It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always pretty, but No. 2 Michigan, No. 2 Wisconsin and No. 4 Michigan State all took care of business in their opening two games and have advanced to the Sweet 16. Well, it was easy for Michigan, which dispatched No. 15 Wofford in the second round and then topped No. 7 Texas in the third round.
But, Wisconsin and Michigan State had to work–hard. Their opening games were a breeze, as the Badgers demolished No. 15 American but had to rally from a 12-point halftime deficit to beat No. 7 Oregon. Michigan State can relate, whipping No. 13 Delaware before easing past No. 12 Harvard in a game the Spartans trailed at one point in the second half.
But, style points don’t matter. It’s all about—yes, for the 3,245th time—surviving and advancing. And that’s just what the Big Ten’s big trio did. Now, it’s on to the Sweet 16.
“You know, I never get time to appreciate those,” Tom Izzo said after the Spartans’ win over Harvard. “I guess six in the past seven is pretty good.
“But I don’t think I do appreciate them. That’s for a rocking chair, grandkids and iced tea. Something later on in life. I don’t have interest in doing it now, because we got bigger fish to fry and bigger things to go after.”
The last time a conference had three teams in the Final Four was 1985, when the Big East sent Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s. The Wildcats beat the Hoyas in the famous “perfect” game in Lexington, Ky.
The Big Ten had two teams in the Final Four as recently as 2005 in St. Louis, when Michigan State and Illinois made it. The Fighting Illini lost to North Carolina in the title game. Since 1980, the Big Ten also had two teams in the Final Four in 2000 (Michigan State, Wisconsin); 1999 (Michigan State, Ohio State); 1992 (Indiana, Michigan); 1989 (Michigan, Illinois); 1980 (Purdue, Iowa).
Which remaining Big Ten has the best shot to advance to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas? I like the Badgers’ path best. Wisconsin will play No. 6 Baylor in the Sweet 16 in the West Region in Anaheim as it pursues its first Final Four since Dick Bennett led them there in 2000. The Bears have knocked off Nebraska and Creighton. This is an athletic Baylor squad that’s similar in many respects to the Oregon team that the Badgers just rallied to beat. But if Wisconsin has shown us one thing, it’s that it can play any style necessary.
Beat Scott Drew’s Bears, and a tilt with either No. 4 San Diego State or No. 1 Arizona looms. This is gritty and tough Badgers’ team that had its will steeled by that harrowing win over Oregon. This also is an offensively skilled Wisconsin club that can score in a variety of ways. And it doesn’t beat itself with turnovers. It’s also confident after that heart-stopping victory over the Ducks.
“We just talked in the locker room,” Ben Brust said after the Oregon win. “We can do it, but we got to believe in each other and have faith and also do the things that made us successful to get the comeback, which was you get some charges, get some stops, and just take care of the ball and get good shots.
“And we just worked it around, did all the things we talked about that we should have done for 40 minutes, but luckily we were able to do a good enough job in the last 20 better to get the job done.”
Michigan State hopes to get the job done in the East Region, where it looks to have the second-best shot to reach college basketball’s Promised Land. The Spartans will take on No. 1 Virginia in New York. The Cavaliers have their best team in a generation, moving to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1995. Tony Bennett’s Virginia team is known for its suffocating defense, which compensates for a lack of offensive punch. And this largely is a star-less UVa team. Still, the Cavs are a well-oiled team that’s in synch. Points will be at a premium in the Michigan State-Virginia game.
If the Spartans win that, a date with No. 3 Iowa State or No. 7 UConn looms between MSU a trip to the Final Four, where Tom Izzo has been six times but not since 2010 and where every previous four-year Izzo player has been at least once.
“In the first half we only had one turnover, which is like a record for us,” Izzo said after the win vs. Harvard, which fought back from a 12-point hole to take a 62-60 lead with 7:09 left. “The difference was in the second half, we got sloppy, and some of that was Harvard, but we turned the ball over 10 times and I think they scored on six of those turnovers.
“If we learn from it, I think it’s going to help this team.”
Michigan has the most daunting path to AT&T Stadium in North Texas playing in what most feel is a loaded Midwest Region. The Wolverines may have the easiest Sweet 16 game of any Big Ten team, taking on No. 11 Tennessee, which began the Big Dance by knocking off Iowa in overtime in a play-in game on Wednesday. But this is a hot Volunteers club that has size and athletic ability. While shooting is an issue, Tennessee compensates by playing well down low, rebounding well and playing strong defense under former Purdue star Cuonzo Martin. Michigan will need to continue to shoot like it did vs. Texas, when the Wolverines hit a school NCAA tourney single-game record 14 3-pointers.
The lifting will be heavy for Michigan if it makes it to the Elite Eight, where it will have to face either No. 4 Louisville or No. 8 Kentucky in Indianapolis. Michigan has been down this road before, playing for the national title last season before losing to Louisville.
“The Sweet 16 is really hard to get to,” Michigan boss John Beilein said after beating Texas. “There was one time when I was coaching way back when, I don’t know where I was, I said, ‘If we ever get to the Sweet 16, I might retire.’ It’s so hard to win in the NCAA tournament. So to make it again … today is really good.”
But it’s only a beginning for Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, as they pursue the Final Four. And, it’s not crazy to think all three could make it. At the least, it wouldn’t be shock if two Big Ten clubs make it to AT&T Stadium, where the conference is searching for its first national championship since the Spartans won it all in 2000.
|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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