Together, just two short words form the most quixotic phrase in the sport of college basketball: battle-tested.
This description is applied to teams when they emerge from uncommonly competitive conferences and enter the NCAA Tournament, because no one seems ever to have examined the significant volume of evidence that suggests “battle-tested” most often translates to “beaten-down.”
When Connecticut emerged as NCAA champion from the record-setting Big East Conference in 2011, which sent more of its members into March Madness than any league before or since, that the Huskies were “battle-tested” frequently was cited as a reason for their success.
Then why did so many of the other Big East teams fail that year?
The same was true of North Carolina in 2017, when the Tar Heels won the championship and the ACC established its personal best with nine entrants. They did great. All the other teams in the league flamed out, including No. 2 seed Duke in that infamous game across the border in South Carolina against the Gamecocks.
And it’s true today of the Big Ten Conference and its record nine NCAA participants. The Big Ten may yet produce the national champion. Illinois believes it has a shot, and so does fellow No. 1 seed Michigan. But the league lost two top-four seeds in a matter of hours on the first day of the tournament, No. 2 seed Ohio State and No. 4 seed Purdue, both in the South Region.
The Buckeyes lost in overtime to Oral Roberts. Properly warned, the Boilermakers could not avoid the same situation, having to rally to force OT against North Texas but performing poorly once there.
And the truth is, we probably shouldn’t be all that shocked.
Gonzaga frequently is criticized by power conference fans for earning prominent NCAA Tournament seeds while competing in a league that is not statistically powerful. And yet the Zags are the only Division I team that has made the past five Sweet 16s, including a trip to the championship game in 2017. The average Final Four team during the past decade has emerged from a league that produced 4.5 NCAA Tournament teams.
Over time, with the help of that Huskies championship, what mostly is remembered about the 2011 Big East is that massive chunk of bids the league earned. What seems to be forgotten is the rest of the league flamed out. Teams not named UConn went 7-10 in the 2011 NCAAs. Of the five teams seeded on the top four lines, the Huskies were the only one that reached the Sweet 16. Marquette was the league’s only other Sweet 16 participant. Three teams lost to double-digit seeds.
This was not unusual. The ACC got nine bids in consecutive years, 2017 and 2018, and its teams either fared poorly or unexceptionally.
In 2017, aside from Carolina’s championship team, there were no other Sweet 16 entrants. The other eight teams went 5-8. The following year, ACC champion Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed, and No. 6 Miami lost to double-digit seed Loyola Chicago. The league did produce four Sweet 16 teams, but none that made the Final Four. The ACC managed only a 10-9 record that year.
There was evidence of significant wear among teams in this Big Ten as the league advanced through a season that once contained the possibility of a record-tying 11 NCAA bids. But Indiana played 81 percent of its schedule against Quad 1 and Quad 2 opponents, and by the end the harried Hoosiers were losing seven of their final eight games and falling out of contention for a bid.
Minnesota beat Michigan to improve to 11-4 on Jan. 16, and still was 13-7 after following up three consecutive losses with a couple of wins. But the unrelenting schedule and a couple of major injuries led to defeats in eight of the Gophers’ final nine games and no chance at an NCAA bid.
Archie Miller at Indiana and Richard Pitino of Minnesota both lost their jobs.
Did they appear battle-tested on the way out the door?
Or just weary?