Just because you get out of prison doesn’t mean life will be a bowl of cherries.
And just because seven Big Ten toughies are free of conference shackles doesn’t mean the baskets will come easy. Kansas and Miami play defense, too.
It’s time for the Big Ten to put up or shut up. Being ranked No. 1 as a conference has a nice ring to it, but it’s time to convince the doubters. You know, like the SEC does in football. The SEC proves it annually in the postseason. The Big Ten is new to this business, and some basketball critics think the lucky seven will fall on their face.
Harking back, the Big Ten won five titles in the post-Wooden era between 1976 and 1989, that successful run ending when Michigan eliminated the Flyin’ Illini and beat Seton Hall. In the last 23 years, Michigan State prevailed in 2000 and four members — Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State — took second. That’s it.
Midwesterners, of course, are riding on the words of a coach with six Final Four appearances, Tom Izzo of Michigan State.
“I am really looking forward to playing somebody else,” he said, “and I think all the Big Ten teams are. We’ve beaten the hell out of each other, we really, really, really have, and I think it’s going to help all of us in the end. I’d play the Lakers tomorrow (Kobe’s ankle is getting better, Tom) instead of some of the teams I’ve played recently.”
Parity has struck
Fair or not, the Big Ten will be judged on what happens in the coming days. That’s the societal approach. You’re as good as you show me.
How’ll they do? It’s my task to try to calculate the incalculable, even as Kentucky’s stunning NIT failure — one and done, just like their players — at Robert Morris rings in our ears.
There’s a strong likelihood that an Oklahoma State or Ole Miss will come roaring off the NCAA mat. Surely there’s another Butler clone poised to win every close game (maybe it’s Butler!). But, being realistic — a strange word amid this lunacy — I see 11 teams as legitimate title contenders in a field that has long since lost it top stars of the NBA.
Three years of pro-bound players (numbering upwards of 100) impact the event and water it down. The championship goes to (1) whoever has the most talent left after the draft or (2) short-term super-stars like last year’s freshmen at Kentucky.
In the midst of these epic encounters, NBA mock drafts for 2013 remind that roughly two-thirds of the 30-member first round will be college freshmen and sophomores. Indiana is a high NCAA seed because sophomore Cody Zeller stuck around, and Michigan is good because AP Player of the Year Trey Burke returned after testing the waters.
Indiana and Michigan are two of my 11 most-likely-to-win teams although, in analyzing the brackets, the young Wolverines are bucking a strong current. My other favorites are Ohio State, Michigan State, the ACC’s Miami and Duke, the Big East’s Louisville and Georgetown, and the trio of Kansas, Florida and Gonzaga.
UCLA fell from the list when 15-point scorer Jordan Adams was injured. Apologies to Steve Alford, but I still don’t believe in New Mexico and the Mountain West, nor with the SEC beyond Florida (Kentucky was 12-6 and, appropriately, was left out). Marquette has overachieved to get here,
Kansas State lacks the staying power, and Wisconsin’s methodical style has left the Badgers with a field goal percentage (42.6) almost as low as Illinois’ 41.6.
Forty teams finished above .500 in the seven best conferences and, among those 40, Indiana has the most firepower with an 80-point average and 48.6 percent shooting. The regular-season Big Ten champs ran up those numbers in arguably the toughest defensive league, and their 1-2 punch of Zeller and Victor Oladipo should carry them into an Elite Eight showdown with Miami.
Michigan has two “home” games in Auburn Hills, but can expect to face Kansas in the third game.
Christmas rankings will be cast into the bin with the upcoming showdowns ... assuming they avoid upsets to get this far: Michigan-Kansas, Wisconsin-Kansas State, Ohio State-Gonzaga, Indiana-Miami, Michigan State-Duke (with Louisville around the corner). And that’s just the road to the Final Four.
These prognostications come without invoking (1) the advantages of Louisville playing in Lexington or Bill Self’s Jayhawks starting out in Kansas City, (2) how officials will interpret the back-down moves of Michigan State’s Derrick Nix or Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe, (3) traditional values carried by Duke and Georgetown and (4) the inconsistencies of the three-point shot.
Although seldom mentioned, the worst rule in sports — the five-foul disqualification, to be surpassed by the NFL’s new ball-carrying silliness — often plays an enormous part.
Illinoisans recall the 87-81 loss to Arizona in the 2001 Elite Eight when six Illini fouled out (no Wildcats were disqualified) as the teams set a still-standing NCAA record for free throws attempted (56). And in 2005, the UI’s star center, James Augustine, lasted just nine minutes before fouling out in the 75-70 title-game loss to North Carolina. Coaches who guardedly bench players after two fouls in the first half will have subs on the court for extended stretches.
These are just a few of the imponderables.
For the 2013 Illini, every opportunity from this point — Colorado awaits at 3:40 Friday — is gravy. They have already overcome their toughest foe, the psychological cloud that consumed them a year ago when Bruce Weber was a dead man walking.
John Groce uplifted a broken locker room, inspired the Illini when their confidence was slipping and has them, for all their faults, alive and anxious for another tight finish in Texas.
They had become, in recent years, part of Big Ten slippage. Now they can be a factor in Big Ten revival.
Bank on this: We’ll count up the Big Ten’s NCAA wins and compare them with other conferences when this is over.