Reporting Matt Ryan
During the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten once again lived up to its billing as the best conference in college basketball. Seven of its schools made the field of 64 and now each region of the Sweet Sixteen includes a member of the conference. Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State are all still alive in the Big Dance.
That gives the Big Ten an even 25% chance of sending a team to the Final Four, winning the Final Four, or the Final Four in Atlanta becoming an all-Midwestern affair. While the Big Ten has been considered the premier league this season, it would be an unprecedented achievement for a single conference to have all four teams that are playing in the national semifinals.
This feat could be taking place in the heart of SEC country and in the building where college football’s top conference hosts its championship game.
The Big East set the gold standard for a dominant conference by having three schools appear in the 1985 Final Four. A feat no conference has matched since.
However, there have been multiple occasions when a conference had teams; playing in both Final Four games, playing against each other in the Final Four, and even meeting in the national title game.
In an eight year span from 1999 to 2006, every Final Four included two teams from the same conference, something that has only occurred once since then.
Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, two championship games have been played between teams from the same conference; the 1985 matchup between Villanova and Georgetown, as well as the 1988 showdown between Oklahoma and Kansas.
Before the Big Ten can have four teams in the Final Four; Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State all need to survive and advance in their Sweet Sixteen matchups.
The last conference to send four teams to the Elite Eight, was the Big East during the 2009 tournament. Having half of the Elite Eight being represented by your conference is a big achievement, but the Big East fell just short of having five teams in that round and one of their schools in all of the regional finals.
Ohio State is in the best position to reach the Final Four among the remaining Big Ten schools. The Buckeyes will face sixth-seeded Arizona on Thursday and with a victory would then take on the winner of the La Salle/Wichita State game. Both teams have had great runs to the Sweet Sixteen, but either one would have a tough time getting past a Buckeyes squad that would be carrying an 11 game winning streak dating back to February 20th.
Indiana is the top seed in the only region that still has all four of its top seeds remaining. The Hoosiers face Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen and would face Marquette or Miami, in what would be their first regional final in 11 years. Miami looked beatable against another Big Ten school, Illinois on Sunday night, while Marquette survived consecutive nail-bitters in the first weekend of play. The Hoosiers have a favorable path to the Georgia Dome, but the Hurricanes could be a difficult test if Shane Larkin can lead them past an unpredictable Marquette squad.
Michigan also has a favorable road to the dome as well. The Wolverines face a Kansas squad on Friday night, that hardly played like a top four seed during its first two games in the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks were challenged by a Western Kentucky squad that shot less than 32% from the field and missed 17 three-point attempts. Those struggles continued against North Carolina with a nine point deficit at the half, but Kansas finally found its form in the second half against the Tar Heels, coming back to win by a dozen points. A victory over the Jayhawks would set up a matchup with the Florida Gators (appearing in their third straight Elite Eight) or 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast. Its been a great ride for Andy Enfield and his Eagles, but the madness would likely end against Trey Burke and the Wolverines.
Without a doubt the Big Ten team with the toughest path ahead of them are the Spartans. Michigan State begins their second weekend of the NCAA Tournament against Duke. If they can get past the Blue Devils, a matchup with top-seeded Louisville is likely in the forecast. The Cardinals are a heavy favorite to reach Atlanta and could be the reason why the Big Ten’s accomplishment stands as having four teams in the Elite Eight, not the Final Four. Michigan State was upset by Louisville in last year’s Sweet Sixteen, a loss that prevented them from facing 7-seed Florida, in what would have been a very favorable matchup for the Spartans.
The potential is there for an All-Big Ten Final Four (25%), but there is still a strong possibility for an upset or two to occur along the way that will prevent that feat from happening (75%). Everything would have to go in favor of the remaining Big Ten teams during the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight, in order for the Georgia Dome to become the sight for a de facto second Big Ten tournament in as many months.
2013 has already been a banner year for the Big Ten, but the conference’s legacy for this season is still being written.