Amid “Down” Year, Big Ten Delivered When It Counted Most

Stop me if you've heard this before: Tom Izzo is headed to the Final Four. Photo Credit: Rich Barnes- USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Tom Izzo is headed to the Final Four. Photo Credit: Rich Barnes- USA TODAY Sports

By: Ryan Fish

Two weeks ago, Michigan State and Wisconsin battled for a Big Ten Tournament championship at the United Center in Chicago. Now, the Spartans and Badgers are headed to Indianapolis to play on a much bigger stage.

For the first time in a decade, two Big Ten teams are in the Final Four. Not bad for a season generally considered to be a “down year” for the conference by much of the national media, huh?

Considering initial expectations, this season was mostly a disappointment for the Big Ten. But down the stretch and in the midst of college basketball’s annual Madness, no conference has shined brighter.

There were certainly other great conferences on display during the tournament, of course. The loaded ACC put Duke through to Indianapolis as well; Notre Dame nearly joined them there, but the Irish’s spirited upset bid against undefeated Kentucky fell just short. Louisville, North Carolina and NC State also made deep tournament runs while top-seeded Virginia fell short of expectations by falling in the round of 32.

But it was mostly Michigan State and Wisconsin who were there to stand in the ACC’s way. The Spartans ended Virginia and Louisville’s tournament runs while Wisconsin beat the dangerous Tar Heels in the Sweet 16.

Teams with big expectations in the Big 12 also couldn’t hold up. Iowa State and Baylor faced crushing upsets in the round of 64. West Virginia looked completely outmatched against Kentucky. Kansas was sent home by Wichita State after only one win. Oklahoma made the Sweet 16 and looked poised to break this trend, but the Spartans held on late in a close game to send the Sooners packing.

The top-heavy Pac-12 also came up short. Wisconsin topped the pesky Oregon Ducks, and later dispatched Arizona in the Elite Eight for a second straight year. Utah and UCLA made admirable runs to the Regional Semis but neither proved to be “elite.”

This is not necessarily to argue that the Big Ten was or is this year’s best basketball conference. Heck, beyond its two best teams, the conference’s results in the tournament were mediocre at best. What is apparent, however, is that Wisconsin and Michigan State have shown a sense of urgency, a “win or go home” attitude, better than virtually any other team in the field of 68.

The Badgers’ talent has been dominant all season, but Wisconsin’s wins haven’t all been pretty. Conference player of the year Frank Kaminsky and the clutch shooting of Sam Dekker led a second-half comeback against North Carolina, while the duo again took control against a talented Arizona squad late in the West Regional Final.

Michigan State, meanwhile, looked pedestrian at many points during the regular season before catching fire in March. The team overcame its biggest weakness all season long, free throw shooting, to go 12-14 in the final four minutes of regulation and overtime against Oklahoma and Louisville. The team’s biggest leaders—Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine—delivered in crunch time.

Coaches Bo Ryan and Tom Izzo have certainly been in close tournament games before, and their experience seems to be paying off once again. Ryan has never failed to make a tournament with the Badgers as he enters his second straight Final Four. Izzo is headed to his seventh with the Spartans, four of those appearances coming after trailing at halftime in Elite Eight games.

If March has taught us anything about Wisconsin and Michigan State, it’s that both teams know how to perform in crunch time and know how to win. Neither team is expected to be favored in the National Semifinals, where Kentucky and Duke each pose a serious threat.

With the way these teams are playing, however, would anyone be utterly surprised if one (or both) of these conference rivals flips the script and advances to the title game? It’s not that likely.

That would be one heck of a way for the conference to cap off a “down” season, though.

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