ARLINGTON, Texas – Jim Delany rides or dies here with the Wisconsin Badgers.
While that's better than having no teams in the Final Four, the Big Ten commissioner is no longer operating from the position of strength he enjoyed as recently as last week. When Michigan and Michigan State both flamed out in regional finals, the quest for the league's first national title in men's basketball since 2000 suddenly shifted from strong odds to slim.
That's tough to take. But the presence of Southeastern Conference teams on both sides of the Final Four bracket makes the Big Ten predicament almost intolerable.
If the Badgers are going to win this thing, they will have to beat Kentucky Saturday and then quite likely Florida Monday. If they pull that off, it's a phenomenal accomplishment and one of the happiest Big Ten moments in many years. But if they lose to either SEC team, it's one more spoonful of castor oil down the throat for Delany.
He already has had to cede the foundation sport of football to his fierce rival Mike Slive. Delany's league has not been able to win a national title in that since 2002, while the SEC won them all from 2006-12 and came very close to an eighth straight in January. Slive eventually won the football playoff turf battle, too, wearing down the old-guard bowl adherents that were led by Delany.
So the fascinating power struggle between the two men with the most clout in college athletics has swung heavily to the South. If Slive struts into North Texas and leaves with the basketball hardware for the fourth time in the last eight tourneys, that might be the last straw.
Because the SEC was a laughingstock of a league in comparison to the Big Ten this season.
To their credit, SEC honchos admitted after last season they had a basketball problem and set about fixing it – they hired former NCAA tournament czar Greg Shaheen as a scheduling consultant, and they made longtime staffer Mark Whitworth the associate commissioner in charge of basketball. The hiring of Bruce Pearl at Auburn will help as well.
But in 2013-14, there was a mile of quality distance between the Big Ten and SEC.
One had depth, the other did not. One had four teams in the final AP Top 25, the other had one. One had six teams in the field of 68, the other had three.
That's six out of 12 Big Ten teams in the field. Compared to three out of 14 SEC teams.
The Big Ten won the NIT Thursday with Minnesota beating SMU in the final. The SEC's four NIT teams all failed to win more than one game, impugning any argument that the league deserved more than the three NCAA bids it got.
The Big Ten is the No. 1 league in the nation, per Ken Pomeroy's ratings. The SEC is fifth. But the Big Ten really, really needs Wisconsin to salvage what had been a very good season for the entire league.
Michigan State's regional final loss to Connecticut was a blow to the Big Ten. After an injury-riddled season, the Spartans looked like national title contenders while winning the Big Ten tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16. After taking down No. 1 seed Virginia in that round, all that stood between them and the Final Four were the No. 7-seeded Huskies. But UConn played with far more poise and moxie, as the Spartans surprisingly unraveled in the second half.
Michigan's loss to Kentucky was less regrettable but still painful for the Big Ten office. The Wolverines played a very good game and simply were outshot late by a massively talented Kentucky team that is riding a remarkable wave of momentum and confidence.
Combine those defeats with first-game losses by Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska, and the Big Ten crowd has thinned to one.
It's down to Wisconsin. A team that at one point was 4-5 in the league.
The Badgers have had a great tourney run, capped off with a blowout of Baylor in the round of 16 and a dramatic, one-point, overtime upset of Arizona to get here. But like everyone else who has encountered Kentucky, they will be at a height disadvantage and a talent deficit Saturday.
The Wildcats could have seven players drafted this June, none of them older than sophomores. The NBA scouts are considerably less enamored of the Badgers.
They don't do one-and-done players at Wisconsin, a point Bo Ryan wryly made Thursday.
"When somebody asks me about one and done, all I remember is when my mom would give me a pork chop or a piece of meat loaf," Ryan said. "And I would ask for another piece and she would say, 'No, one and done.' "
Wisconsin executes its swing offense at a high rate of efficiency, and it's not the most conventional approach – which will challenge the young Wildcats' ability to absorb a scouting report and prepare. But the Badgers' perennial ability to guard without fouling will be severely tested by a Kentucky team that assaults the rim and enjoys a huge free-throw disparity on the season. This is Ryan's best offensive team at Wisconsin and probably one of his worst defensively – we'll see how that disparity plays out against a group that has figured out the game in the past month.
The Badgers are up against it Saturday – and by extension so is the Big Ten. If this Final Four becomes an all-SEC final, somebody needs to check on Jim Delany and make sure he's OK.
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