There’s a lot to consider when filling out your NCAA Tournament bracket, but one thing that can help is understanding the relative strengths and weaknesses of the conferences in which team play.
That’s why the Big Ten is so important this year. It is one of the best basketball conferences in years, sending nine of its 14 members to March Madness. Four of them could plausibly be considered championship contenders. Everyone in it comes in tested, not just by the top-end talent, but also by the depth. Minnesota finished second-to-last in the conference, yet still claimed victories over Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan.
The four best teams to know about are Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State and Iowa. The Wolverines have one of the best resumes in the country, boasting strength in depth and a balanced attack. Going 14-3 in this Big Ten is wildly impressive. One major concern is the status of team captain and second-leading scorer Isaiah Livers, but the Wolverines came within a point of beating Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinal even without him.
Illinois has a legitimate superstar in guard Ayo Dosunmu, who leads the team with 20.9 points and 5.4 assists per game. The Fighting Illini beat Michigan by 23 points in Ann Arbor, showing just how good they can be. Ohio State isn’t much worse, as evidenced by taking Illinois to overtime in the Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes’ resume is hurt by four consecutive losses in late February and early March, but when three of them come against Michigan, Iowa and Illinois, it’s a bit more understandable.
If that all wasn’t enough, Iowa boasts perhaps the country’s best player in senior star Luka Garza. He’ll be looking to end his college career on a high note. Garza averaged 23.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, and is bolstered by a strong supporting cast led by guard Joe Wieskamp.
Want more? Purdue, Wisconsin, and Maryland have tournament pedigrees. Michigan State barely made it in and has to play a First Four game, but the Spartans come in hot, having beaten Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State down the stretch to get into the field. Plus, Tom Izzo’s reputation for March excellence doesn’t come from nowhere. The conference even has a feel-good story, with Rutgers making the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in 30 years.
The Big Ten has a pedigree. In nine of the last 13 years, the conference has had at least one Final Four team. In five of those years, at least one of those teams has played in the championship. Curiously, no Big Ten team has actually won the title since Michigan State did it in 2000, but this could easily be the year to change that.
If you’re not putting a Big Ten team in the Final Four, you’re taking a huge risk. Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio State have fairly clear roads to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Illinois has a tougher road with Loyola Chicago and Oklahoma State possibly looming, but the Fighting Illini are the best team in that region as well. Maybe you even see Cinderella runs from Michigan State or Rutgers. Whatever the case, picking against the Big Ten is a risk this year, and picking the right Big Ten team might make or break your bracket.