It would be easier to follow the popular narrative and dismiss the Big Ten’s teams as inconsequential NCAA men’s basketball tournament fodder if they weren’t so likable. If some of the best stories to grace Selection Sunday didn’t come from this conference, the Big Ten could just be the nice, swell, interesting but nothing to fear league it has been this season. However, intrigue doesn’t consult the RPI.
Sometimes, intrigue doesn’t even care about the eye test. And so we’re left with an appropriate dichotomy for a seven-bid conference that somehow lacks a dominant team: No one can detect traces of a true contender in this bunch, but the Big Ten is abundant in feel-good tales.
What’s it mean? Well, at about this time next week, it might mean nothing. There’s a chance the tournament could advance to the round of 16 and leave behind the Big Ten. And even if a team or two defies the low expectations, imagining an Elite Eight or Final Four representative from this conference is optimistic at best. But at least the league will give this week some warm and fuzzy feelings.
Before trying to verify the mediocrity of the conference, you’ll have to appreciate Michigan. On Sunday, the Wolverines won for the fourth time in four days, beating Wisconsin, 71-56, to win the Big Ten tournament title as a No. 8 seed. After the scare of an aborted takeoff before arriving in D.C., they concluded a week that could have been tragic by playing some of the most inspired basketball of the season. Point guard Derrick Walton Jr. did his best 2011 Kemba Walker imitation, controlling nearly every aspect of the game and earning tournament MVP honors. I’m not sure he can match what Walker did after he won the Big East tourney MVP with Connecticut six years ago and turn the momentum into a national championship. But Michigan’s survival tale and its designation now as a team of destiny will be celebrated on the sport’s biggest stage.
“A lot of things we can’t explain happened,” said Walton, who delivered Michigan’s first official conference tournament title (its 1998 crown was vacated because of NCAA sanctions). “We just bonded together as a family. To finally do this, do something that hasn’t been done in so long, it’s something that will stick with you for a really long time. The friendships and bonds we have with this team, it’s something that’s everlasting.”
Before casting the conference as worthless, watch Northwestern dance for the first time after 78 years of disappointment. Minnesota’s turnaround from 8-23 to a No. 5 seed under Richard Pitino isn’t too shabby either. Neither is Maryland winning 24 games while starting three freshmen and after losing four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team. Who doesn’t love Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, a throwback power forward whose game keeps evolving? Who doesn’t spend every March pondering the dangers of underestimating Tom Izzo, no matter where Michigan State is seeded?
And then there’s the last run for Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes and a senior class that has experienced plenty of March thrills. Short of winning a national title, it doesn’t get much better than the Badgers have shown the past three tournaments, capturing 11 win-or-walk victories in that span, including a Sweet 16 last season, a title game berth in 2015 and a Final Four appearance in 2014.
So that’s the Big Ten contingent. This group isn’t exactly the Seven Wonders of the World. If you’re into grading conferences based on tournament success, you can almost guarantee the Big Ten isn’t going to fare as well as a seven-bid league often does. And that means everyone will talk about how bad the Big Ten is, which is an oversimplification.
Certainly, the conference has seen better years. Michigan State was supposed to be borderline elite, but it started slowly while playing a brutal schedule and then endured injuries. Indiana was a fringe top-10 preseason pick, but it underachieved and couldn’t stay healthy either. Wisconsin was a top-10 team that started the season 21-3, but the Badgers lost five of six games late in conference season. Purdue was the league’s most consistent team, but the Boilermakers weren’t great, and they exited the Big Ten tourney with a quarterfinal loss to Michigan.
Those were supposed to be the four squads that stayed in the top 20 all year and defined the Big Ten. Then Maryland and others would be quality complements, and the league would be both top heavy and balanced. Instead, the league featured parity but no elite, high-end teams to guarantee a positive perception.
When the NCAA selection committee released an early look at its top 16 seeds in mid-February, there wasn’t a Big Ten team on the list. It started chatter that the conference wouldn’t have a top-four seed in any region for the first time since 2004.
On Sunday, Purdue was awarded a No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region, and the general feeling was that the Boilermakers were fortunate to get it. The seeding reflected the narrative about the Big Ten. Seven teams received seeds between No. 4 and No. 9. Besides Purdue’s seed, the Big Ten collected a No. 5 (Minnesota), a No. 6 (Maryland), a No. 7 (Michigan), two No. 8s (Wisconsin and Northwestern) and a No. 9 (Michigan State).
Good, but not in the vicinity of great.
The past week at Verizon Center showed that the Big Ten is full of decent teams, each lacking the wow factor. But the NCAA tournament doesn’t always obey perceptions. If nothing else, Michigan’s run provided hope that the unexpected could occur.
“Once we landed in D.C., we agreed, ‘Why can’t this be the greatest story ever told?’ ” Wolverines guard Zak Irvin said. “Everybody had that mentality. Why not us? When we were tired and fatigued, whatever it might be, that was the extra push we needed to win this championship.”
So, why not the Big Ten? Well, there’s not enough space to list all the reasons. Yet the NCAA tournament still will be played without preconceived scores.
There’s opportunity to witness the greatest story ever told, I suppose. But let’s start with one Sweet 16 team.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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