Dienhart: Thursday was a success for the Big Ten

The first full-fledged day of NCAA tournament action was a success for the Big Ten. Yes, No. 11 Iowa lost a play-in game to No. 11 Tennessee on Wednesday. And No. 6 Ohio State fell to No. 11 Dayton today. But neither loss was a stunner. But the fact the defeats came early in the tourney, it caught the attention of critics. No matter, the Big Ten’s “Big Three” opened with victories today. And they looked good doing it.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Ohio State's elimination no surprise ]

No. 2 Wisconsin destroyed No. 15 American.

No. 4 Michigan State whipped No. 13 Delaware.

No. 2 Michigan topped No. 15 Wofford.

Nebraska begins play in its first NCAA tourney since 1998 on Friday, opening vs. Baylor. The Cornhuskers are a great story and may have enough to advance to the Sweet 16. But make no mistake about it: The Wolverines, Spartans and Badgers are the bellwethers in this tourney for the Big Ten. They are carrying the conference’s banner.

The conference will live and die with how that holy trinity performs. And, so far, so good, as the Big Ten is in pursuit of its first National Championship since Michigan State won it all in 1999-2000 in Indianapolis vs. Florida in the now demolished RCA Dome. Yes, that was a long time ago. Since then, schools from the ACC, SEC, Big East and Big 12 have won championships. It’s time for the Big Ten.

Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin seemingly have a good shot to advance to the Final Four in Dallas. Michigan came close to winning it all last season, losing in the National Championship game to Louisville.

If any of these three schools fail to make it to the Sweet 16, it will be a disappointment. And if at least one doesn’t make it to the Final Four, it will be a disappointment. Speaking of which, it wouldn’t be a shock if two of the three made it to the Final Four. The last time the Big Ten had two Final Four teams was in 2005, when Illinois and Michigan State made it. The Illini lost to North Carolina in the title game.

The Badgers were the most impressive Big Ten squad on this day, winning 75-35, the 11th time in 13 appearances that Wisconsin has opened the Big Dance with a victory under Bo Ryan. The 35 points scored by American were the fewest for a UW opponent in the NCAA tournament in the modern era and the lowest total since 1941. Wisconsin held Pittsburgh to 30 points and Washington State to 34 on its way to the 1941 NCAA title. Foreshadowing?

[ MORE: Dienhart: Many choose Spartans, but I like Badgers ]

“It is great that we can win in different ways,” Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser said after helping the Badgers to their biggest margin of victory in NCAA tourney annals. “This year’s team, yea we can score a little bit better, but still we pride ourselves on the defensive end. We pride ourselves on winning 50-50 balls and kind of being the aggressor.

“We say it all the time that the balls not always going to drop, so you’ve got to win games in other ways sometimes.”

The Badgers will lock up with No. 7 Oregon on Saturday with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line.

“They got so many different weapons,” American coach Mike Brennan said. “They play so well together and take such good care of the ball inside, outside.

“They’re a really, really good team and they defend. That’s the biggest thing today. We couldn’t score and they stopped us stone cold.”

No doubt, Delaware came away impressed by Michigan State and Adreian Payne, who was a one-man gang for MSU in its 93-78 win over Delaware, scoring a school NCAA tourney single-game record 41 points.

“Adreian just showed the world he’s not ready to go home,” Branden Dawson said.

“When you’re scoring like that and the games coming so easy to you. … it feels like you can’t be stopped,” said Payne, whose previous career-high was 33.

[ MORE: Barack Obama picks Michigan State to win NCAA Tourney ]

It was a workmanlike effort for the Spartans, who were in control throughout. But it left Tom Izzo wanting more.

“You just didn’t feel as good as you should after a win like this,” Izzo said.

This was the first step toward what many think will be a run to the Final Four—if not the National Championship.

Michigan is also thinking National Championship after shocking many by winning its first outright Big Ten crown since 1986. The Wolverines handled Wofford, 57-40. This is a talented Michigan squad that is difficult to beat when it is shooting well. John Beilein’s team hit 47 percent of its shots vs. the Terriers.

It was just a first step for the Wolverines. The same for the Badgers and Spartans. Bigger games and bigger foes await. But, no doubt, today was a good day for the Big Ten in an NCAA Tournament that teems with possibilities.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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