The Big Ten brings some fantastic stories to the 2017 NCAA men's basketball tournament. Northwestern is in the tournament for the first time. Michigan made a fantastic four-day run to a Big Ten Tournament championship after a scary episode when its plane slid off the runway. Purdue has the All-American big man who could lead a big run.
Judging by the seeding, however, the confidence in those stories lasting much longer than the first weekend isn't high. Regular-season champion Purdue drew a No. 4, but the six other bids came in at No. 5 or lower. This feeds into the perception that the Big Ten's chances of sending a team to the Final Four are low. Is that perception reality?
"I think the Big Ten has had a good year," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said on a teleconference last week. "Like you compare the Big Ten against prior years in the Big Ten where it's been so unbelievably strong, then maybe you'd say, well, it's not the best it's been. That's fair."
Bilas said some of that perception comes from the teams that didn't receive bids. Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State didn't make the tournament. Also, Michigan State —the lowest seed among those who made it at No. 9 — was ravaged by injuries to Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Eron Harris.
Michigan State and Purdue were the conference's best bets last season, but both suffered shocking first-round upsets to Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas-Little Rock, respectively. Indiana and Wisconsin were the conference's only Sweet 16 teams last season, and both were eliminated in that round. The Big Ten hasn't gone consecutive seasons without putting at least one school in the Final Four since 2003 and 2004.
This could be season No. 2. Can any Big Ten team buck that trend?
"Purdue is Final Four good," Bilas said before the tournament draw. "They're Final Four good. Their guards are so much better than I gave them credit for before the season started. They've come a long way, and they're really difficult because they've got big guys and they can shoot it, and they've got a Player of the Year candidate that produces every single game, Caleb Swanigan. Every single game. He doesn't have an off game."
Yet Purdue plays No. 13 seed Vermont, a team that enters the tournament on a 21-game winning streak, in the East Region. No. 7 Michigan plays No. 10 Oklahoma State and No. 9 Michigan State takes on No. 8 Miami (Fla), both in the Midwest. The Wolverines and Spartans are in pods with No. 2 Louisville and No. 1 Kansas, respectively. They'll be challenged to get out of the first weekend.
No. 5 Minnesota faces No. 12 Middle Tennessee State in the South. No. 8 Wisconsin drew No. 9 Virginia Tech in the East, and the West features No. 6 Maryland against No. 11 Xavier and No. 8 Northwestern vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt. It's unlikely any of those Big Ten teams would be favored in the Sweet 16 if they advanced that far —or perhaps even in the second round.
Still, the Big Ten received seven tournament bids, same as the Big East. The ACC had the most tournament bids with nine. Keep in mind the Pac-12 hasn't put a team in the Final Four in the last eight tournaments.
"It's still one of the top leagues in the country and it's still hard to beat as far as a league is concerned," Bilas said of the Big Ten. "I mean, it's probably third behind the ACC and the Big 12, I'd say. But it's not at its best."
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Bilas said the first-round upsets last season and the fact Michigan State is the last Big Ten team to win a national championship — and that was in 2000 — have nothing to do with the perceptions heading into this year's tournament.
The committee made its decisions based on this year, and the best way to change the outlook is to win games. The Big Ten will need a few more good stories to change the perception.
"Last year doesn't have anything to do with it," Bilas said. "Not having won a title, that doesn't have anything to do with it. But the fact that, hey, it's the third-best league or whatever number you put to it, I mean, the Big Ten does have to own it. You are what your record says you are. There may be reasons for it, but you are what your record says you are. I mean, Bill Parcells said that, and I think he's exactly right."