For all of the negativity surrounding the Big Ten as a basketball conference this season, as a whole it actually is better than last year.
That might read like a false statement at first glance, but it’s true. It’s in the numbers.
The Big Ten is the fourth-best conference in America in 2016-17, according to the RPI. Last season it was fifth. That’s not a drastic improvement, but it is a slight step forward.
People always put too much emphasis on what happens in the NCAA Tournament. Sorry, but if Kentucky loses to Wichita State in the second round or Gonzaga loses to Arizona in the Elite Eight, they’ll still be two of the eight best teams this season. They would just lose at the wrong time.
That said, the Big Ten’s national reputation probably is on the line this week. Seven teams from the league will play in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, and if only one is still playing a week from today it will be the final chapter in what most pundits will consider a disappointing and underwhelming campaign.
It wasn’t that long ago — 2011-12 to 2013-14 — that the conference finished a three-year run in the top two. This season has been different, and the league’s treatment on a national level has not been great.
There is no dominant team in the Big Ten. There might not even be a great one. That’s the biggest problem for national writers and analysts.
It’s hard to compliment the Big Ten when an analyst has 45 seconds to name top national title contenders. The league might not have one.
It’s hard for a national writer to type nice things about the league. “The middle of the league is better than it’s been in past years, and the bottom other than Rutgers is too” is not going to get fans to click.
The problem is when “there are no great teams” evolves into “the league is down.” That’s the proverbial kiss of death.
When the Big Ten didn’t have any teams in the selection committee’s silly College Football Playoff-style early preview of the top four seeds, it reinforced the notion of this being a down year for the conference.
Does anyone remember anything from that day, beyond that there were no Big Ten teams? Gonzaga was the fourth No. 1 seed despite being undefeated. That caused a mild ripple, but not like a catchy “no Big Ten teams” takeaway. The Zags lost a game and … are still a No. 1 seed.
It filters into everyone’s analysis of the teams in the league. Purdue won the Big Ten by two games? Yeah, but the league is down so …
Minnesota and Maryland were both better than expected this season, and the Gophers made one of the best turnarounds in any of the Power 5 leagues. Northwestern made the freakin’ tournament for the first time in school history. Great, but the league …
Where the seven Big Ten teams landed in the bracket didn’t really provide any clarity on how to assess and value this season. Purdue probably could have been a No. 4 seed on early reveal day, and the Boilermakers ended up on that line.
The RPI and the advanced metrics like Ken Pomeroy’s rankings and Jeff Sagarin’s rankings have not been aligned at times this season on certain Big Ten teams. That has also muddled things. Then a few of the top teams — Maryland, Wisconsin and Northwestern — dealt with some version of a late-season swoon.
So now March Madness is here. The Big Ten only has one team (Purdue) that is expected, by seeding, to reach the second weekend of the tournament. The league will need to overperform to match its showing last season, when two teams reached the Sweet 16 but went no further. And if it doesn’t, there will plenty more written and said about this being a down year when the first two rounds are complete.
Two years ago, the Big Ten was the No. 4 conference in the country. It ended up with two teams in the Final Four. Wisconsin, a No. 1 seed, was a popular pick to get there. Michigan State, a No. 8 seed, was not.
Getting two teams to the Final Four didn’t make it the best conference, or second-best. It did change the perception of how that season will be remembered.
That’s the way it works in this sport, for better or worse.
The Big Ten has had a “down year” by a lot of people’s standards, but an opportunity to alter that is here. Getting three teams into the second weekend, or two to the Elite Eight, certainly would change the narrative.