Keeping Up Appearances: This Postseason is Important For the Big TenPosted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on March 20th, 2014
What a difference a year can make. On the morning of the opening of the 2013 NCAA Tournament there was considerable discussion about potentially seeing two or maybe even three Big Ten teams in the Final Four. There was plenty of buzz about the chances of several conference contenders like Michigan, Indiana and Michigan State making a deep run into April. Future lottery picks such as Trey Burke, Mitch McGary, Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller were household names. This year, on the same morning of the opening of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the league is in a different place. Except for Michigan State, a team that finally appears to be healthy, Big Ten teams aren’t being touted very highly. The rest of the squads have the appearance of, at best, second weekend teams, and at worst, early upset victims. All of this leads to one question heading into the Round of 64: What are the reasonable expectations for Big Ten teams, and will the overall reputation of the conference be damaged with a poor performance over the next two weeks?
On paper, three teams – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Michigan State – appear to have a shot to make the Final Four. But let’s be honest here; each of these have exhibited their flaws throughout the regular season, and none have consistently proved that they have the talent to compete for the national title. Neither the Badgers nor the Wolverines have great interior defense, a major weakness that will hurt them against bigger teams such as Arizona or Kansas. The Spartans have the requisite size to compete with those teams, but their sometimes lackadaisical attitude could lead to their demise against a team that just plays harder for 40 minutes. While Tom Izzo deserves the benefit of the doubt because of his multiple-Final Four track record, it remains quite possible that Sparty could fall short. If Michigan State and the other two teams fall short of the Final Four as well, an oh-fer will be a significant blow to the brand of Big Ten basketball.
Notwithstanding the fact that it has been 14 years since a Big Ten team has won the national title, the conference has sent a vast array of representatives to the Final Four in the interim, a reflection of what might be the most diverse basketball league in the country. We’ve heard the argument that there is no conference better than the Big Ten from top to bottom, but without at least one Final Four team to carry the league banner, that argument can be easily flipped into one of sustained mediocrity. Think about it. Is Ohio State just not good enough to score consistently, or are the opposing defenses that much better? The Buckeyes’ clearly had their struggles this year, but if they continue to struggle against non-conference teams in the Tournament, then it can be concluded that maybe they’re just not a very good team. Power rankings and other statistics can be used to understand the overall strength of the conference, but the NCAA Tournament is where the most compelling arguments for success are made.
Last year, with Indiana and Michigan basketball both again relevant, it appeared that the conference was moving in the direction of breaking its national title drought. But the 2013-14 regular season was a bit of a disappointment and the postseason could make it worse if no Big Ten team advances to Arlington. The ACC and the SEC may still have more legitimate national title contenders, but at least the B1G could fall back on its consistency. Using a tennis analogy, the Big Ten needs to hold serve this year by sending at least one team to the Final Four and a couple more to the Sweet Sixteen. Anything short of that would be a step back. The ACC is only going to get stronger with the pending addition of Louisville next season, but the Big Ten needs the next few weeks to go well to uphold its basketball image.