The merits of several teams — namely, Saint Mary’s and Arizona — will be debated long into the weekend, but the most criticism generated by Sunday’s bracket unveiling may be directed at a single conference: the Big Ten.
Not nearly as strong as the Big East or ACC, the Big Ten is poised to earn eight tournament berths, which likely would be more than any conference in the country.
Minnesota, Michigan and Penn State all secured victories Thursday in the Big Ten tournament, solidifying their tournament profiles. They likely will join Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State, giving eight of the conference’s 11 teams invitations to the NCAA tournament.
“If the Big Ten gets eight bids, the selection committee should be disbanded,” the Washington Post’s John Feinstein told me Thursday. “The committee should be ashamed of itself if the Big Ten gets eight. The Big Ten deserve two bids.”
The tournament selection committee does not select at-large teams because of conference affiliation. Each team’s résumé is assessed individually and compared with resumes of teams from various conferences.
The issue many have with the Big Ten is that most of its teams struggle to pass the eye test, outlasting one another in low-scoring battles that are short on style points. For example, the team that tied for second in the conference, Illinois, lost to Penn State, 38-33.
The Big Ten has just one true national title contender: Michigan State. And it remains to be seen whether any of the other Big Ten teams are strong enough to survive even the tournament’s first weekend. But the résumés for several Big Ten teams — including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State — are similarly mediocre, a tad stronger than those of other bubble teams.
Several, but not all, middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams also earned quality non-conference victories, unlike many teams in the Southeastern Conference. Ohio State beat Butler. Minnesota beat Louisville. Michigan beat Duke and UCLA. And Wisconsin beat Virginia Tech.
Like it or not, more than 70 percent of the league most want to bash likely will be offered invitations to the NCAAs.
What to Watch for Today
Maryland and Virginia Tech both appear one victory away from solidifying NCAA tournament at-large berths. Fans of those schools should become short-term supporters of Eastern Washington, which will play Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s recently added the game against Eastern Washington, a team from the Big Sky Conference, to get more recovery time for standout Patrick Mills, who has returned from a broken wrist. Mills struggled mightily in the West Coast Conference final against Gonzaga.
If Eastern Washington gives Saint Mary’s a game, much less beats Saint Mary’s, it could significantly damage the Gaels’s NCAA tournament hopes.
Tech and Terrapins fans should also root for Mississippi State to knock South Carolina off the at-large board. And it’s important that Xavier beats Temple in the Atlantic 10 tournament because Temple could take a spot away from a bubble team by claiming the conference’s automatic berth, forcing both Xavier and Dayton into the at-large pool.
March 12, 2009; 9:24 PM ET
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