This weekend in Indianapolis, the giant ever-changing bracket hung from the side of the downtown JW Marriott will sport an update that many would have found hard to believe a month ago:

For the first time in a decade, half of the Final Four field belongs to the Big Ten.

One of college basketball’s age-old debates centers around the barometer of success in the sport: is it the long, measured regular season or the NCAA tournament? The marathon of games, or the final sprint?

By the first standard, the Big Ten was disappointing this year — top-heavy and extremely erratic. Nearly everyone with an opinion — myself included — dubbed it a “down year” for the power league. But by the second and arguably most impactful standard? Different story. Four months of ups and downs and lopsided records against the other power conferences led to seven NCAA bids (tied for the most of any conference) and eventually, No. 1-seeded Wisconsin and seventh-seeded Michigan State advancing to the ultimate year-end platform — this year conveniently in the Big Ten’s back yard.

Funny how things change.

Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky expressed a similar, perhaps slightly snarkier version of that sentiment on Twitter this week.

“Remember when everyone said the Big Ten wasn’t good this year?” he tweeted. “Yea, me too.”

The Big Ten’s final sprint has been a memorable one, and for two very different reasons. The inclusion of Wisconsin is, in some ways predictable. The Badgers were ranked third nationally in the preseason AP poll (same as now), and dominated the league all year. But if anything, Wisconsin has smashed through the huge expectations assigned to it, returning to the Final Four after last year’s run on the back of Kaminsky, an extremely talented player who transformed into arguably the nation’s best. Living up to such big hype is no easy task — just ask Nebraska, Connecticut or Texas, for example, the first two of those teams were nationally ranked before the season but were nowhere to be seen on Selection Sunday, the latter snuck in the tournament as an 11th seed but was trumped on the first day.

On the other end is Michigan State, a team that early on appeared to lack the toughness typically associated with Tom Izzo teams, and one that was still causing the legendary coach to turn away and cling to the scorer’s table during the final game of the regular season. In that game — at Indiana — one Michigan State player intentionally fouled with seconds left while up two, and another made a free throw he was supposed to miss — nearly wiping away the wrapup win.

Yet here the Spartans are, coming full circle after a No. 18 preseason ranking looked to be firmly in the rearview. Michigan State started playing this way in the Big Ten tournament, when it plowed all the way to the title game, forcing overtime vs. Wisconsin before losing by 11. En route to Izzo’s seventh Final Four — of all of those this team was ranked the lowest in the preseason and heading into the tournament, and received the worst seed — Michigan State had to upset No. 2 seed Virginia, No. 3 seed Oklahoma and No. 4 seed Louisville.

Now, both of the league’s teams are underdogs heading into Saturday’s games at Lucas Oil Stadium — Wisconsin for the first time, by seeding, since the start of the tournament — making an all-Big Ten final and revenge match of the Big Ten tournament championship unlikely. The Badgers have the size and rebound potential to match up well with Kentucky, but the Wildcats remain unbeaten, and the overwhelming favorite. And it’s hard to argue that Michigan State isn’t the hottest team still alive — but the Spartans’ interior defense will have its hands full with Duke center Jahlil Okafor.

Regardless of the outcomes, though, this season of Madness has to be viewed as a success for the Big Ten, which last sported two Final Four teams in 2005, when Michigan State lost in the semifinals and Illinois lost in the final. The regular-season’s fickleness isn’t meaningless, but it isn’t the entire story either. The Big 12, the league routinely called the country’s best this season, and the tournament’s other seven-bid conference, lost some of its luster after three of those squads dropped on the first Thursday. No Big 12 team made it past the Sweet 16.

The NCAA tournament, unlike the regular season, is all about matchups. One bad draw, one bad night and any team can go home. Still, the bottom line is what happens in March (and now April) resonates.

The NCAA tournament is where legends are made, bonuses secured, new jobs earned and — in the case of the Big Ten — redemption is found.

 

Amelia Rayno amelia.rayno@startribune.com