NCAA BK

Big Ten benefits from big hype

Ohio State forward LaQuinton Ross
Ohio State' LaQuinton Ross holds up a Big Ten champions sign after beating Wisconsin.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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CHICAGO

Somebody has to be the best. And in today’s world, the best must be THE BEST. The dominant. The beast. The historically great. It’s the preeminent way to sell tickets, bill commercial time and draw eyeballs to highlights shows.

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So word has spread about Big Ten basketball, from analyst to analyst, reporter to reporter, talking head to talking head, follower to follower. That’s the only explanation I can come with, because after immersing myself the past four days at the most anticipated slugfest of top teams in the country, the Big Ten tournament, I came away disappointed.

No matter what you’ve heard, the Big Ten is not the college basketball version of SEC football. It probably is the best conference in the country, with solid depth, but there is some big-time grade inflation going on here.

Every one of these teams has serious, serious flaws. Indiana is the one team I expect to see reach the Final Four, maybe win the national championship. But even the Hoosiers don’t play interior defense.

“So much now becomes predicated on matchups (in the NCAA Tournament)," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said after the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin 50-43 Sunday at the United Center to win the conference tournament. “I could sit here and tell you some teams I wouldn’t want to play because of matchups. I know what is problematic to us. Every coach knows their issues.

“I remember sitting in this building six years ago, seven years ago, and when the drawing came up and I saw we were playing Xavier in the second round. I was like, 'Oh no. That’s not a good one for us.' I knew Xavier. I don’t know Notre Dame or Iowa State that well."

That was a quick recovery. Ohio State drew Iona in the first round, near home in Dayton, Ohio, and then would play the winner of Notre Dame-Iowa State.

Maybe I was believing the hype about the Big Ten. That could explain the disappointment over the weekend. Saturday’s games featured three top 10 teams: Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State. It was Super Saturday, and would have included four top 10 teams if Michigan hadn’t wimped out to Wisconsin a day earlier.

Still, the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four will be lucky to get three top 10 teams. This was a marquee moment for the Big Ten, which was trying to wash away the taste of the football season.

But there was a general lack of greatness Saturday. It might just be that that’s what college basketball is this year, with no dominant team or no dominant conference. How many No. 1 teams have lost all year long?

I suspect what’s really happening here is that no one stands out, but the Big Ten is just good enough to be more than a face in the crowd.

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Maybe the Big Ten is slightly ahead of the pack, or just at the front of it. But these were not great teams. And, barring great matchups or all the breaks of all the pseudo home games Big Ten teams landed in the NCAA Tournament, I think this conference could be in for disappointment.

It’s going to need to break its national championship slump — Michigan State last won one for the conference in 2000 — and get two teams to the Final Four just to live up to the billing.

“I know this: All (Big Ten) teams are battle-tested,’’ Matta said. “All teams have been through every conceivable situation. I mean, you look at just the last month, at the last three minutes of basketball games. Some of the things that have happened have been crazy.

“Today, with a minute to go, or whatever, I think we’re up four or five — whatever it was — and I’m saying to myself, 'Oh Geez. This could be another highlight moment or something.' I think that’s what this league does for you."

We’ll see. The Big Ten got seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. And then CBS analysts said that UCLA got a terrible draw because it had to face the athleticism of Minnesota in the first round.

WHAT?

Minnesota does not play defense and is not listening to coach Tubby Smith, who might be fired by this time next week. Illinois has talent and shooting ability to beat anyone on any one night. It beat Gonzaga and Indiana. But the Illini also have no consistency or guts, and aren’t a team you’d expect to make a run in a tournament.

The Minnesota-Illinois game in the Big Ten tournament was the perfect argument for why the NCAA Tournament should have just 32 teams.

Michigan was ranked No. 1 for a while. But the Wolverines are broken now, as teams have figured out how to defend them. They are confused. They also don’t play defense.

Wisconsin is doing what it always does: fighting for everything and slowing down speedy offenses. It’s a great plan for beating teams with better athletes. But eventually in a tournament, the athletes get better and better while the moment gets bigger and bigger. And the Badgers don’t have the star needed to get them out of a jam.

Ohio State? Great defense, but can’t score enough. Michigan State? Built and coached well by Tom Izzo. But the Spartans are reckless and keep blowing every big moment. But both teams do get to play near home in the first two rounds of the NCAAs. Indiana has future NBA players, great defenders and balance.

Somebody is going to show greatness in this NCAA Tournament. Maybe Louisville, Miami, Indiana? The Big Ten has more tickets in this lottery than anyone else. Not sure that’s hype-worthy.

Tagged: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, Michigan, Iona, Ohio

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