The Big Ten has battled the Big 12 for nation's best conference honors this season. The Big Ten got six teams into the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, led by No. 2-seed Michigan (25-8), No. 2 Wisconsin (26-7) and No. 4 Michigan State (26-8). Ohio State (25-9) made it as No. 6 seed. Nebraska (19-12) made it as a No. 11 seed. Iowa (20-12) barely made it as a No. 11 play-in team.
The Big 12 led with seven in the field.
“As far as determining the best conference, the NCAA Tournament is the only real guidepost, the only real chance to see who is the best,” said Tom Dienhart, who covers the Big Ten as the senior writer for BTN. “It's like college football where you have to wait until the bowl season to get these teams outside themselves to play others and offer a chance to judge which leagues are best.
“We'll find out in the next few weeks. Everybody in the conference knows your strengths, your weaknesses, your plays, everything about your personnel. It makes it difficult to excel.
“Once you're outside the conference, maybe the Big Ten will have an advantage. It will be a chance to shine and show who is the best league.”
Dienhart thinks Michigan and Wisconsin are the conference's best bets to make the Final Four in Dallas, and the seedings back him up.
“If any teams can carry the Big Ten banner,”Dienhart said, “it will be Michigan and Wisconsin. Each has a shot, with Michigan as the best shot to get to the Final Four.”
Of course, Big Ten tourney results suggest Michigan State might finally be healthy enough to play to their early No. 1 ranking hype. The Spartans, who went 5-7 down the stretch as injuries mounted — Adreian Payne's foot, Gary Harris' wrist, Keith Appling's wrist, Branden Dawson's hand — rate as a serious Final Four contender after rolling through this weekend's three tournament games in Indianapolis.
“I still think that, from No. 1 through No. 12, they have the best roster,” Dienhart said, “but they've never had a chance to play together except early. Injuries and attrition chipped away at their ability to develop as a team and develop that chemistry you need.”
Michigan has plenty of postseason experience from last year's national runner-up finish. It won the Big Ten regular season crown by three games.
The Wolverines toughed their way to nail-biter wins in their first two conference tourney games before Michigan State handled them in Sunday's championship game.
It took them a while to adjust to the losses of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway to the NBA, and Mitch McGary to back surgery. They got major improvements by sophomores Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert, with Stauskas becoming the unanimous MVP. LeVert earned second-team all-conference honors.
“Michigan is what it is at this point,” Dienhart said. “They'll never be a great defensive team (ranking sixth in the Big Ten by allowing 65.2 points), but they can score with anybody. They also have the experience of last year. They played under the bright lights with the pressure and the big stage of March all the way to the championship game.
“Plus, John Beilein is a great coach. Those are things that give Michigan an edge to get to the Final Four.”
Wisconsin has won nine of its last 11 games, although it did lose to Michigan State in Saturday's Big Ten tourney semifinals. It tied the Spartans for second in the league race, keeping coach Bo Ryan's record intact of always finishing in the top four.
The Badgers have a 7-foot three-point threat in Frank Kaminsky, and get solid all-around play from Sam Dekker, Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Nigel Hayes.
“Bo Ryan has never done well in March,” Dienhart said. “It's sort of the Gene Keady syndrome (the Hall of Fame Purdue coach never got past the Elite Eight), but this is a different Bo Ryan team. It's not quite as edgy on defense, they don't have those guys at the rim, but offensively they're unique. It's his best offensive team. He has good guards. In the NCAA Tournament, it's always about your guards.
“Wisconsin has the guard play and the offense to maybe give them that push to their first Final Four since 2001.”
As for Michigan State, it has two of the nation's best players in Harris (the former Indiana Mr. Basketball) and Payne. Point guard Keith Appling is a difference maker, as is guard Denzel Valentine. Coach Tom Izzo has a knack for March Madness success. The Spartans have been to 17 straight NCAA tourneys, including six Final Fours.
The key is whether they've had time to develop that chemistry and cohesiveness crucial to NCAA tourney success.
“It's late to try to get your engine running and all your cylinders hitting together in mid-March,” Dienhart said. “I think in the end that could hurt them and keep them from making the kind of run everybody thought in November when they were a No. 2 team.”
Ohio State has the Big Ten's defensive player of the year in Aaron Craft, plus another member of the all-conference defensive team in Shannon Scott, and a coach (Thad Matta) who always has his team in Final Four contention.
“I still think their offense (it ranked ninth in the Big Ten) will be their undoing,” Dienhart said. “They're awfully physical. I think the officiating will be different in the NCAA Tournament. I think officials will be more aggressive with their whistles than what Ohio State has seen in the Big Ten. That could hurt them, especially if guys like Craft and Scott get in foul trouble. They might not be able to be as physical as they were in the Big Ten.”