Big Ten was supposed to be in a down year, but it's riding high with three in Sweet Sixteen

Big Ten was supposed to be in a down year, but it's riding high with three in Sweet Sixteen

It was supposedly a down year for the Big Ten.

Well, look around at the final 16 teams standing in this year's NCAA tournament, and three hail from the Big Ten. The SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 also boast three representatives apiece. The Big East has two. The mighty ACC? Just one, the same amount as the WCC.

It was difficult to argue with the selection committee not seeding any Big Ten team higher than four. Throughout the season, the conference looked like the definition of mediocrity. What started out as three or four good teams morphed into seven tournament-caliber groups when the top started losing and the middle rose up to meet it.

But what's happened since the beginning of March has been a different story. The two Big Ten teams everyone expected to flex their muscles at the start of the season — Wisconsin and Purdue — are doing just that. And Michigan, while no Cinderella story, has been a feel-good one as it's marched through the Big Ten Tournament and now into the Sweet Sixteen.

So no matter you thought of the Big Ten during the regular season, this is much is clear: The conference is doing just as much winning as any other now that winning time has arrived.

The Wolverines are one of the nation's biggest stories, middling throughout much of the season and then catching fire at the end. Michigan has won seven straight dating back to a clubbing of Nebraska in the regular-season finale and 10 of its last 12. Those two losses, by the way, were an overtime defeat at Minnesota and that zany court-length pass buzzer-beater loss at Northwestern. That's all separating the Wolverines from a dozen straight victories.

And has any team looked more impressive? Sure, wins over Oklahoma State and Louisville didn't come by much, but the Michigan offense has been electric. The Wolverines shot 63 percent in the second half Sunday to advance to the Sweet Sixteen and bested one of the country's top teams without a strong performance from Derrick Walton Jr., who's been one of the nation's best point guards over the past month or so. With so many other weapons — Zak Irvin, Moe Wagner, D.J. Wilson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, to name the rest of the starting lineup — Michigan is a point-producing machine right now.

Meanwhile, the Badgers are back. Wisconsin, a staple of the Sweet Sixteen in recent seasons, is there for the fourth straight year after taking down No. 1 overall seed Villanova. The Badgers were dealt a tough blow by the selection committee, seeded eighth in the East Region despite finishing second in the Big Ten standings and runners-up at the Big Ten Tournament. No matter. The veteran-laden lineup featuring Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, two players who played big roles on those back-to-back Final Four teams, took down the defending champs in the second round.

This is the Wisconsin team we all thought we'd get at the beginning of the season. That thinking, that the Badgers could compete for a national title, was dispelled when the team went on a nasty late-season slide. But then came three straight wins all by double figures before hitting the Michigan buzzsaw in the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Since? Two more wins in the NCAA tournament.

And then there's conference-champion Purdue, which has received a couple big-time challenges from Vermont and Iowa State in its first two tournament games. But the Boilers still stand and remain extremely well-equipped to handle the rest of a March run. Caleb Swanigan could be the national player of the year, and Vincent Edwards has been reliably terrific over the past few weeks. Throw in the rest of those shot-making guards, almost all of them veterans, and this is a team you could definitely see winning the rest of the way.

Of course, Kansas will have something to say about that, and as the Jayhawks showed against Michigan State on Sunday, they are very, very good. But Purdue is the one Big Ten team that hasn't had a lull at any point this season. The Boilers won the regular-season championship outright because they were the most consistently good team all year long.

The real point, though, is how well all three of these teams are playing right now. Does anyone left in the Big Dance feel good about taking them on? Certainly Florida doesn't want to see Wisconsin after the Badgers bested Villanova. There can't be any comfort for Oregon in getting white-hot Michigan. Kansas is arguably the best team left on the bracket, but the Big Ten champion Boilermakers are no easy matchup.

It might've looked like a mediocre year in the Big Ten, but with the national championship just two weeks away, is any conference in a better spot?

Big Ten reportedly talking about expanding conference basketball schedule

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USA TODAY

Big Ten reportedly talking about expanding conference basketball schedule

Conference play could be getting a bit longer in the Big Ten.

According to a Monday report from ESPN's Jeff Goodman, there are talks about expanding the Big Ten conference basketball schedule from 18 games to 20 games.

Commissioner Jim Delany told Goodman that while there hasn't been a vote among the league's coaches yet, there are ongoing discussions about lengthening conference play by a couple of games.

Conference play expanded a decade ago, when the number of league games jumped from 16 to 18 for the 2007-08 season.

In order for there to be enough days in between games for players, an expanded league schedule would mean the beginning of conference play coming earlier in December. Recently, conference play has typically started around New Year's. Of course, there will be a week earlier start to conference play this season with the Big Ten Tournament — at Madison Square Garden in New York — a week earlier than usual, wrapping a full week before Selection Sunday.

Similar moves have been made in football, with the Big Ten starting a nine-game conference slate last fall. It's meant league games in September — a no-no in the past — and this season will feature a conference matchup in the season's first week, when Indiana and Ohio State play on Aug. 31.

Expanding conference play in college basketball would have a similar effect as it has had on schedules in football. With fewer non-conference slots to fill, those games become more important to a team's NCAA tournament resume. It forces teams to schedule more high-profile opponents and eliminate games against small schools that generate little interest during the season's first couple months.

The ACC, a league that often runs neck and neck with the Big Ten in the debate over which is America's top basketball conference, announced it will be moving to a 20-game schedule last July, with that starting in the 2019-20 season.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo shared some thoughts on the subject with Goodman, saying he expects the move to happen.

"I personally see us going to a 20-game schedule," Izzo told Goodman. "I don't think there's any question it's going to happen — and I'm not overly against it."

Ohio State has its new head coach in Butler's Chris Holtmann

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Ohio State has its new head coach in Butler's Chris Holtmann

Ohio State found its next head basketball coach, going to one of Thad Matta's former employers to find the longtime coach's successor.

The school announced Friday morning that Butler head coach Chris Holtmann is the Buckeyes' new head coach.

Holtmann spent the past three seasons as the head coach at Butler, posting a 70-31 record and making NCAA tournament appearances in all three of those seasons, including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in March. He was named the Big East Coach of the Year this past season.

Holtmann spent two seasons as an assistant at Ohio under former Illinois head coach John Groce, a former Matta assistant, before serving as the head coach at Gardner-Webb for three seasons. Holtmann left Gardner-Webb for an assistant-coaching job at Butler, though he was quickly promoted to interim head coach and then head coach in Indianapolis.

Holtmann takes over for Matta, who himself was the Butler head coach in the 2000-01 season before becoming the all-time wins leader at Ohio State. Matta's mostly successful tenure was ended earlier this week, when athletics director Gene Smith saw recruiting misses teaming with declining win totals to create a dip in Matta's success.

This week has been dominated by rumors and declarations of lack of interest from numerous candidates and possible candidates for the job. Xavier head coach Chris Mack and Creighton head coach Greg McDermott both made their decisions to stay at their current schools known via social media, and a report linking Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg to the job forced a no-interest comment from Hoiberg, too.

Despite those repeated "no thank yous," though, Ohio State is still seen to be one of the best jobs in college basketball thanks to one of the highest-profile athletics departments and one of the best conferences in the country, providing ample resources.

Recruiting will be a big expectation for Holtmann, as Matta's performance in that area dipped near the end of his tenure. The Buckeyes missed the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons, while Holtmann just took Butler to a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance, the highest in that program's history.