The Big Ten badly needs to win the NCAA Tournament this year. They haven’t won it since 2000 when Michigan State cut down the nets, and even though — or perhaps because — they have lost in the Championship Game four times since, they really need to show that they are good enough to take it all down again. Since the last Big Ten win we’ve seen four different teams — Duke, North Carolina, UConn and Florida — win the title twice each. It’s getting downright embarrassing for the conference.
The conference always feels that pressure, but it is especially intense this year. They were clearly the strongest conference in the country — by a wide margin — and they have had a very good first weekend of the tournament as well. To fall short now would be very tough to take. So, is this the year that the Big Ten slump ends? Or are they going to find a way to disappoint again? Let’s look at both sides of the argument for Big Ten teams in the Sweet 16:
Plus - Clear path. Amazingly, despite having fully a quarter of the remaining teams in the bracket, Big Ten teams can’t run into each other until the Final Four. That maximizes the chances of winning — you can’t win if you don’t make it.
Minus - Tough paths. The remaining paths for the teams are tough. Ohio State’s is easiest, but they still have to beat a very talented Arizona squad. Michigan faces Kansas and likely Florida. Indiana has Syracuse and Miami looming. Michigan State really has to run the gauntlet — Duke and Louisville. All four teams face opponents that would be far from embarrassing to lose to — and that’s just what it takes to get the Final Four. They still have to win two games once they get there.
Plus - Playing well. Michigan has been the best team in the tournament so far. Michigan State has been excellent. Ohio State and Indiana faced huge tests and were tough enough to overcome them. All four teams are in top form.
Minus - Not exactly models of consistency. Michigan in the first half of the season was much better than in the second half. Indiana looked great unless they didn’t show up for a game. Ohio State and Michigan State could both check out at key times. Just because we have liked what we have seen from all four teams doesn’t mean we will see it again.
Plus - Three of four Big Ten teams have the best player in their region. Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo could be not just the best in their region but in the tournament. Aaron Craft isn’t the most talented, but he is the most clutch — that winning shot against Iowa State was ridiculously cold-blooded.
Minus - Best player doesn’t always win. You don’t have to look very far back to see that the best player in a tournament doesn’t always win. Besides, Burke didn’t show up in Michigan’s opener, and Oladipo wasn’t much of a factor in his opener, either.
Plus - The Big Ten is popular. Fans form the league travel well, and casual fans will like the Big Ten teams more than some, so the crowd support will be strong. That’s especially important for Michigan State in Indianapolis because it’s such a short trip from there to Louisville.
Minus - Arizona, Louisville, Florida and Syracuse all likely to travel better. Each of those teams — one per region — has the geographical advantage in game location, and that should translate to more crowd support than the Big Ten squads get.
Plus - Big Ten tested. Each team has unique strengths — Michigan is explosive offensively, Ohio State has Craft and his fearless and pesky play, Indiana has the best one-two punch of bigs in the country, and Michigan State is tough as nails. Those traits have been tested and forged through brutal Big Ten play.
Minus - Matchups don’t always emphasize those traits. Jeff Withey and the defensive wall of Kansas could smother Michigan’s offense. None of Ohio State’s opponents have anything to lose, so they will be just as fearless. Michigan State’s toughness won’t give them an edge against a Duke team that punched Creighton in the face all night on Sunday. Indiana faces a lot of athleticism that could prove to be an issue.
Plus - The Big Ten is in excellent form. The conference has been outstanding in the tournament. Four teams in the Sweet 16. Six in the Round of 32. Only Wisconsin was a flat-out disappointment. It has been an exceptional conference all year, and the four best teams from the group are still standing.
Minus - The teams play the games, not the conference. What the conference has done up to this point doesn’t mean anything. The Mountain West had been outstanding according to the RPI and passed the smell test as well coming into the tournament. They were absolutely terrible as individual teams when the pressure was on, though.