"This conference season, there's a lot of good teams. Everybody has shown that on a given night anybody can win."
Chris Collins said that following Northwestern's narrow defeat at the hands of Big Ten champ Purdue on Sunday. That's no sort of unique sentiment, something that gets uttered by Big Ten coaches every season.
But this year, that point seems to have more merit than ever as the league's 14 teams head to Washington this week for what looks like a wide-open conference tournament.
Now just because there are a lot of contenders for a conference-tournament crown doesn't mean the league is extraordinarily strong. But in what started as a seemingly mediocre season for the Big Ten, more teams have emerged that have given this conference some heft in the season's latest stages.
Count Tom Izzo, the Big Ten's elder statesman, as someone who's sticking up for his league, beliving it hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves nationally this season, particularly when compared to other conferences.
"We have not done a good job of promoting the Big Ten," Izzo told reporters Sunday after Michigan State's regular-season finale at Maryland. "The ACC must have — I don't know, Virginia loses a game and it's because everybody else is good. The Pac-12, (Bill) Walton's out there (calling it the) 'champion's conference.' Nobody talks about our conference. That's our fault, that's your (the media's) fault, that's my fault.
"If you think it's easy to go on the road in this conference and win anywhere. And maybe Penn State is the one place that doesn't sell out, and we played them in The Palestra. Shows you how frickin' dumb I am."
Izzo circled back to that talk during Monday's Big Ten coaches teleconference.
"I do feel, as the senior spokesman of our group, that I need to clarify that," he said. "It's just amazing. Like Indiana, they beat Kansas and North Carolina, and then they get decimated with injuries, a couple of key injuries besides having the (Collin) Hartman kid out for the year. I just think for some reason in other leagues when the bottom beats the top — I mean, I think it was North Carolina State beat Duke. I'm not sure they won another game after that."
For what it's worth, only the ACC has more teams in the field of 68 than the Big Ten in the latest bracket projection from ESPN's Joe Lunardi. The Big Ten is just one of three conferences with at least seven teams in that projection. Who knows if that's how it will play out come Selection Sunday.
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But back to this week's Big Ten Tournament in Washington. The points of Collins and Izzo seem to be good ones.
Yes, Purdue has firmly established itself as the favorite, the league's best team with an outright regular-season championship and the slam-dunk conference player of the year in Caleb Swanigan. The Boilermakers have impressed by not suffering the same two-week stumbles as almost every one of its Big Ten cohorts.
But as good as Purdue has been, there is no shortage of challengers that seem to have a legitimate shot at preventing its winning another conference title.
"What we have (when you look at this year's Big Ten Tournament), go ahead, tell me you'd rather play No. 12 or No. 7, tell me you'd rather play No. 13 or No. 5. It is wide open," Izzo said Monday. "There's a lot of parity, that means a lot of people beating up on each other. Unfortunately, we also forget that Purdue, that was a one-point game to Villanova early in the year. There were some big games that we played and other teams played, and I just want to make sure that everybody else gives us the same respect. Parity doesn't mean poor, sometimes parity means we're deeper top to bottom.
"So I think the tournament is wide open, more so than it's ever been."
Wisconsin, Maryland and Northwestern all bounced back from losing stretches in the season's final week. The Wildcats grabbed that thrilling midweek win over Michigan. The Badgers thumped red-hot Minnesota on Sunday night. The Terps won its last two regular-season games against Rutgers and Michigan State.
Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa are all riding hot stretches into the conference tournament and can claim to playing the best basketball right this moment of any teams in the league. The Wolverines have won six of eight, capped with a 36-point drubbing of Nebraska on Sunday night. The Golden Gophers might have lost Sunday in Madison but entered that game with a jaw-dropping eight-game winning streak. The Hawkeyes have won four straight and six of nine, miraculously getting into the NCAA tournament conversation.
Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State have things to prove. The Fighting Illini are still somehow in the NCAA tournament discussion despite losing at Rutgers on Saturday. The Hoosiers could potentially be playing for Tom Crean's job. The Buckeyes have played everyone close this season.
Penn State, Nebraska and Rutgers have skidded to the finish of the regular season. But that trio claims wins over Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue.
Then there's Izzo's Michigan State team, the No. 5 seed this week. Izzo has won 27 Big Ten Tournament games, the most all-time, and has five tournament championships. Certainly the Spartans are a threat to win the thing again this season with their three fabulous freshmen: Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston.
There's good advice this time of year: Don't bet against Izzo in March.
He seems to be suggesting something similar this time around.
"We get into any tournament, we're going to be a hard out," Izzo said Saturday. "Whether we're good enough to sustain some things over a period of time. We better not win a game because these guys are that close, I think, from taking anhother giant step."
So whether it is the Spartans who end up challening Purdue, or whether it's any other team from Minnesota to Michigan to Maryland to Northwestern to Indiana, there's no easy way to predict what will happen this weekend. That's not necessarily a sign that the Big Ten is good or bad or the best conference in America or in a down year. It's just reality at the moment.
In other words, get ready for an entertaining week in Washington.