Dismiss Big Ten at your own risk come March
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.
Michigan and Zak Irvin ousted Louisville on Sunday, continuing a strong run for the Big Ten.