WASHINGTON — A season of criticism for not having elite teams has made the Big Ten feel like the Big Disrespected.
Perhaps that’s about to change.
The conference has seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, second only to the ACC’s nine. After eighth-seeded Michigan beat three fellow NCAA-bound teams on its road to the tournament title, players have big hopes for what the Big Ten can do in the big dance.
“I definitely think the Big Ten can make some noise in (the) Tournament given that those teams play the same way they did in this tournament,” Wisconsin forward Vitto Brown said after losing to Michigan in the Big Ten final Sunday.
Despite losing its only conference tournament game to Michigan, 15th-ranked Purdue is a No. 4 seed, and Maryland is still a No. 6 seed after losing its only game in home territory to Northwestern — in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history as a No. 8 seed. Only No. 9 seed Michigan State will be wearing dark uniforms in the first round as Minnesota is a No. 5 seed, Michigan a No. 7 and Wisconsin a No. 8.
The much-maligned Big Ten doesn’t have a dominant team like Villanova in the Big East or Kansas in the Big 12, but that’s not necessarily a weakness.
“I think our league, it’s unpredictable and very good teams beat very good teams every day,” Michigan forward Moe Wagner said. “It’s going to be fun for the Big Ten fans to watch this NCAA Tournament because we have a lot of teams in there and I think they’re going to get a lot of wins.”
Wagner and the Wolverines resemble that remark as unpredictable after going from their plane skidding off the runway Wednesday to cutting down the nets as Big Ten Tournament champions Sunday. Michigan didn’t look like an eighth seed in winning four games in four days in conference and won’t look anything like a traditional NCAA seventh seed if it gets the same depth of offense from Derrick Walton Jr., D.J. Wilson, Zak Irvin and Wagner as it did last week.
Walton, who guaranteed to coach John Beilein during their drive to Nebraska that Michigan would win the Big Ten Tournament, believes the team is trending upward at the perfect time. The senior point guard also pointed out that the Wolverines can run with the best of them, a challenge they’ll face in the Midwest Region.
Michigan isn’t the only one that can score in bunches. Northwestern showed it had firepower, and Minnesota can push the pace with point guard Nate Mason. Sure, Wisconsin and Purdue have stereotypical Big Ten reputations as big teams that like to slow things down, but the 15th-ranked Boilermakers’ and 25th-ranked Badgers’ inside-outside games and patience make them difficult matchups.
“Every team can impose a different obstacle,” said Walton, the tournament MVP. “I just think we’re really dynamic as a conference, just with the different playing styles. I just don’t think we get enough credit. I think we got labeled as the grind-it-out, bully-ball guys. Nah, we got guys that can really put the ball in the basket and are really talented.”
Because upsets were the norm in conference play, the Big Ten on paper didn’t look as strong as in years past. But Brown considers it a “popular misconception” that teams beating each other showed a lack of competition, and rivals saw it as quite the contrary and a good sign for success in the NCAA Tournament.
“We all bring a different aspect to the floor,” Wilson said. “Since we played against all of them, I think we’re all dangerous.”
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