At the start of the college basketball season back in November of 2014, the Big Ten Conference hid in the shadows of a number of power conferences that were set to make a huge impact on the season. Louisville's emergence in the ACC gave that conference an overwhelming amount of support as the "best conference in college basketball." With power schools like Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Notre Dame, there was no way anyone could compete. The Big 12 came into the light as a conference of depth and skill shortly into the season. Arguably one of the best conferences in the NCAA, the Big 12 boasted 7 of its 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament, all of which were ranked in the Top 25 at some point in the season. Where was the always dangerous Big Ten Conference in the conversation?
The Big Ten was expected to take a step back during the 2014-15 season. There wasn't supposed to be much of a race for the conference title; Wisconsin would blow the rest of the conference out of the water and would be the only Big Ten team in contention for a Final Four appearance. Despite the preconceived notion, the Big Ten still managed five teams in the AP preseason polls: Wisconsin (3), Michigan State (18), Ohio State (20), Nebraska (21), and Michigan (24).
As the holiday season rolled around, it seemed as if the naysayers may have been right. Wisconsin remained in the Top 10, though faced a tough loss at home to the eventual national champion Duke Blue Devils, and only three Big Ten teams remained in the Top 25 on the week of December 22nd. The Big Ten won the ACC Big Ten challenge, but got most of its help from the conference's "bottom dwellers." It was a complete turnaround from what was expected. Nebraska and Michigan quickly fell off the radar after early season losses to weaker opponents, and Michigan State lost some nail-biters to lose its spot among the Top 25. Instead, Maryland rose to prominence and asserted itself into the mix of the best teams in the nation. It would be a funky year for the Big Ten Conference, but it was only just beginning.
The Big Ten in the NCAA Tournament
When measuring the amount of success that a conference has in a season of college basketball, the best place to turn is often the NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten Conference in the 2015 NCAA Tournament boasted a record of 12-7 overall from the seven teams that made the field of 68. Two Big Ten teams made the Final Four, and one of which, Wisconsin, made it to the Championship game before falling short to Duke. The last time the Big Ten Conference had two teams in the Final Four was 2005 where Michigan State and the #1 overall Illinois Fighting Illini both made it to the final weekend.
The 12-7 record for the Big Ten Conference is particularly impressive when compared to years past. The Big Ten went 10-6 in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, 14-7 in 2013, 11-6 in 2012, and 7-7 in 2011. This years Tournament for the Big Ten fell just two wins shy of arguably one of the best seasons for the conference in the past decade during the 2012-13 campaign. It was this year that featured 1 seeded Indiana, 2 seeded Ohio State, and 4 seeded Michigan that made it all the way to the championship game. The fact that the Big Ten was able to put in just as many teams this year into the Tournament as 2013 reflects well on its capabilities even throughout "off years."
The strength of the conference has certainly not diminished at all during the past couple seasons, but rather increased. The Big Ten has been able to put a team in the Final Four in seven of the last 10 college basketball seasons, including the last four. For comparison purposes, the ACC has only put a team in the Final Four 4 out of the last seven seasons and once in the last four. The Big 12 is even less qualified with two Final Four appearances in the last 10 seasons including one in the last four.
When comparing what the Big Ten did this year in the Tournament to what other conferences did, it's easy to see that the Big Ten certainly did not have an "off year." The ACC undoubtedly ruled the 2015 NCAA Tournament with a 16-5 record. The conference didn't lose any of its 6 teams in the round of 64 and only lost Virginia during the first weekend. Five conference teams in the Sweet Sixteen is incredible. The Big 12 was less than impressive with a 5-7 record in the tourney. The SEC squeaked by with a record of 6-5 while the Big East went 5-6. Clearly the Big Ten was still one of the dominant players throughout the Tournament and throughout the season.
The Big Ten is starting to shape out pretty well heading into next season. Jon Rothstein of CBS released his preseason Top 25 in which he had 6 Big Ten teams on his list: Maryland (1), Indiana (12), Michigan (14), Purdue (22), Michigan State (24), and Wisconsin (25). The bottom line is that the Big Ten is likely to have a better year in the 2015-16 season than it did in the 2014-15 season. Does that mean there will be more than two Big Ten teams in next year's Final Four? Probably not, but there's a better chance that more teams will make deeper runs into the tournament.
Maryland, with the recent addition of Rasheed Sulaimon, is clearly a national title contender and may be the early season favorite to win it all. While the Terps will certainly have the upper hand in the Big Ten this coming up season, they will be challenged significantly. Michigan, Purdue, and Indiana are all expected to have better seasons than they did last year, and you can never count out Bo Ryan's Badgers or Tom Izzo's Spartans to make a run.
As it seems that those 6 teams should be able to reach the NCAA Tournament next season, there could be a few more in contention with Ohio State, Iowa, and Illinois. Though all three will take heavy losses from graduating seniors and early NBA draft departures, none can be counted out for making a run in March. And what about the wildcard Northwestern? Chris Collins' squad has been so close to making its first NCAA Tournament, and its only a matter of time until the Wildcats get there.
It's going to be a fun season in the Big Ten, and considering the success we saw in last season's "off year", the sky is the limit for the season that lies ahead.