Legacy on the line for Big Ten
Fair or not, the nation's best conference will be judged by postseason success
CHICAGO -- Tom Izzo is a competitive person. He does not like to lose.
It is safe to assume he wanted to win the Big Ten tournament for the second straight season; he did not want his Spartans to fall short in the conference semifinals to Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and the suddenly savage Ohio State Buckeyes.
And yet, in the final question of his final postgame news conference in Chicago, Izzo concluded his Big Ten responsibilities on another note: relief.
"I'm looking forward to playing anybody [else]," Izzo said. "I'd play the Lakers tomorrow instead of some of the teams I've played recently."
Your jokes about the relative merits of the Dwight Howard-era Lakers aside, it really has been that kind of season in the Big Ten.
Anointed the best conference in the country before the season began, the Big Ten lived up to those expectations and then some, producing not only its all too familiar scouting chess matches -- the conference's coaches know each other so well, Izzo said, that they "know what each other's gum is" -- but a rightful No. 1 tournament seed, a swath of conference title contenders, a final week in which four teams had a chance to share the Big Ten championship for the first time since the 1920s, a final game played with an outright title on the line and an indelible final shot that requires analysis at the molecular level. ("The Rock" may or may not still be up on the rim. Has anyone checked?)
There are other, more tangible ways to quantify the Big Ten's conference superiority. The best is efficiency, particularly Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, where five Big Ten teams (No. 3 Indiana, No. 5 Ohio State, No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 10 Michigan State and No. 11 Michigan) reside among the nation's best, and where Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa are all ranked in the top 50. As you'd expect, Pomeroy's statistical average of every Big Ten team's offensive and defensive performance grades the league the best in the country, as it has all season, and by a not-insignificant margin. There is no stats versus eyes straw man to tear down here: What Big Ten fans have seen all season has been easy to verify with numbers. The Big Ten really has been the best.
And if the league falls short in the NCAA tournament, exactly none of what you just read will matter.
This is the inescapable truth of modern college hoops conference arguments (which are, it should be noted, a little bit silly in the first place): You may be able to impress the die-hards, statisticians and partisans in the regular season, but if you want to reach the larger public -- the casual bracket-builders, the sports-talk hive mind, Twitter -- the NCAA tournament is the only way.
The other inescapable truth is that the Big Ten has won only one national title in the past 23 years, when Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000.
Since the Spartans' title, the conference has the third-best winning percentage in tourney games (.608) and an NCAA tournament record of 110-71, ranking behind only the ACC and Big 12.
The fuzzier version, the one that seeps into the wider consciousness, is that despite frequent Final Four appearances by Michigan State (1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010), Ohio State (2007, 2012) and even Indiana (2002) in that span, the Big Ten has developed a reputation for disappointing when it counts most. Since 2008, the league is just 3-10 in Sweet 16 games.
Tossing aside an entire regular season -- with a huge sample size of data from which to reach conclusions about teams, leagues and the state of the sport at large -- in favor of three weeks of single-elimination play is probably not the most rigorous way to view conference strength. The NCAA tournament is about close games and chaos and, perhaps above all, individual matchups.
"So much now becomes predicated on matchups," Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said Sunday, after Ohio State wrapped up its Big Ten tournament title. "I could sit up here and tell you some teams that I wouldn't want to play because of matchups. I know what is problematic to us. Every coach knows their own issues.
"I remember sitting in this building six years ago, seven years ago, and when the drawing came up and I saw we were playing Xavier in the second round, I was like, oh, no, that's not a good one for us," Matta said. "I knew Xavier. I don't know Notre Dame or Iowa State that well."
There is good news on this front. The selection committee, in its often bumbling seeding of the 2013 field, hooked up Matta and his conference compatriots, starting at the top.
Indiana didn't receive its coveted No. 1 overall seed, and lost the Indianapolis Regional to Louisville, but in turn received the easiest route to the Final Four of any top seed in the tournament. There are three top-10 Pomeroy teams in the Midwest; Indiana is the only top-10 squad in the East. Syracuse is a frightening No. 4 seed, and Miami could be a tough matchup in the Elite Eight, but both teams have to make it there first. In the meantime, Indiana's 8/9 opponents, NC State and Temple, are excellent matchups for the nation's top offense; both finished in the bottom half of their leagues in points allowed per possession.
Ohio State should have few problems emerging from its second-round game against either Notre Dame or Iowa State, and would happily go toe-to-toe with No. 3-seeded New Mexico's defense in the Sweet 16, were it to come to that. Wisconsin seems likely to swat mercurial Ole Miss (and guard Marshall Henderson) with its typically self-possessed defensive structure. Michigan has VCU and its havoc defense lurking in the second round, but Trey Burke and the Wolverines turn the ball over less frequently than any team in the country, and if VCU can't get turnovers, it can't get stops. Even Illinois, which opens against Colorado, and Minnesota, which could outrebound a much smaller and less physical UCLA team, got matchups they can work with.
Perhaps only Michigan State, which has Duke on the docket in the Sweet 16 and the consensus title favorite in Louisville as its No. 1, can be said to have received the ugly end of the committee's seeding stick. But of the No. 2 seeds in the tournament, the Spartans might actually match up best with Duke, as their size and balance should allow them to play near the rim against a team that prefers to force opponents to settle for midrange jumpers.
Of course, it is little use trying to spell out why the Big Ten should be able to prove itself under advantageous conditions this March. The NCAA tournament is volatile and unpredictable, and you know the one about the best laid plans. A few calls go one way, or a team gets hot at the right time, or your last-second putback decides to roll off the rim after a siesta spent atop it, and suddenly no one remembers or cares how good your season was.
They remember when you were upset. That may be unfair, but it is how most of the eyeballs focused on the NCAA tournament in the next three weeks will come to judge the otherwise stellar 2013 Big Ten season.
Call it legacy. Call it brand development. It's all on the line.
It's a daunting task, but there is a bright side: For now at least, the Big Ten is done playing the Big Ten. Call it a reprieve.
"I am really looking forward to playing somebody else," Izzo said. "I think all the Big Ten teams are, and deservedly so. We've beaten the hell out of each other."
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