Sixteen teams remain. Three hail from the Big Ten.
It’s not to say that the conference is dominating the tournament because that’s hardly the case. The other three teams from the Big Ten were bounced in their first game, and two other conferences, the Pac-12 and the SEC, also boast a trio in the Sweet Sixteen. But certainly no conference has had more success than the Big Ten through the first two rounds of this year’s tournament. And with three contenders remaining in the field, it’s quite possible the tournament could end with a Big Ten team cutting down the nets.
“The four best teams going into the year were us and Michigan and Ohio State and Wisconsin, and three of us are still left,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo told Kap and Haugh on Monday on 87.7 The Game. “Trust me, I’ve been in this thing 30 years, this league was really, really good. Now we’ve got three teams that were there at the beginning and are still there now.”
Izzo’s Spartans were picked by many as a pre-tournament favorite, a popular pick to go all the way, even as a four-seed. And they’re living up to those expectations so far. They expectedly dominated Delaware, a game that featured an incredible 41-point effort from big man Adreian Payne. The next round brought a second-half challenge from Harvard, but Michigan State came away a winner again, getting a huge 26-point, nine-rebound night from Branden Dawson.
So can the Spartans keep pushing through even deeper into March? One-seed Virginia will certainly provide a stiffer test than the double-digit seeds Michigan State has faced thus far. Sparty dispatched of a pair of conference champions, but next up is a champion from the ACC, one of the best conferences in the country, even if it is going through a down year.
Elsewhere on the bracket, the other two Big Ten teams are about to run into a pair of the country’s hottest squads. Wisconsin and Michigan are up against Baylor and Tennessee in their respective Sweet Sixteen matchups, and just like Michigan State, the competition level is about to step way up.
Yes, Wisconsin had a big-time challenge against Oregon in the Round of 32. Trailing by 12 at the half, the Badgers outscored the Ducks by 20 in the second half, going up for good with just 1:09 left in the game. But, make no mistake, as great a survival and advancement as that was, the Bears of Baylor have been on absolute fire. They’ve won their first two tournament games by a combined 44 points, including the takedown of Creighton by 30 on Sunday. The first win came in dominating fashion against a Nebraska team that beat Wisconsin on the final day of the regular season.
But with how strong its schedule has been all year, the Badgers are ready. Not only did Wisconsin beat a pair of eventual one-seeds in the non-conference season (Florida and aforementioned Virginia), but it then weathered the super-strong Big Ten.
"You're in the next round,” Wisconsin senior guard Ben Brust said at a Monday press conference. “Obviously, there's a lot of attention, but I think with everything we've been through, the whole season, it's very helpful that we played on the road against top 25 teams. We played at neutral site games. We played home games. We played every team — team from a small conference, medium conference and played in the Big Ten. I think that all the games we did throughout the year prepared us, and obviously the past two games, getting to where we are now, just got to keep learning from that and get after it on Thursday.”
The third Big Ten team remaining, Michigan, has an even better benefit of experience than the Badgers. Not only did the Wolverines play a difficult non-conference schedule followed by a difficult Big Ten schedule that ended with them as regular-season champs, but they just went through the madness of March a season ago. Last year’s national runners-up are looking to reach a similar position this year, and though the road got easier when three-seed Duke lost its first game to 14-seed Mercer, 11-seed Tennessee is playing better ball than its double-digit seed would indicate.
Like Wisconsin opponent Baylor, Tennessee will see a Big Ten team for the second time in this tournament in the Sweet Sixteen. The Volunteers bested Iowa in the First Four, this before back-to-back throttlings of UMass and Mercer. After three games in five days, the Vols are ready for another two in three. Michigan has its own pair of double-digit wins, setting up the collision of two hot teams.
But be it Michigan State, Wisconsin or Michigan, a step up in tournament competition can’t be too scary. These teams went through the Big Ten, a schedule crammed full of tough games, be they from the country’s best or upset-minded underdogs. There was perhaps no better preparation for the Big Dance than the Big Ten, and with three teams left, to this point the experience has paid off.