In a rare year for college basketball, filled with even more parity than usual, no team ever emerged as a clear-cut number one team. Indiana, Duke, Michigan, Louisville have all had their time at “No. 1″ team in the rankings only to drop a game soon after; for the past three weeks, its been Gonzaga. There was never much doubt, however, about who the toughest conference was. The Big Ten was arguably as good as it’s ever been this season, with 8 of its 12 teams notching 20 wins. Although the Big East leads the way with eight teams in the NCAA tournament – at 15 teams, they’re the largest the nations’ largest conference – the Big Ten came in second with seven, more than 50 percent of its teams. Their collective non-conference record of 121-31 is telling.
For the past two-and-a-half months, they’ve pounded on each other. Historically, the Big Ten is a tough, physical conference, breeding competitive, grind-it-out basketball; this season, with so many high-quality teams, has been an extreme.
“The hard part about going through 18-20 games in the Big Ten is it beats you up. This is as brutal as I’ve ever gone through,” Ohio St. head coach Thad Matta said during the Big Ten tournament last week in Chicago where his Buckeyes survived to win the conference tournament. “I know this: All [Big Ten] teams are battle tested. All teams have been through every conceivable situation. I mean, you look at just the last month, at the last three minutes of basketball games, and some of the things that have happened have been crazy. Today, we’re up four or five and I’m saying to myself, ‘this could be another highlight moment for something,’ and I think that’s what this league does for you.”
As Matta said, every team has been through the fire. Illinois, a seven-seed, has beaten current number one Gonzaga and Indiana, a popular pick to win it all; Wisconsin has beaten both Michigan and Indiana twice; Minnesota, an eight-seed, despite sputtering toward the end of the season also boasts a win over Indiana and have played the fourth toughest schedule in the country; Michigan St. is third in strength of schedule; Michigan spent time ranked at number 1, have a National Player of the Year candidate and multiple future NBA players, yet finished fifth in the Big Ten conference.
All are equipped mettle and have dealt with plenty adversity. What remains to be seen is if these teams are so beat up that it will hinder them in the tournament, or if it will help because they’re tougher than everybody else. Ohio St. has hit their stride most recently, currently riding an eight-game win streak, including winning the Big Ten Tournament, but every team has had ups-and-downs throughout conference play. Was that simply because the teams know each other so well, or a sign of fatigue and physical play wearing on players and coaches?
Michigan St. head coach Tom Izzo would argue the former: “[Former Izzo assistant and current Indiana head coach] Tom Crean‘s my guy. We built my program together, he knows it better than I do,” he said. “Some of these guys I’ve gone against now for 10 years. It’s hard when you’ve got good players and even teams, and you know what each other’s gum is. It’s hard, so I am really looking forward to playing somebody else and I think all the Big Ten teams are and deservedly so. We’ve beaten the hell out of each other, we really have. I think it’s gonna help all of us in the end. I believe the toughest teams, the one’s that have been through the most, that can sit there in pre-game or halftime and say, ‘we’ve done this, we’ve been there, we’ve played these guys,’ it’s gonna benefit. I’m looking forward to playing anybody [else]. I’d play the Lakers tomorrow instead of some of the teams I’ve played recently.”
Of all the Big Ten’s teams, Indiana stands out as the most consistently dangerous and balanced, and thus is top pick to cut down the nets. Between National Player of the Year candidates and potential lottery picks Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, veterans Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey, standout freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell and others, they possess more weapons than anybody else in the country, in addition to the fact that they defend at a high level and play unselfish.
“The guys we have on this team are great,” Zeller said during the Big Ten tournament. “Everyone is humble, there’s no jealousy at all, which makes us a tough team to beat because we’re such a close group. Whether it’s me with 20 [points], or Will or Jordan, it doesn’t really matter to any of us as long as we win.” Oladipo added: “It takes our whole team to win. When guys off the bench step up, and Christian and Jordan step up, it’s huge for us and they’re very capable of that. Without them we can’t win.”
Indiana head coach Tom Crean affirmed his players’ thoughts, saying, “When you have a team like we have that’s answered the bell all year long, responded from tough games and seen what we’ve seen, [our] team has been the headline maker because these guys are so unselfish and so selfless with one another in the way that they work, the way that they share the credit, the way they play offensively and defensively – we’ve been in the top percentages of offense the entire year, and we’ve been in the top 20 with the defense – I don’t think that happens if don’t you have a team committed to both.” He continued, “I think when you have the league the way that it is, when you win it outright the way that we did, one of the bigger things is the way that we’ve played on the road – the only home losses that Michigan, Michigan St. and Ohio St. have are to us – I think that says a lot because those are three teams that could win a national championship and have been considered that way for most of the year.”
The way the bracket is laid out, an all-Big Ten Final Four, though unlikely, is absolutely possible. Michigan, Michigan St. and Indiana are all in different regions, and Ohio St. and Wisconsin, after meeting in the Big Ten championship are in the fourth region.
For all of the Indiana praise, Wisconsin has their number, beating them 12 times in a row, including twice this season. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that wanna play and play hard,” said Wisconsin senior forward Mike Bruwsewitz. “That’s kind of how college basketball has gone this whole year. We’ve had numerous times a change of the number one [ranking] and it’s gonna make for a great NCAA tournaments. I don’t think a lot of 1-seeds are gonna be making the Final Four. If they do, that’s great, but it’s a wide open thing. Anybody can beat anybody on any night.”