Trey Burke is one of the best players in the nationís best basketball conference, the Big Ten. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
The bruises and welts still are fresh. After three months of hammering each other, Big Ten teams are hoping to have a little fun. Yep, they get to patrol the rest of the NCAA playground and pick on others.
At least, that's the theory. More than ever, it needs to be the reality.
The Big Ten is the nation's best basketball conference, and is under pressure to live up to it. Debates with the Big East, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 are over. And once the Southeastern Conference puts away its football pads, it reveals skinny arms and skimpy talent, with approximately one really good hoops team per season.
But when the SEC has a chance to flex its football muscle, it almost always does, winning the last seven national titles. When the Big Ten has a chance to flex its basketball muscle, it hits the rim, without a national championship since Michigan State in 2000.
After all its football pratfalls, the conference is strongly advised to send one or two (or three) teams to the Final Four. Based on the NCAA Tournament's overall seeding, the Big Ten has four of the top 13 teams — Indiana (3), Ohio State (8), Michigan State (11) and Michigan (13). Indiana and Michigan reached No. 1 in the country, and right now, Ohio State looks like the best of the bunch.
Everyone will be watching for proof of authenticity, and it doesn't really matter that one-and-done showdowns are an unpredictable barometer.
"There's pressure because everybody's going to put it on," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "If you fail, your league's not as good. The one thing we've done this year, we've answered the bell, from the beginning to the end.
"That's why I'm hoping we get more than one team to the Final Four."
The hope is, all the grappling toughens teams for the Tournament. But since 2000, the conference has nabbed eight Final Four spots without a championship. The SEC captures football titles because of powerful defenses. The Big Ten plays the toughest basketball defense, but when six pressure-packed Tournament victories are required, it's not as easy to maintain.
A strong, balanced conference makes for great January and February clashes. But to win it all, it helps to come from a top-heavy conference and be loaded with NBA talent.
The Big Ten has excellent, experienced coaches who know each other well and run sound systems, from Izzo to Bo Ryan to Thad Matta to John Beilein to Tom Crean.
But it doesn't often have the supreme individual talent. Michigan's Trey Burke is a leading candidate for the Wooden player of the year award, along with Indiana's Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, and Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas. But the Big Ten has one Wooden Award winner the past 18 years — Ohio State's Evan Turner for 2009-10.
Everyone's been tested
Basketball doesn't require an element such as pure speed, which helps Southern football dominate. But Big Ten teams generally are built large and physical to bash each other, and aren't laden with stars such as recent winners Kentucky and North Carolina. Michigan is a prime example of stilted perceptions. On Jan. 28, the Wolverines were No. 1 in the country, then closed 6-6 against the meat of the Big Ten schedule and ended up a No. 4 seed.
"That 6-6 finish could've been even worse, or it could've been really good," Beilein said. "In this league, sometimes it's how the schedule falls."
Being smudged by your conference buddies doesn't mean you're fatally flawed. Three weeks ago, Ohio State was a mess after a 22-point loss at Wisconsin. Now, the Buckeyes have won eight straight, including the Big Ten tournament, and landed a No. 2 seed. Matta is an underrated coach with a great point guard in Aaron Craft and a terrific shooter in Thomas. And in the weak West Regional, Ohio State might have the best shot at the Final Four.
"All our (Big Ten) teams have been through every conceivable situation," Matta said. "Look at just the last month, at the last three minutes of games, and some of the things that have happened have been crazy. The one thing I've learned in the NCAA Tournament, you've got to score in the halfcourt, because the defense is as good as we've just seen."
That usually bodes well for teams with top guards, such as Burke and Craft. It's no coincidence the last Big Ten championship team, Michigan State, was led by a classic point guard, Mateen Cleaves. It also bodes well for teams with good defenses — to stifle good point guards.
After losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament finale, Ryan was asked how many conference teams could reach the Final Four. He practically harrumphed his answer.
"Any of them," Ryan said. "I don't know how you can say a team doesn't have a chance. So we just root for each other until we play each other."
Conference season a plus
When coaches talk about rooting for their own conference opponents, they're often fibbing. Will Big Ten pride truly surface when the Spartans are watching the Badgers, or the Wolverines are watching the Buckeyes, or anyone is watching the Hoosiers? Crean may preen annoyingly, but his revival of Indiana is a huge factor in the conference's rise. In any sport, you need traditional powers to be good to raise your overall profile.
Big Ten teams just spent a lot of time whacking each other with the ugly stick, and while it was wildly entertaining, we'll see if it was enlightening.
"It's been a grind, but I think it'll be good for us," Izzo said. "I always believe playing tough teams makes you better. And if it doesn't, then we weren't as tough as we thought."
It's time to go pick other fights against upstarts eager to test college basketball's bruisers. When Big Ten teams pack their bags for the Tournament, they'd better pack a punch, too.
Scouting the Big Ten
Here's a look at what the Big Ten teams have ahead of them in the NCAA Tournament:
No. 1 seed, East Regional
Besides a potential tricky third-round game against N.C. State, Indiana has few roadblocks to the Final Four.
No. 2, West Regional
Ohio State should coast in its first two games (Iona and Iowa State), but will have its hands full with a talented New Mexico in the Sweet 16.
No. 3, Midwest Regional
A productive Gary Harris is key if Michigan State has a chance to get past Duke and/or Louisville and to Atlanta.
No. 4, South Regional
If it can dial up on defense, Michigan can win some games. If not, Virginia Commonwealth will send it home in Round 3.
No. 5, West Regional
Its grinding style is tough to play against. With a few breaks, it wouldn't be shock to see the Badgers in the regional final.
No. 7, East Regional
Illinois has a solid senior backcourt (Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson) and should beat Colorado, but Miami will send it home in the third round.
No. 11, South Regional
Minnesota's ability to rebound, should get it past UCLA, but its inability to score much will end its run against Florida.
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