March Madness: Big Ten teams shutting down critics, making splash in NCAA tournament
INDIANAPOLIS — Gather round, all those who have been talking about this being such a down season in the Big Ten.
Wait. Where’d everybody go?
Apparently that opinion is under further review. The league might have been discounted in the tournament seedings — Purdue was the lone member in the top four in any region — but maybe it’s time to go back and check the monitor.
After Wisconsin shredded the Villanova defense with 53 percent shooting.
And Michigan did the same thing to Louisville, with 63 percent in the second half. “Unheard of against us,” Louisville’s Deng Adel said.
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Plus, Northwestern spotted Gonzaga a 22-point head start, then nearly scared the Z out of Zags at the end.
“In the past 24 hours, we’ve shown how good of a conference the Big Ten is,” Michigan’s Zak Irvin said Sunday, the Wolverines fresh off shoving past Louisville. Two of the highest seeds to be evicted from the tournament — No. 1 Villanova, No. 2 Louisville — were courtesy of the Big Ten.
Compare that to, say, the mighty ACC. The debris from shattered hopes is ankle deep there, as a striking number of members of the league ended being used for target practice — Virginia lost by 26, Florida State by 25, Miami (Fla.) by 20, Notre Dame by 12, Virginia Tech by 10. And then Louisville and Duke fell on Black Sunday.
Nine teams in the bracket, eight gone by Sunday night. They dropped like the confetti will on Championship Monday. Had North Carolina not barely held off Arkansas, the ACC would have had as many teams in the Sweet 16 as the Summit League.
But it was the Big Ten that took the knocks this season. Some in the league have grown a tad cranky on the subject.
“For us as coaches and players, it’s hard to talk about it,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said after the Boilermakers got past Iowa State. “Tell [critics] to go play Michigan. People don’t think our league is any good, tell them to go play Wisconsin. They’re not an eighth seed. I don’t understand that. You don’t understand basketball if you put Wisconsin an eighth seed.
“You play Michigan State, you better bring your lunch. We’ve got a good league.”
Seemed that way more every hour this weekend. So what’s led to this Big Ten surge?
One thing is seniors. Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have been down this tournament road so often at Wisconsin, their middle names should be March. Derrick Walton Jr. and Irvin have been the leaders in Michigan’s blossoming. Such savvy is gold right now.
Another thing is talent. Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and his 28 double-doubles are on the short list for national player of the year. Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ has been mentioned on several All-American teams.
A third is the experience of going through a league that might have had no nationally renowned juggernauts but did feature a bunch of teams close to one another. Hence it was a winter of tough and taut nights that can harden a team for the tournament. Michigan had three overtime games against conference opponents, and four more decided by four or fewer points.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games. That’s what you get when you play in the Big Ten,” the Wolverines’ Duncan Robinson said. “Some of them we won, and some we lost. The best teams learn in victory or defeat. We took away a lot from those losses.”
A fourth is coaching. Take Beilein. He has led four different schools to the NCAA tournament, and Michigan to the national championship game four years ago. He understands this time of year and how what happened three months ago might have formed others’ opinions but carries little weight now.
“There’s always going to be a lot of about what teams are getting the most hype early, and it just doesn’t go away,” he said. ”And so as a result, I told everybody, 'Just wait.' The level of coaching in this league, the resources in this league, the level of talent in this league, it will come to the top at the end of the year.
“There’s a process that people go through to develop their teams and we had a lot of good seniors last year who graduated and a lot of guys waiting in the wings. It may not have showed in November or December. It's showing in March.”
The ACC should have been so lucky.