The Big Ten team with the best chance to win the NCAA tournament is the Michigan State Spartans.
Really going out on a limb there, right?
It’s no surprise that Michigan State has been pegged by many as one of the favorites to win the national championship this season. While not receiving a No. 1 seed from the selection committee was a surprise, few are doubting the Spartans’ chances. They’re the No. 2 team in the latest AP top-25 rankings, and they’re fresh off a challenging couple of games against fellow tournament teams Maryland and Purdue that resulted in a Big Ten tourney championship.
Having arguably the best player in the country certainly helps, too, as Denzel Valentine looks more and more terrific on the court at every turn.
But outside of those Spartans, does the Big Ten have much of a shot to still be standing come the later rounds of the Big Dance?
Many of the remaining six teams in the field of 68 finished their seasons on sour notes. Wisconsin dropped back-to-back games to Purdue and Nebraska, giving up a boatload of points in the process and getting embarrassingly bounced from the Big Ten Tournament by the Huskers. Indiana looked so great down the stretch of the regular season but fell flat on its face as the top seed in the conference tournament, ousted on a buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer by Michigan’s Kam Chatman. The Wolverines snuck into the NCAA tournament field but rarely impressed this season outside of Thursday’s aforementioned win over the Hoosiers. Iowa is in a different class altogether, in the midst of yet another late-season slide with losses in six of its last eight games including Thursday’s embarrassing first-game exit against Illinois.
That’s not saying any of those four teams can’t make noise. But the selection committee’s apparent lack of love for the Big Ten this season means the conference’s representatives will be running into more difficult tests earlier in the bracket.
Iowa and Wisconsin got No. 7 seeds, meaning Round of 32 matches against tough No. 2 seeds Villanova and Xavier, respectively. Those two Big East teams have been ranked in the top 10 much of the season and are currently ranked No. 6 and No. 9 in the AP poll.
Indiana has a Round of 32 game against Kentucky looming. The Wildcats are a perennial power and fresh off an SEC Tournament championship that wrapped their season with a five-game winning streak. Currently tied for No. 10 in the AP rankings, many — including head coach John Calipari — believe Kentucky was poorly seeded. Regardless, it’s bad news for the Hoosiers.
Michigan would have to run through an extra game, as it gets Tulsa in the “First Four” on Wednesday. The Wolverines would get Notre Dame in the Round of 64, and even though the Irish just lost an ACC Tournament game in which they scored only 47 points, winning against quality competition hasn’t been a theme for Michigan this season.
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That leaves Maryland and Purdue as the Big Ten teams with the best shots outside of Michigan State to make deep tourney runs. But even those two teams face significant roadblocks. As No. 5 seeds, they would be faced with a higher-seeded opponent right away in the Round of 32, should the No. 4 seeds avoid upsets. For the Terps, that team would be Cal, should the Golden Bears get past Hawaii, an upset pick for many prognosticators. For the Boilermakers, it would be Iowa State, though the Cyclones are another team plenty are picking to go down early against Iona.
Regardless, it’s the Sweet Sixteen matchups that should really cause Maryland and Purdue headaches as No. 1 seeds will likely await. The Terps would be confronted with the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the Big 12 champion Kansas Jayhawks, who have been one of the country’s top teams all season long. As usual, Bill Self’s squad is stacked with talent, and for good reason — like 11 wins over ranked opponents this season, four wins over top-10 teams and 14 straight wins to end the season — Kansas is one of the favorites to win it all.
For Purdue, a Sweet Sixteen game against No. 1 seed Virginia seems probable. The Cavaliers, without a conference championship, were maybe the least-popular one-seed on Selection Sunday, particularly as most assumed that seed deserved to go to Michigan State. But that doesn’t make Virginia any less fearsome. Currently ranked No. 4 in the AP poll and annually a sensational defensive team, the Cavaliers won 13 of their last 16 games, narrowly lost to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament championship game and have one of the best players in the country in Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC Player of the Year.
Should the Boilers get past the Sweet Sixteen, what would await? Well, it could be a rematch of the Big Ten Tournament title game against Michigan State for a regional championship at the United Center.
While the Spartans’ chances make it encouraging that the Final Four will feature at least one Big Ten team for the fifth straight season, the conference’s hopes might ride on Tom Izzo’s team and Tom Izzo's team alone.