NCAA Tournament: Big Ten Continues to Prove Haters Wrong

Jake LloydCorrespondent IMarch 25, 2009

It's a funny concept, isn't it? The fact that the merry-go-round keeps returning to the same position no matter how many pushes you give it.

Excuse the bad analogy, but here we are again: After a season of being constantly called, basically, a non-major conference, of being laughed at for low-scoring, turtle-paced games...the Big Ten is holding its own in the NCAA tournament.

Yes, the Big East is clearly the nation's best conference. Its teams proved that during the first and second rounds.

But after it, the Big Ten has to be talked about—right up there with the ACC and Big 12—as this season's next-best conference.

Just look at what transpired over four days of basketball.

The Big Ten put seven teams in the Big Dance, which irked some of the other conferences. In my mind, it easily could have gotten eight (anyone see Penn State win in Gainesville Tuesday night to advance to the NIT semifinals? The Nittany Lions could have been a legitimate NCAA team).

Anyway, the league went 4-3 in the first round—with lower seeds Michigan (No. 10) and Wisconsin (No. 12) winning in addition to higher seeds Purdue and Michigan State. Ohio State, a No. 8, lost in a double-overtime thriller to Siena.

And as disappointing as No. 5 seed Illinois' loss to Western Kentucky was, the Illini simply weren't the same without their starting point guard. Minnesota's loss to a better Texas team was expected.

The conference was just as solid in the second round, with MSU and Purdue surviving tough tests and Michigan and Wisconsin just falling short against No. 2 seed Oklahoma and a well-coached Xavier team, respectively.

So the league is 6-5 heading into the Sweet 16, with two teams remaining.

Now reality tells us that it's unlikely either team will make the Final Four and even more of a shot in the dark that one will play for the national title.

But, hey, that's the case for almost any league this March with how scary good the Big East is. The only other league that you can say has a pretty good chance of landing a team in the last four is the ACC, and that revolves around arguably the nation's best team, North Carolina, (and maybe Duke).

Even if the Big Ten doesn't advance a team that far, however, it's still been just as successful as any league this decade—and probably the most balanced league of them all.

Consider that it's had five different teams—Michigan State (2000, '02 and '05), Wisconsin ('00), Indiana ('02), Illinois ('05), and Ohio State ('07)—reach the Final Four this decade. No other league has done that; the ACC and Big East have both had four teams do it.

OK, so the league lacks the national titles. (It has one this decade, compared to three for the ACC, two for the Big East and two for the SEC's Gators.) This isn't a hardware comparison, however.

A league shouldn't have to win national championships to get a little respect. The Final Four stat should be enough.

Of course, it isn't.

Here's what hurts the Big Ten: People watching the made-for-TV ACC-Big Ten Challenge in early December. They see the ACC win the event every year—although it was decided by just a game this season—and they judge the Big Ten inferior.

In early December.

Of course, with the likes of Bo Ryan, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, and now John Beilein and Tubby Smith, the league's teams become much better over the course of the season. But casual fans remember the showcase of the challenge, and that helps them rip the Big Ten when they watch a game like Penn State's 38-33 win over Illinois.

Of course, they pretend to be asleep when the Nittany Lions go to Florida and win in the crazy atmosphere down there, 71-62, as they did Tuesday.

The fact is that people are repulsed by lower-scoring games, by more defense and less offense, by more halfcourt sets and less fast-breaking. I get that. Fine, we be cool.

But that doesn't make the Big Ten a league full of bad, undeserving teams. One need not look further than the numbers.

Take the past two NCAA tournaments and how the Big Ten has fared compared to the higher-scoring, more entertaining ACC.

In the 2007 tournament, the Big Ten sent six teams to the Dance, went 9-6 and sent the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16 and on to the title games. The ACC had seven teams, went 7-7 and had one Sweet 16 team but no Final Four squad.

In the 2008 tournament, the Big Ten had just four teams but still went 5-4 and sent two teams to the Sweet 16. The ACC also had four teams, but only North Carolina—which reached the Final Four—made it out of the second round.

Now look at what happened last weekend. While the Big Ten proved its worth as a whole, four of the ACC's seven teams went packing after the first round—and they were all higher seeds, including No. 4 seed Wake Forest and No. 5 Florida State, which lost in an overtime heartbreaker to none other than Wisconsin.

By Saturday night, only perennial powers Duke and North Carolina were moving on to the Sweet 16.

And, yes, that pair has a better chance of giving the ACC a Final Four than the Michigan State-Purdue combo has of doing likewise for the Big Ten.

But anyone who continues to believe the myth that the Big Ten is a rung below the other major conferences is living in a Cinderella world.

In case you haven't noticed, the tournament's survivors are all big boys.


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