March Madness: The Big Ten Tournament goes to Washington
Welcome to Washington, D.C., Big Ten tournament. Remind us again, why are you here, 600 miles from your roots?
The league commissioner will get to that in a minute. But first, before the games begin Wednesday in the Verizon Center, some of the things that could happen this week, as the Big Ten visits the nation's capital in the spring, just like a lot of field trips.
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Maryland could play in its first Big Ten tournament championship game, eight miles from campus, and the crowd would be so pro-Terps, it’d seem like the title was being decided in Mark Turgeon’s driveway.
Iowa, one of the hottest teams in the conference, could play its way off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament. Or Illinois. Or even Indiana, though with 14 losses already in the bag, that would be asking a lot.
Michigan State could erase any lingering doubts about its bid, even with 13 defeats against a brutal schedule.
Northwestern could get to the semifinals for the first time in history, throwing that on the pile of barriers the Wildcats have broken through this season.
Minnesota could make a run, one year after it was destroyed in its first game by Illinois by 33 points, ending a miserable 8-23 season with only five available scholarship players. The Gophers arrive in town this week 23-8. That’s what you call 180 degrees opposite.
Rutgers could win its first conference tournament game.
And in the end, the Big Ten – which can claim considerable balance but not one team in the top 10 -- could show the league it is better than its detractors think.
As Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said, “Parity doesn’t mean poor. Sometimes parity means we’re deeper top to bottom.”
And as Northwestern’s Chris Collins said, “I think we’ve been very undersold . . . I think there are many teams in this league that are built to win in the postseason.”
And as Purdue’s Matt Painter said, “This is the time of year that we’ve got to prove we have a good league.”
That will have to start this week in Washington, which brings us back to the original topic. Why is an event that has thrived bouncing back and forth between Chicago and Indianapolis – the continental divide of Big Ten country – suddenly down the street from the White House?
Maybe commissioner Jim Delany can explain.
“I think it’s just a strong statement that we’ve expanded. It’s different, but I think it’s important to us to express to the people of Maryland and at Rutgers and at Penn State that we truly want to live in two regions,” he said. “Our presidents and athletic directors and coaches agreed. We could have waited five or 10 years but we thought we should do it now. It’s like anything else; if you wait until it’s convenient, you might be waiting a long time.
“Chicago and Indianapolis are terrific. We’ll be there the great majority of the time. But if you’re going to expand into a new region, you have an obligation to build and serve and try to tie the two regions together ASAP.”
Delany mentioned how 20 percent of Big Ten alums live in the eastern corridor between Washington and New York (where the tournament will be next year). How a lot of potential recruits call the region home. “Also, our schools receive about $11 billion for research annually, so we do a lot of work in Washington. And the media capital of the world is up and down that corridor. So there are a lot of reasons for us to be there, and if you’re going to be there, you might as well really be there.”
Maryland was promised this soon after joining up; part of an assimilation effort that Delany said was missing when Penn State came aboard in the early 1990s.
“I think we’ve learned a lot about expansion in the past quarter of a century,” he said “And one of the things we’ve learned is you just can’t expand and expect everything to be as it was. You need to work at it. To be honest, I wish we had worked harder, but we were new to the game.”
Hence, say hello the Verizon Center. And Delany said he is confident of what his league will show.
“It’s been a truly unique season in many ways,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it, we don’t have that top-10 team, but I think we’ve got eight or nine top-50 teams. We have had more competitive games than at any time. More winners on the last shot, more winners in overtime, more winners in closely contested games. I’ve never seen a conference, this one or any other one, with this kind of competitiveness.”
He can point to several flattering quirks. North Carolina and Kansas will probably be No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Indiana beat both – and is only No. 10 seed this week. Michigan is No. 8 seed in the Big Ten, and beat SMU, who is 27-4. Northwestern, the No. 6 seed, took care of Atlantic 10 champion Dayton.
Meanwhile, six different teams were ranked No. 1 this season. Michigan State lost to three of them.
“I think we’ll be fairly treated by the (selection) committee,” Delany said. “I’m not here to make any predictions or excuses. I love our league, I love our coaches and our players. And I think we’re going to be just fine. And for the 40th year in a row we’ll probably lead the country in attendance.”
Now we’ll find out how a league tournament of mostly Midwestern blood plays in Washington. Maryland in the final game will mean a full house Sunday. Hard to say, if it's Wisconsin vs. Purdue.