If the NCAA tournament served as a tiebreaker between the Big Ten and Big 12 in the race to be known as this season's strongest conference, then it's pretty clear which league has pulled ahead.
Three of the Big Ten's six NCAA tournament teams have reached the Elite Eight. None of the Big 12's seven entrants made it past the Sweet 16.
The success of Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State give the Big Ten three Elite Eight teams for the third time since the turn of the century. In 2000, Michigan State won the national title, Wisconsin reached its only Final Four and Purdue fell to the Badgers in the regional finals. In 2005, Illinois reached the title game, Michigan State returned to the Final Four and Wisconsin advanced to its first regional final under Bo Ryan.
Three teams in the Elite Eight gives the Big Ten hope of ending a14-year national title drought that is the only blemish on the league's basketball resume. The Big Ten has produced 13 No. 1 seeds, nine Final Four teams and five runner-ups since Tom Izzo and the Flint Stones cut down the nets in 2000, but no teams from the league have been able to duplicate that feat.
Of the three remaining Big Ten teams, it might be Michigan State that has the best chance to be the last team standing on championship Monday.
Finally back at full strength after a slew of injuries dimmed their Big Ten regular season title hopes, Michigan State stormed to the conference tournament title, survived upset bids from Delaware and Harvard during the first week of NCAA tournament play and toppled No. 1 seed Virginia in the Sweet 16. Branden Dawson had 24 points and Adreian Payne had 16 for the Spartans, who face seventh-seeded UConn on Sunday with a berth in the Final Four on the line.
If there's a concern for Michigan State, it remains that Keith Appling still doesn't look anywhere close to as confident as he did before a midseason wrist injury. The senior point guard played 29 near-invisible minutes on Friday night and now has only 10 points and 10 assists in three NCAA tournament games.
Still, the Spartans will be favorites in the Elite Eight, something that is not true of Wisconsin against Arizona and may not be the case for Michigan against Kentucky.
Top-seeded Arizona should have the Anaheim crowd on its side in a matchup with the Badgers that will feature an efficient, diverse Wisconsin offense against a smothering Wildcats defense. Michigan will be at a talent and size deficit against Kentucky, which has abused teams on the glass in the NCAA tournament and has drawn fouls by attacking the rim.
It's no guarantee the Big Ten can end its title drought this postseason considering the strength of some of the other five teams left in the field.
Nonetheless, the Big Ten is in better position than any other league. Better to have three bullets left in the chamber than two, one or none at all.
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