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.