Big Ten clears its name with five tournament wins

Here it is, after the Ides of March, and miracle of miracles, the Big Ten hasn’t yet been dismissed from the NCAA tournament.
OK, so it’s only one team — the Gophers, the Big Ten champions and No. 1 seed in the Midwest, who are still alive. Illinois lost a game on Sunday it had an excellent chance to win. Wisconsin and Indiana made first-round exits. But Purdue and Iowa helped save face by playing very well in losses against No. 1 seeds Kansas and Kentucky, respectively.
It might not seem like much, but judging from its recent tournament past, the Big Ten hasn’t fared too badly this year.
For the last few years, critics have accused the Big Ten of being a pox on the tournament, and rightfully so. The conference compiled a pitiful 3-11 record in the 1995 and 1996 tournaments, failing to put even one team in the Sweet Sixteen.
Purdue, as the conference champion and highest-seeded Big Ten team, was the biggest culprit. The Boilermakers squeaked out first-round victories both years before bowing out in the second round.
Gophers coach Clem Haskins said he doesn’t think Minnesota is playing for the conference’s honor. He also said it’s insulting to other teams to presume that wins over Big Ten teams are somehow less impressive because the Big Ten isn’t as strong as it used to be.
The 5-5 record by the Big Ten isn’t scintillating, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Minnesota was the only Big Ten team seeded above a No. 6. The other four were all seeded between sixth and ninth in their respective regions.
In the second round Purdue and Iowa went from potential clowns, to clones, each putting a scare into a No. 1 seed despite their own low seeding. Kentucky coach Rick Pitino went so far as to say Iowa was a “Final Four-type team.”
The point is, the seeding of the majority of the Big Ten teams prevented them from doing much damage in the tournament. An upset of a top-seeded team would have been a little too much to ask.
Compare the performances of the Big Ten teams to those of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference, and suddenly the Big Ten doesn’t look like the embarrassment it was advertised to be. Even the heavily-hyped ACC has just two Sweet Sixteen teams.
With all the talk this season about it easily being the best conference in the nation, the ACC’s productivity has been less than expected. It had a No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 seed in the tournament. No. 5 Maryland went out in the first round, and No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Wake Forest exited in the second.
The SEC had a No. 1, 2 and 3 seed in the tourney a few days ago. No. 2 South Carolina and No. 3 Georgia were both upset in the first round.
After watching the first two upset-laden rounds of the tournament, you might heed the eloquent advice of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim regarding the power ratings used to rank tournament teams.
“This power ratings crap,” said Boeheim, whose team plays in the low-rated Big East. “You can take it and shove it.”
In other, more elaborate words, teams from the ACC and other conferences that had similar records to Big Ten and Big East teams got the benefit of the doubt during the tournament seeding process because their conferences are acknowledged to be better. Strength of schedule is a big factor in power ratings. But the NCAA tournament has been the great equalizer in determining who is overrated.
In defense of its critics, the Big Ten is hardly stocked with NBA lottery picks, and hasn’t been since Michigan’s Fab Five broke up a few years ago. The only sure draft picks coming out of the conference this year are Minnesota’s Bobby Jackson, Iowa’s Andre Woolridge and Illinois’ Kiwane Garris, and none of them are expected to go in the first round.
But then again, that’s the situation in nearly every conference. Big Ten teams haven’t been recruiting many top-flight players, but those teams from other conferences who do get such players invariably lose them before their eligibility expires.
Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse would be seniors for North Carolina this year, ditto for Ray Allen of Connecticut. Allen Iverson and Antoine Walker would be juniors for Georgetown and Kentucky, respectively. All of those players were lottery picks, and none were from the Big Ten.
So what do you get when you add up all the tournament seedings and results, then subtract the lottery talent?
Congratulations, Big Ten. The rest of the college basketball world is coming back to you.