend may continue well into the future.