Sales Pitch discussion: What's behind the Big Ten's national championship drought?

Top-seeded Illinois' second-round loss to Loyola epitomized the Big Ten's 2021 NCAA tournament struggles. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

ESPN continued its Sales Pitch (ESPN+) series this week, examining the men's college basketball programs in the Big Ten that have the most and fewest advantages in enticing recruits and transfers to campus. After seeing the results of our survey, ESPN.com's writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi debated some of the finer details within the Big Ten recruiting landscape; including whether the Big Ten's NCAA championship drought is a function of roster construction, whether Indiana has a chance to begin a new winning era under Mike Woodson and which coach they'd want their son to play for.

Follow this link to read what anonymous coaches said about recruiting in the ACC, the Big East and the Big Ten.


The Big Ten hasn't won a national title since Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000. Is this simply a coincidence related to the difficult single-elimination NCAA tournament format, or do you think there's an inherent issue with the way Big Ten teams are constructed?

Medcalf: I think the NCAA tournament format, more than any other sport's championship event, encourages outcomes that don't always provide the best snapshot of the field's top teams. Good teams lose early. Average teams get hot. But I also don't think a 21-year drought for the Big Ten is simply a coincidence.

The league's greatest challenge has been its ability to recruit NBA-level talent throughout the conference. It is difficult to consistently tussle for a title, even when a Big Ten team reaches the final stage of the season, without more elite players. From 2015 to 2019, the NCAA crowned five champions (Duke, Villanova, North Carolina, Villanova and Virginia). Those five teams produced 10 NBA first-round picks in their respective championship seasons. During the same span, the Big Ten produced 14 first-round picks. I think that's relevant. It's not the entire story but it matters.

Lunardi: Nine bids and two No. 1 seeds. Surely the Big Ten's title drought was coming to an end this past season. Instead, the league didn't produce a champion. Or even a Final Four team. Worse, the nine entries were seeded to win at least 16 tournament games and won only eight (including losses to the likes of Oral Roberts and North Texas). While I generally subscribe to the theory that "the NCAA tournament is so random virtually all outcomes are possible," it's hard to deny underachievement to this extent. One team in the second weekend after dominating the regular season? The Big Ten's issues may not be inherently bad, but the results certainly are.

Gasaway: The Big Ten's drought is less an artifact of haplessness than it is a monument to recurrent heartbreak. The league is 0-7 in national championship games since MSU won it all. Only the ACC's made more appearances on the first Monday in April over that same stretch (8-2), and, meanwhile, the Big East's a perfect 6-0 in title games since 2000 (based on real-time and not current memberships).

Still, there are, or were, plenty of these droughts to go around if your name's not "the ACC" or "the Big East." The Big 12 hadn't won a title since 2008 until Baylor came to the rescue in April, the SEC's coming up on having spent a decade out in this same wilderness and the Pac-12's searching for its first trophy since 1997. Nevertheless, we focus on the Big Ten's streak because the conference so often does show up in the final game and because it is expected that the league will indeed break through one of these days. The hoops gods will always have the final say.

Borzello: I think it's more variance and coincidence than something inherently wrong with the Big Ten. Granted, the league's performance in the NCAA tournament this past season was terrible and perhaps a sign it wasn't as strong as perceived during the regular season. But strange seasons without full nonconference campaigns are conducive to incomplete assessments of leagues.

But back to the national championship thing. It's not that the Big Ten hasn't had its chances. As Gasaway mentioned, the Big Ten has had teams playing on the final Monday night of the season on seven occasions and hasn't won any of them. It would be dumb to say the league is good enough to produce seven national runners-up, but not good enough to win the national championship. They've run into a few buzzsaws along the way: 2005 North Carolina, 2007 Florida, 2009 North Carolina, 2018 Villanova -- those are some of the best teams in the sport in the last 20 years.


New Indiana coach Mike Woodson has undergone plenty of early scrutiny as he puts together his first Hoosiers roster. What does Woodson have to sell at IU, and how successful do you think he'll be, long-term, in selling it?

Borzello: Woodson has impressed me with his rebuilding of the Indiana roster in the last couple months. He was able to keep most of the key pieces from last season from transferring or going to the NBA, headlined by Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Trayce Jackson-Davis. He went out and landed a few impact transfers and also came out of nowhere to sign top-25 recruit Tamar Bates. Despite Indiana's recent struggles, the Hoosiers are still considered one of the best jobs in the country and a place where Midwest recruits want to play.

It's not on the level of a Kentucky or a Duke, but it's still right there at the top of the Big Ten in terms of sales pitch. There's a passionate fan base, a great gameday atmosphere, good facilities and tremendous tradition and history. Moreover, it's clearly a basketball school in a basketball state. While that might be more of a fan and media-driven narrative, it does matter for some kids. Woodson hired a good recruiting staff, a group that will help him get in the mix for high-level prospects (as evidenced by Bates), and bringing on Thad Matta in an off-court role will help the transition. There should be optimism in Bloomington.

Medcalf: I think Mike Woodson has already embarrassed some of the naysayers with the roster he's assembled thus far in Bloomington. They already look like a competitive crew entering next season and he'll make additional moves before the season begins. Could be a special year for Jackson-Davis.

It's difficult to project long-term success for any coach. But I think Woodson has to sell the rare satisfaction of lifting a noteworthy program and fan base that have tasted success in the past. Those early Kentucky teams under Rick Pitino that followed a rough period for the program were treated like kings. Half of Hubert Davis' staff played on North Carolina's 2005 national title team, which broke the school's 12-year drought without a national title. And I remember when the crowd screamed as the Fab Five walked into the building to watch Michigan at the Final Four in 2013. Indiana also hopes to one day say "we're back." To play a role in leading the Hoosiers back to college basketball's mountaintop is a unique opportunity.

Gasaway: Woodson can sell his NBA bona fides, the prominence and exposure of the Big Ten and a passionate fan base that will love you forever if you earn your keep on the floor. None of his 21st century predecessors in Bloomington possessed that first bullet point, but all of them could claim the other two.

As for whether all three selling points put together will be enough to get the job done, I must again retreat hastily and dutifully to my "nobody knows anything when it comes to future coaching performance" foxhole. After all, our nation's press rows are filled with observers of the game who expected Archie Miller to thrive and Juwan Howard to flail. Perhaps it's safer merely to point out that IU has earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament more recently than Michigan State, Syracuse, UConn or UCLA, and as recently as either Louisville or Florida. If Woodson does win at Indiana, it will be because, unlike his predecessor, he got the ignition to turn over, not because he brought about an unforeseeable miracle.

Lunardi: Woodson, if we're being honest, is already overachieving. His hiring was so universally panned that our early projection of the Hoosiers as a No. 7 seed next season puts Indiana clearly in the offseason "winners" category. And, while 7-seeds may not meet long-term expectations in Bloomington, it would be the program's first tourney bid since 2016. Put me in Woodson's camp for continued success.


Which Big Ten program most impresses you for its ability to do more with less, relative to its competition in the league?

Gasaway: This award goes to Purdue. Matt Painter's had just one first-round pick in the last six years (Caleb Swanigan at No. 26 in 2017), yet the Boilermakers earned a top-five seed in each of the NCAA tournaments that were played during that span. The only other programs nationally that are members of this same "top-five-seed annually since 2016" club are Kansas and Virginia, so it's safe to say the Boilers are in pretty good company.

Borzello: Coaches in the league almost unanimously awarded this honor to Purdue. Painter has done a terrific job landing players who fit what he wants to do -- while also bringing in top-100-caliber players and producing his fair share of pros. Compared to the top five programs in the league, the Boilermakers can't really match up in terms of campus or facilities, but opposing coaches will point out they have the best gameday atmosphere in the league.

I'll also note Painter tends to get involved with prospects, especially ones from the region, very early in the process. For example, ESPN 100 prospects Ethan Morton and Jaden Ivey from the 2020 class both committed to Purdue before the end of their junior year. Caleb Furst, an ESPN 100 prospect entering the program in the fall, picked Purdue in early March of last year.

Lunardi: If not Purdue, a logical and probably correct answer, let me suggest Wisconsin. At least the Boilermakers are in a basketball-mad state. The Badgers have a natural draw of what, exactly? Yet this century has produced three Final Four teams (including a national finalist), another regional finalist and six more that reached the Sweet 16. I think the Badgers of Dick Bennett, Bo Ryan and Greg Gard have been among the nation's most underrated programs.

Medcalf: I'll always wonder what we'd be saying about Matt Painter today if Robbie Hummel hadn't suffered a torn ACL during the 2009-10 season when the Boilermakers were third in the country. Even then, Painter had turned Mackey Arena into this terrifying building that just drowned teams in the chaos. Sure, West Lafayette is just an hour from Indianapolis. But the state's top recruits have an abundance of nearby options within driving distance. That's why I think Painter's most unheralded skill is the way he develops. Good players have become great players with him. We'll enter next season with another Purdue squad that has a real chance to make a Final Four run. I'm not even sure Painter is impressive anymore -- this is just what Purdue does.


We'll ask a variation on the same question we did for the ACC -- which Big Ten coach would you want your kid to play for?

Borzello: I'm consistently impressed with what Juwan Howard has done since taking over at Michigan, and I would gladly have my hypothetical son playing for him in Ann Arbor. His players have bought into his system over the last two seasons, Howard has backed his players whenever possible and he loves the university. One rival assistant told me he thinks Howard's demeanor and passion is perfect for college basketball; winning at his alma mater and developing young adults into men is paramount to him. Plus, he knows what it takes to produce NBA prospects and Michigan is a terrific academic school in a great college town. I'm all in on sending my kid there.

Gasaway: Juwan Howard. He wept when he got the Michigan job, and he very nearly got into a physical altercation with an opposing head coach during a game at the Big Ten tournament. That's the kind of passionate and un-pre-packaged coach I can count on to look after my offspring's best interests. Plus, his players clearly love playing for him. If we could come up with a more analytic-sounding term for players' body language than "players' body language," we might acknowledge it as an underrated measure of coaching performance. The Wolverines give every appearance of cherishing their coach.

Medcalf: Yeah it would have to be Juwan Howard for me too. He's displayed every emotion at Michigan. You have to appreciate his vulnerability. But I really respect him for hiring Phil Martelli shortly after he got the job. A lot of guys would not have done that. But Howard was secure enough in himself and his role to add a respected former head coach to his staff. It was a smart move for everyone involved. He's weathered the early challenges at Michigan. A lot of people wondered if he could make the jump, but he has been successful.

Lunardi: Hard to argue with Howard given all of the reasons cited, but I'd have to take the long-term track record of Tom Izzo. On and off the court, Izzo has been a giant in the coaching profession. Yes, he's had a moment or two of public temper. But his hands are cleaner than pretty much any others at his level in terms of recruiting and he has prioritized toughness in ways that seem to extend beyond basketball.