Can Michigan State Break the Big Ten’s Title Drought?

It's a pretty obvious statement to say that the Big Ten is one of the most powerful forces in college sports today. That statement was true 30 years ago, even before Penn State and Maryland joined the league, and it will almost surely be true 30 years from now, whatever college sports looks like at that time.

And yet, it's been a whopping 19 years since the conference claimed a basketball title. Depending on if you view the Big East of today as a new conference, five or six conferences have claimed the men's title since Michigan State's iconic "Flintstones" team of 2000 won the Big Ten's last national championship.

Incredibly, though, it's not like the conference is lacking for wins on the last weekend of the season in the Final Four. In those 19 Final Fours since Michigan State won in Indianapolis in 2000, Big Ten teams have appeared in seven championship games and fallen in all seven.

Some of those title games, like Michigan State's loss in Detroit to North Carolina in 2009 and last year's Michigan loss to a rampant Villanova team, haven't been contests. Others, like the 2005 Illinois loss to the Tar Heels and Wisconsin's 2015 loss to Duke, were amazingly tight games featuring losing sides that were still among the best in the conference's history.

It's an unlucky quirk of the last 19 years of tournament history that the Big Ten hasn't won a title. But after the Spartans' triumph over Zion Williamson and Duke on Sunday and Purdue's heartbreaking loss to Virginia in overtime Saturday night, Michigan State is the one hope left for the conference.

To be clear, the Spartans aren't the favorite to lift the trophy on Monday night. That's still Virginia. No team has been more consistent from November through March, and no team has been as elite on both sides of the ball.

Duke, North Carolina, and Gonzaga all may have reached greater heights at certain points in the season, but they were knocked out last weekend for a reason.

So while Michigan State wasn't No. 1 in the polls at any time during the season, let's stop acting like the Spartans beating Duke was some sort of Villanova-over-Georgetown redux. Michigan State was both the regular season and tournament Big Ten champions, something that doesn't happen every year.

And, when you look at the rosters and credentials of every prior Michigan State Final Four team since 2000 (2001, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2015), only the 2001 team is definitively better in my mind. Even before Sunday, I thought it was a very strong possibility that the Spartans would beat Duke.

The Blue Devils will have a couple more players in the NBA in three or four years, but that game helped show the importance of experience in today's college game. Ironically, a huge factor in an extremely even game was Michigan State forcing 17 Duke turnovers. The Spartans rank 342nd in the country and were 13th in the Big Ten at forcing turnovers this season.

As if beating Zion Williamson wasn't enough, Michigan State will have to face another uber-athletic future lottery pick on Saturday in Texas Tech's Jarrett Culver. Culver, unlike Williamson, won't be sharing the floor at all times with former McDonald's All-Americans and five-star recruits. But that isn't to say the Red Raiders aren't capable.

Culver was just 5-for-19 against Gonzaga in the West Regional Final, but his teammates combined to hit 13-of-23 two-pointers and 7-of-15 three-pointers. If Michigan State allows non-Culver players to hit 50% of twos and 40% of threes, they'll be in huge trouble.

I don't see that happening, however, as Michigan State has a big length advantage on the perimeter. Scoring against the nation's best defense will be difficult, but Michigan State is an incredible passing team and has an opportunity to get the Red Raiders in foul trouble.

Get past Texas Tech, and a potential ball control slugfest with Virginia could await to try and break the Big Ten's title drought once and for all. That game probably wouldn't see either team score 70 points, but it would be the best one to close an interesting season of college basketball out.

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