Dis­miss Big Ten at your own risk come March

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Nancy Ar­mour nar­mour@ us­ato­day. com USA TO­DAY Sports

Bet all those folks who spent the last few weeks diss­ing the Big Ten are feeling pretty sheep­ish right about now.

The con­fer­ence that had a down year, that was so sec­on­drate it didn’t merit any­thing bet­ter than a No. 4 seed, has three teams in the Sweet 16. Th­ese weren’t cake­walk draws, ei­ther. A day after Wis­con­sin took out over­all No. 1 seed Vil­lanova, Michi­gan knocked off No. 2 Louisville on Sun­day.

But, yeah, tell me again how the Big Ten can’t com­pare to the At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence or the Big East, con­fer­ences that will limp into the Sweet 16 with two teams. At best.

“Our league is very good,” Pur­due coach Matt Painter said after the Boil­er­mak­ers reached the Sweet 16 on Satur­day night.

“Tell ( crit­ics) to go play Michi­gan. Peo­ple that don’t think our league is any good, tell them to go play Wis­con­sin. They’re not an eighth seed. I don’t un­der­stand that,” Painter said, his voice ris­ing with ir­ri­ta­tion.

“You don’t un­der­stand bas­ket­ball if you put Wis­con­sin as the eighth seed. Wis­con­sin is one of the tough­est teams in the coun­try, pe­riod.

“You play Michi­gan State, you bet­ter bring your lunch. I can talk about the teams that didn’t make it that are tough. Iowa this year was an un­be­liev­able out. They beat us. Ne­braska beat us.

“We have a tough league,” Painter said em­phat­i­cally, “across the board.”

Ev­ery few years, it seems, there is the nar­ra­tive that this is an “off” sea­son for the Big Ten.

And then the con­fer­ence will go and send two teams to the Fi­nal Four. Or three or four to the Sweet 16.

The Big Ten al­ways is bet­ter than it ap­pears be­cause league play is like one of those Na­tional

Geo­graphic fea­tures on an­i­mals that eat their young. With the ex­cep­tion of a team or two, there is lit­tle sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the top teams in the league and those that wind up at the bot­tom, and that makes for some bru­tal games and records that aren’t nearly as medi­ocre as they ap­pear.

Con­sider that, go­ing into the fi­nal weeks of the sea­son, all but two of the 14 Big Ten teams were still in the mix for the NCAA tour­na­ment. That in­cluded an Illi­nois team con­sid­ered so woe­ful it had al­ready fired its coach.

That’s not the case in many of the other leagues.

Duke and North Carolina are tremen­dous, no ques­tion. But there’s a drop- off after them, as we’ve seen in this tour­na­ment, and a ver­i­ta­ble gulf be­tween the top half of the ACC and the bot­tom.

But the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee seemed to look at the Big Ten in Fe­bru­ary, de­cide there was noth­ing much to see and never gave it more than a pass­ing glance again. Which meant it over­looked the most im­por­tant fac­tor in the Big Ten’s suc­cess: its teams’ habit of build­ing through­out the sea­son.

Or, as for­mer Badger Sam Dekker said on Twit­ter on Satur­day, “We win in March, that’s what we do.”

The best teams in the Big Ten play tough non- con­fer­ence sched­ules and, more of­ten than not, take their lumps. Why? Be­cause there’s no bet­ter way to iden­tify your flaws, and it hard­ens them for tough games down the stretch and tough stretches at the end of games.

Take Michi­gan. In the first month of the sea­son, the Wolver­ines played Mar­quette, South­ern Methodist, South Carolina, Mount St. Mary’s, Vir­ginia Tech and UCLA and went 3- 3 against the tour­na­ment teams. Fast- for­ward to March, when Michi­gan is per­haps the hottest team in the coun­try after rip­ping through the Big Ten tour­na­ment and elim­i­nat­ing good Ok­la­homa State and Louisville teams.

Against Louisville, Michi­gan trailed by nine in the sec­ond half, but it hung in there and made all the right plays — all the smart plays — in the clos­ing min­utes.

“There’s al­ways go­ing to be a lot of hype about what teams are get­ting most hype early, and it just doesn’t go away. And so as a re­sult, I just told ev­ery­body, just wait,” Wolver­ines coach John Beilein said. “The level of coach­ing in this league, the re­sources in this league, the level of ta­lent in this league, it will come to the top at the end of the year.” It al­ways does. It’s a mis­take to un­der­es­ti­mate the Big Ten at this time of year. The proof is in the brackets.

BRIAN SPURLOCK, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Michi­gan and Zak Irvin ousted Louisville on Sun­day, con­tin­u­ing a strong run for the Big Ten.

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