The Big Ten really took it on the chin in the court of public opinion this year. Over and over, we heard how the league was down, how the top of the conference was soft and how the middle was lucky to pop through an incredibly weak bubble.
All of those opinions may have been correct. But rightly or wrongly, college basketball teams are judged by what they do in March — and the Big Ten has shown up when it matters most. Completely abandoning a collection of substantial data in favor of a ridiculous weekend-sized sample can may be an overreaction. At the same time, though, most casual consumers skip over a book’s prologue and get right to the good stuff.
The Big Ten wasted no time re-writing its story. On Thursday, Northwestern won its first tournament game ever by capitalizing on an all-time mental error by Vanderbilt, Purdue outlasted Vermont, and Wisconsin erupted for 84 points against Virginia Tech. A day later, Michigan dazzled from behind the three-point line in a win over Oklahoma State and Michigan State rebounded from a disastrous start to rout Miami.
Even with disappointing performances by Minnesota and Maryland, the Big Ten emerged from the first round with a 5-2 record. Michigan State and Northwestern each put a scare into No. 1 seeds over the weekend, but only Wisconsin was able to pull off the upset against Villanova. Purdue survived a feverish Iowa State rally and Michigan utilized yet another blistering second half to bounce Louisville.
The Big Ten now joins the SEC, Big 12 and PAC 12 with three Sweet Sixteen teams. Meanwhile, ACC, the darling of college basketball, boasts only North Carolina. What does this prove? Probably nothing, big picture, except that judging an entire conference by its firepower at the top doesn’t provide a full picture.
Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland or Minnesota (the top four in conference play) didn’t rise to the eye-test level of a great team. But they each do something very well. The Badgers are disciplined on offense and take great care of the basketball without fouling. They don’t beat themselves and have tremendous veteran leadership. The Boilermakers have one of, if not the best, big men in the country in Caleb Swanigan.
Michigan went 10-8 in league play but are downright unbeatable if they get hot from outside. A wide array of shooters helps space the floor and allows both D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner room to create individually. Michigan State, although riddled with injuries, was loaded with freshman playmakers and led by Tom Izzo.
This is a long-winded way to say that the Big Ten’s NCAA Tournament success shouldn’t be a surprise considering the depth of talent. There were so few easy wins within conference. Even Iowa, Illinois, Indiana — teams that did not go dancing — would be tough outs in a one-and-done situation. It’s a long-winded way to say that the Big Ten is chock full of teams that are better basketball teams than their records suggested.
This led to underseeding, which lead to tougher matchups for their opponents. Ask Villanova if Wisconsin plays like a No. 8 seed. Ask Louisville if that Michigan team on the court Sunday looked like a No. 7 seed.
Was this the best all-around year for the Big Ten? Certainly not. But what’s happened so far in the tournament has to be an affirming vindication for the conference, which boasted staunch competitiveness from top to bottom.