After spending 11 weeks beating up on each other in college basketball’s version of The Octagon, seven Big Ten teams are finally ready to dance.
Selection Sunday went about as well as could be expected for the Big Ten. Indiana landed a No. 1 seed, although not in the region it wanted. Ohio State looks like a dangerous No. 2 seed in the West after winning the conference tournament.
The Big Ten landed a No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 seed, respectively, in Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Illinois (No. 7) and Minnesota (No. 11) both made the 68-team field, and selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski said Iowa was one of the five closest calls not to make the tournament.
Some of the first-round matchups look tough, but as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, “I’d rather play the Lakers tomorrow than some of these teams we’ve played recently.”
The Big East led all conferences with eight NCAA selections, including top overall seed Louisville, but that soon-to-be shrinking league has 15 teams. The Big Ten currently has 12.
Some are calling this the year of the midmajor. Gonzaga, the top seed in the West, became the first midmajor team to finish the season ranked No. 1 in the AP poll after going 31-2 and 16-0 in the West Coast Conference.
The Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West each had five selections — just like the Big 12 and Pac-12. And that was more than the Atlantic Coast Conference (four teams) and Southeastern Conference (three).
It was also a good year for midmajor bubble teams. Middle Tennessee, Boise State, St. Mary’s and La Salle all got in. Meanwhile, this year’s NCAA snubs included Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia and Maryland.
Kentucky won the NCAA title last year but went 21-11 this year and lost 64-48 to Vanderbilt in the SEC quarterfinals.
“When there’s 68 teams and you don’t get in, you only have to look in the mirror,” CBS analyst Steve Kerr said. “You can look at a number of games on the schedule where Kentucky’s probably kicking themselves. The SEC’s not considered a strong conference, and that probably hurt them, too.”
Bobinski said six teams received strong consideration for No. 1 seeds. In the end, those went to Louisville, Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga.
Indiana appeared to hurt itself with Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten semifinals. The Hoosiers had a chance to be the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, which will culminate in Indianapolis. But Louisville got that assignment. Indiana is in the East Region with No. 2 seed Miami.
The Hurricanes were the first ACC team to win the regular season title and conference tournament without landing a No. 1 seed. They’ll be out to prove something if they make it to the Sweet 16 in Washington, D.C.
“If we had five spots, Miami would be there with us,” Bobinski said. “We have great appreciation for the year Miami has had. In the final analysis, we put Gonzaga just ahead of them. But it was very, very close.”
It’s easy to pick apart Gonzaga’s résumé because the Zags weren’t tested as much as other teams. Gonzaga had just one win against a Top 25 team. New Mexico (29-5), by comparison, had four.
Steve Alford’s New Mexico squad is the No. 3 seed in the West, so the Lobos could get the chance to challenge Ohio State and potentially Gonzaga and Kansas State for a berth in the Final Four.
Louisville might be the top overall seed, but as CBS analyst Clark Kellogg said, “I just don’t think there’s a team that’s distinguished itself as the favorite.”
So after having six different teams reach the top 10 at one point or another this year, the Big Ten will look to prove itself as college basketball’s superior conference. It hasn’t produced an NCAA champion since Michigan State won it all in 2000.
The Big Ten put six teams in the tournament last year and went 11-6. Ohio State advanced to the Final Four but lost to Kansas in the semifinals.
The whole sport has been so unpredictable this year, so who knows?
“If it reflects our regular season in any way,” Bobinski said, “it should be extremely competitive and exciting.”