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?

Kansas mops the floor with another Big Ten team as Purdue bounced from NCAA tournament

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USA TODAY

Kansas mops the floor with another Big Ten team as Purdue bounced from NCAA tournament

Purdue was hands-down the best team in the Big Ten this season. But when it's all said and done at the end of this NCAA tournament, Kansas might be the best team in the country.

The Jayhawks proved to be just way too much for the Boilermakers in Thursday night's Sweet Sixteen matchup, using a monster second half to sprint away from the Big Ten regular-season champs and win by a 98-66 score.

Purdue's season came to an end with the loss, though it will be a memorable campaign, one that stretched to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010.

But much like it did this past weekend against Michigan State, Kansas exploded on a massive second-half run and went from a narrow lead to an gargantuan one in a hurry, flexing its muscles as perhaps the best team remaining in this tournament field.

The incredibly talented duo of Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson scorched the Boilers, combining for 41 points. But it was actually Devonte' Graham that along with Mason led the Jayhawks with 26 points.

Kansas shot 53.6 percent from 3-point range on the night, splashing home 15 of the 28 triples it hoisted.

Purdue's own player of the year candidate, Caleb Swanigan, helped the team stay alive in the early stages of the second half after a 20-7 run gave Kansas a seven-point lead at halftime. After an ugly first half for the Big Ten Player of the Year — six points, two rebounds, 1-for-2 from the field, four turnovers — Swanigan's third 3-pointer of the night cut the gap to just two about three and a half minutes into the second half.

But that's when the Jayhawks took off, putting together an eye-popping 31-9 run to turn that two-point advantage into a 24-point lead in little more than 10 minutes. At one point, Kansas scored eight straight to grab its first double-digit lead of the night, the capper to that burst a Jackson 3-pointer that seemed to end the game right then and there despite the ample amount of time remaining on the clock.

When it was all over, Kansas outscored Purdue 45-15 from that two-point deficit at 53-51.

Swanigan, despite that poor first half, finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. Vincent Edwards, who scored a combined 42 points in the first two games of this tournament, had himself an quiet night with just eight points.

Purdue shot 55.6 percent in the first half but just 31 percent over the game's final 20 minutes. The Boilers also turned the ball over 16 times, leading to a boatload of points for the Jayhawks.

The win advanced Kansas to the Elite Eight, where it will take on Oregon, which beat Purdue's conference-mate Michigan earlier Thursday night. The Jayhawks have been piling up the points in the tournament and became the first team to score 90 or more points in each of its first three tournament games in 22 years.

The loss brought an end to things for Purdue, which had a terrific season despite the blowout finish. The Boilers won the Big Ten title outright and made their third Sweet Sixteen under Matt Painter.

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

Michigan's March magic finally ran out.

The guy who's been so fantastic throughout his senior season, point guard Derrick Walton Jr., missed a game-winning 3-point try at the buzzer, and the Wolverines fell to the Oregon Ducks by a 69-68 final score in the Sweet Sixteen.

It was an incredibly competitive game between the Big Ten Tournament champs and the Pac-12 regular-season champs, with neither side ever leading by more than six.

But Moe Wagner, who scored a career-high 26 points in Michigan's second-round win over Louisville, was pretty much a non-factor in this one, scoring just seven points on 3-for-10 shooting.

Still, seniors Walton and Zak Irvin kept an unusually cold-shooting group of Wolverines alive with a combined 39 points, 23 of which came after halftime. D.J. Wilson also scored in double figures with 12, all coming on 3-pointers.

But Michigan, which had been on fire offensively for much of the last month, shot just 43.1 percent from the field and missed 20 of its 31 shots from behind the arc.

The Wolverines actually shot under 40 percent over the opening 20 minutes as the two defenses did good work for these typically high-scoring squads. Michigan turned the ball over seven times before the break but trailed by just two as it went to the locker room.

The tit-for-tat nature of the game continued at the outset of the second half before Oregon reached its game-high six-point lead, but Michigan responded with seven straight and grabbed its first lead of the second half around the 11-minute mark. The Ducks answered that mini surge with six straight of their own, part of a larger 10-4 spurt, before Wilson and Walton hit back-to-back triples to once again give the Wolverines a narrow advantage, this time with a little more than four minutes remaining.

Oregon and Irvin traded buckets from there, and a Walton jumper was Michigan's sixth straight make from the field, putting the Wolverines up three with under two minutes to play. But Michigan didn't score again, and Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey got back-to-back layups, the latter the game-winning one ahead of Walton's missed 3-point attempt as time ran out.

Dorsey was fantastic for the Ducks, scoring 20 points, his sixth straight game with at least 20 points. Bell had a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Oregon advanced to its second straight Elite Eight with the win.

Michigan's entertaining end-of-season run is over. Entering Thursday night's game in Kansas City, the Wolverines had won seven straight and 10 of their last 12. Those two losses came by a combined seven points. Add this loss in and just eight points separated Michigan from 13 consecutive wins.

Certainly this group of Wolverines will be remembered for its sensational four wins in four days at the Big Ten Tournament after that horrifying aborted takeoff, as well as for reaching the third Sweet Sixteen in the last five seasons under John Beilein.