Closing the Book on the Big Ten as the Nations “Best” ConferencePosted by jnowak on April 24th, 2013
In order to fully gauge the strength of the Big Ten this season, you first have to establish some criteria. What makes a conference great? The teams at the top, or the teams at the bottom? Overall depth? Non-conference performance? Teams ranked in the Top 25 throughout the year, or teams that make the NCAA Tournament? Advancement in the Big Dance? Or as much as a Final Four or NCAA Title? Everybody has a different scale, so let’s consider the Big Ten on all of these.
- The Top: Indiana and Michigan both spent time ranked No. 1 in the country, and the Hoosiers earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. At one point in the year — Week 15, as a matter of fact — the AP had No. 1 Indiana, No. 4 Michigan, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 13 Ohio State represented from the league. That is a pretty good concentration at the top. And all four stayed there, with Michigan receiving the lowest NCAA Tournament seed (No. 4) of the group, but still advanced to the national championship game.
- The Bottom: It looked like Penn State would be historically bad (keep in mind the Nittany Lions lost their best player, Tim Frazier, early in the season) before salvaging their season with a remarkable upset of Michigan and another win against Northwestern. But, as you’ll see in the following Overall Depth section, every team in the conference had some wins to hang its hat on. The conference was still 64-1 overall against teams ranked #201 or lower by TeamRankings.com and 65-11 against teams ranked #101-#200. The only conference with fewer losses (zero) against teams ranked #201 or worse was the Mountain West (38-0), which played far fewer games as well.
- Overall Depth: We all know that no road game in the Big Ten should be considered a gimme. Just ask Michigan, which was on its way to probably at least sharing the conference title and perhaps earning a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed before it lost at Penn State for the Nittany Lions’ first conference win of the year. Northwestern beat Minnesota and Illinois. Nebraska beat Minnesota and Iowa. Minnesota beat Indiana (when it was No. 1), Wisconsin and Illinois. Illinois beat Ohio State and Indiana (again when the Hoosiers were No. 1). Purdue beat Wisconsin. To sum it up: Nobody in this league was safe.
- Non-Conference Performance: At the end of the season, TeamRankings.com had the Big Ten ranked No. 1 overall (a 111.0 rating, just ahead of the Big East’s 109.9) in conference strength of schedule. On a smaller scale, consider these accomplishments: a tie in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Michigan State over Kansas in the Champions Classic, Minnesota over Memphis and Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis, Illinois over USC and Butler to win the Maui Invitational, Ohio State over Rhode Island and Washington to win the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, Wisconsin over Arkansas in the Las Vegas Invitational, Michigan over Pitt and Kansas State to win the NIT Season Tip-Off, and Indiana over Georgia and Georgetown to win the Legends Classic. That’s strength.
- Top 25 Teams: As I mentioned before, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana all enjoyed permanent stays near the top of the Top 25 rankings. They were joined over the course of the season by Wisconsin (as high as #17), Illinois (as high as #10) and Minnesota (as high as #8).
- NCAA Tournament Teams: The Big Ten had seven teams — Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois — participate in the Big Dance, second only to the Big East’s eight participants this season.
- Advancement in the NCAA Tournament: The Big Ten went 14-7 overall in the NCAA Tournament (to say nothing of Iowa’s advancement to the NIT Championship), good for a winning percentage of .667 that was matched only by the the Atlantic Sun (2-1 with one bid) and topped by the Missouri Valley (5-2 with two bids). Six of the seven teams won its first game (sorry, Wisconsin) while five of the Big East’s eight teams were eliminated in its first game. The Big Ten had four schools advance to the Sweet Sixteen (Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State), and two more beyond that (the Buckeyes and Wolverines advance to the Elite Eight).
- The Final Four and National Championship: Michigan, of course, was the conference’s lone representative at the Final Four in Atlanta. Surely, many would have considered the Big Ten’s overall season a failure if it didn’t have at least one team in Atlanta. But Michigan joined Louisville (Big East), Wichita State (Missouri Valley) and Syracuse (Big East) there this season. The Wolverines knocked off Syracuse in the national semifinals before losing to Louisville in the final.
Again, success on the part of the Big Ten this year is based on what you consider success. The conference’s teams flexed their muscles in early-season non-conference tournaments. It was the most exciting conference to watch during the year, with must-see TV on the regular. It was well-represented in the NCAA Tournament — much like the Big East — and had a team advance to final stage. The best conference in the country? That’s up to you. But you can’t have the conversation without including the Big Ten.