March 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Matt Charboneau

Rugged Big Ten play pays off for its teams

Michigan's Tim Hardaway fights through a trap against VCU on Saturday. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Before the NCAA Tournament started, TNT analyst Charles Barkley said he thought the Mountain West Conference was better than the Big Ten.

In fact, he called the Big Ten "overrated."

Former Michigan State All-American Steve Smith did his best to defend the conference, but some in the CBS studio agreed with Barkley, suggesting the Big East was the best among the nation's conferences.

But as the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament closed on Sunday night, anyone who might suggest any such thing at this point — even the outlandish Sir Charles — would have to be declared a bit off base.

Or, as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo so often says, they'd "have to call dial-a-clue."

With the field down to 16, four Big Ten teams are still alive, more than any other conference. Only Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois have bowed out, and that is after the Gophers — an 11 seed in the South Region — knocked off No. 6 UCLA in the opening round.

And if not for an atrocious call in the final minute of Illinois' game against Miami, the Big Ten could have gotten five teams into the Sweet 16. Instead, the Illini simply pushed a team many thought was deserving of a No. 1 seed to the limit.

The Big East is next with three teams in the Sweet 16, though it has lost five teams, including Georgetown, a No. 2 seed that lost to No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast. In fact, the Hoyas have lost to a lower-seeded team in five consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

Throw in second-round losses by Villanova, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and an 18-point drubbing of No. 7 Notre Dame at the hands of 10th-seeded Iowa State, and it adds up to an unspectacular 6-5 record.

Not quite the best when you consider the Big Ten closed the weekend 10-3.

The Big Ten was dominant, at times, no more than at The Palace where Michigan and Michigan State both won big. Each did the job in its opening win before Michigan destroyed No. 5 Virginia Commonwealth and Michigan State smoked No. 6 Memphis to reach the Sweet 16.

Indiana and Ohio State, the teams that finished 1-2 in the regular season, had to fight to get out of the first weekend.

The Hoosiers survived to beat Temple, 58-52, and the Buckeyes got a 3-pointer in the final second from Aaron Craft to beat Iowa State, 78-75.

Maybe it wasn't as impressive as the critics would have liked, but it was exactly the kind of play seen all season in the Big Ten.

"The Big Ten, first and foremost, prepares you," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "I've said it before, but it's the truth, everything and anything. It prepares you for tough possession-by-possession battles, which is what today turned out to be.

"When you play the Michigan States and Ohio States and Wisconsins and Michigans and everybody in between, it gets you ready for tough battles."

Not only did it serve Indiana well in terms of playing tough teams, the one-on-one battles were big against Temple, as well.

"We use examples of players," Crean said. "Like certainly the one with (Khalif) Wyatt would have been Trey Burke, and in preparing for him, Jake O'Brien would have been potentially a Tyler Griffey back in Illinois. The way they get after the glass, our comparisons there would be Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State."

It was a gauntlet that is benefitting the Big Ten teams today, and one the coaches at Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State are glad they are done with — for now.

"Thank God they're going to a different region," Izzo said Saturday when he was asked about Michigan's win that was capped just minutes before the Spartans took the floor, "so we don't have to worry about facing another Big Ten team right away."

And what of the Mountain West, the conference touted by Barkley?

Colorado State got a win before losing to top-seeded Louisville. Other than that, it was fairly forgettable. San Diego State got a win before losing to Florida Gulf Coast, the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16, while No. 5 UNLV lost to No. 12 California.

Oh, and don't forget No. 3 New Mexico and its loss to No. 14 Harvard.

Wonder how Chuck would rate that?