Seven Big Ten teams applauded happily last Sunday when their names were announced on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. After one round in the Big Dance, six of them remain – and they’re all cheering for each other.
It’s just the second time in the 75-year history of the NCAA Tournament that the Big Ten has six teams in the Round of 32. The other occurrence came in 1994, but the conference stumbled the rest of the way, placing no teams in the Final Four.
The most high-profile event for the Midwestern league is usually bowl season. New Year’s Day has not been kind in recent years, so commissioner Jim Delany has his eye on Atlanta and the Georgia Dome, not Pasadena and the Rose Bowl.
If the regular season was any indication, the first-round success experienced during the first two days of tournament is no surprise at all. Multiple conference teams were ranked No. 1 this season and all seven of their representatives in the NCAA Tournament spent time in the top 10.
Then there is the national player of the year race that included two Big Ten players – Michigan’s Trey Burke and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.
“I fully expect if we do well, that would be a capstone,” Delany said at the Big Ten Tournament last week. “If we don't, the narrative will be, ‘You overachieved during the regular season, you’re over-ranked and you really aren’t that good because you didn’t advance teams to the Final Four and win the championship.’ I’m prepared for the good, the bad and the middle.
“The story will write itself.”
Underachieving in the NCAA Tournament is not something the Big Ten does. Though the conference has only had one national champion dating to 1998, no other conference has placed more teams in the Final Four during that same 15-year period. Since 2008, though, the league is only 3-10 in the Sweet 16.
In football, the league rival is the vaunted SEC. While the South has produced national champions in basketball, depth is not a strong suit. Instead, it’s the Big East, which had seven teams in the Round of 32 in 2011. But the Beasts from the East had 11 bids that season. Two years before that, in 2009, the conference sent six teams to the second round, five to the Sweet 16, four advanced to the Elite Eight and two made it all the way to the Final Four.
The 2013 tournament has been an adventure. The Atlantic 10 is a perfect 6-0, but clear paths to the second week are minimal. Perhaps the story of the tournament is the West Region's implosion. There’s also been a No. 15 and 14 seed winning, and the Big Ten has been part of it all. Higher seeds such as Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan restored order by winning. No. 11 seed Minnesota also won, contributing to the Madness. Wisconsin, a 5 seed, was on the wrong side of an upset-filled Friday, falling to 12 seed Ole Miss.
Just last week, the Big Ten’s coaches spoke about finally ridding themselves of life in the Big Ten. Bo Ryan was one of those, and his Badgers dictated the pace against Ole Miss, but an off shooting night doomed Wisconsin.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo went as far to say that he’d rather play the Lakers.
“I am really looking forward to playing somebody else,” he said. “I think all the Big Ten teams are, and deservedly so.”
The Spartans are one of two Big Ten teams that play on Saturday. Michigan State takes on sixth-seeded Memphis, and No. 4 seed Michigan plays fifth-seeded VCU.
On Sunday, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois and Minnesota all play. The Hoosiers and Buckeyes are the only favorites. But as the past 48 hours have shown, even if you’re the underdog there is hope. That’s what makes March so mad.
“Hopefully, we haven’t beaten each other up too much,” said Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft. “I love that game in and game out you’ve got to bring your best. That’s what you have to do to be successful in the tournament.”
Nik Stauskas, Michigan’s freshman three-point sharpshooter, said fear and the element of surprise wouldn’t factor into Big Ten teams’ games during the tournament. The schools have experienced and dissected each style of play.
Pressure, however, is one factor that could affect the players. Fair or not, tournament success has a big impact on how conferences are judged, especially when one clearly is the best throughout the regular season. If they fall short of heightened expectations in the tournament, four months of basketball is rendered meaningless. That is the cold hard truth.
Winning the Maui Invitational, having teams ranked high atop the polls and being talked about on a continuous loop on ESPN and CBS won’t matter if Final Fours and national championships aren’t attained. One bad matchup can cause the country to view the Big Ten through a 20/80 lens instead of 20/20.
“I could sit up here and tell you some teams that I wouldn’t want to play because of matchups,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “I know what is problematic to us. Every coach knows their own issues.”
As the first weekend of the tournament arrives, Indiana and Ohio State remain favorites to reach the Final Four. The schools, separated by one state border, have arguably the two easiest routes to Atlanta. And they’ll have no shortage of support from their conference brethren.
“Now we get to do something I don't get to do very often,” Izzo said. “Cheer for all the Big Ten teams.”