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?