Editor’s Note: Antony Dinero is the No. 1 college basketball handicapper on VegasInsider.com. Don’t miss out on all of his postseason picks, which include expert analysis. Click to win!
For 10 consecutive years, the ACC owned the annual early measuring stick for conference supremacy in college basketball. Any time a fan out in hoops-crazy Indiana or intensely proud cities like Detroit and Chicago wanted to laud the Big Ten's depth, they had to do it knowing those schools throughout the southern East coast owned scoreboard. Entering 2009, the ACC-Big Ten challenge may as well have been renamed the Atlantic Coast Invitational.
Meanwhile, the behemoth of the Big East grew and swallowed most of the remaining attention, while Billy Donovan created a national program at Florida, joining Kentucky in casting shadows in the SEC.
The Big Ten turned into an also-ran where even the best teams at anchor programs Michigan State and Ohio State often underachieved.
So, yes, the thunder the Big Ten has brought in 2011-12 is certainly surprising. The conference has legitimately been the country's best. There are four schools alive in the NCAA Tournament, joining the Big East in supplying a quarter of the remaining field. Had Purdue not imploded against Kansas, it would've been five.
Quietly, the Big Ten has been mounting a comeback and seeing former powers restored. In 2009 and 2010, the league finally beat the ACC in the aforementioned challenge, albeit by the narrowest of margins (6-5).
This past November, they drubbed the ACC, 8-4, and by then, many were already of the opinion that has become gospel today -- the Big Ten is back!
Tom Crean has been rebuilding Indiana in hopes of returning the program to the spotlight. That Hoosiers team arrived this season. Michigan has been revitalized by head coach John Beilein, even with the early exit to Ohio this past weekend. Purdue has had dynamite teams under Matt Painter, who got the most out of his recently eliminated version. Tubby Smith has had some success at Minnesota and is one game from an NIT Final Four. And Bill Carmody has painfully gotten closer and closer to taking Northwestern to the NCAAs.
All the while, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta and the unheralded Bo Ryan, three of the best instructors in the game, have set the tone. Positive results seemed inevitable, but until they actually came to fruition, it never seemed to come together collectively.
Since Michigan's 1989 title, the only school to bring a national championship back to the Big Ten was the memorable Mateen Cleaves-led Michigan State squad in 2000. The Spartans have been the lone participant in a title game this century, while the Horizon League, a baby brother of a regional league, has sent Butler there in successive tournaments.
Considering this has been the season where the Big Ten's rebirth has become glaring, the best way to make it official is for one of its teams to cut down the nets in New Orleans this April. With four schools scattered among three regions, odds are decent that one breaks through.
Here's a rundown of the candidates and their Tournament Odds at Bovada.lv
Indiana (27-10 SU, 18-10 ATS)
Reasons they can run four more: Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller are young, but kids these days are naïve enough to not get tripped up by inexperience. The sophomore wing is an elite athlete whose confidence is growing by the day, while the other is a versatile 7-foot freshman whose skills can be refined, but whose instincts can't be taught. Both will be special, so there's an outside chance they can play at an elite level for two more weeks. Christian Watford, Will Sheehey and Jordan Hulls each have terrific basketball IQs and complement the two whiz kids beautifully. Crean has successfully created a bunker mentality and has this team believing it can accomplish anything.
Reasons they're on borrowed time: The Hoosiers depth took a major hit when backup guard Verdell Jones blew out a knee in a Big Ten Tournament win over Penn State, but they've persevered thus far and overcame the disadvantage against a VCU team built to exploit that kind of thing. Kentucky, already carrying a revenge factor into Friday's regional semifinal, figures to probe at that potential Achilles' Heel and is more equipped than anyone in the country to succeed at doing so. To win it all, Indiana will have to sweep through Atlanta and New Orleans. Considering it was 0-11 in true road games last year and were just 5-6 this past season, that seems unlikely.
Odds to win the NCAA Tournament: 35/1
Odds to win the South Regional: 6/1
Michigan State (29-7 SU, 23-11 ATS)
Reasons they can run four more: I've heard Draymond Green compared to Magic Johnson numerous times this season and have been convinced it's not hyperbole. No, Green isn't the second coming of Magic. That's an unfair label to put on anyone. Still, he leads like the school's most famous alum once did. His impact in that department is immeasurable. Sparty defends with pride, rebounds relentlessly and enjoys sharing the ball. His game is the epitome of what glue means in basketball-speak. Keith Appling is inconsistent, but there's no faster guard in the field and Green has helped increase his comfort level. Putting a winner like Green under the thumb of Izzo means it's been impossible to impose your will on Michigan State. They'll fight you every second.
Reasons they're on borrowed time: Losing Green for any substantial part of a game would likely spell doom for the Spartans, as they're tied to one player as the key to their success more than any other remaining Big Ten entry. Losing terrific freshman Branden Dawson, a willing defender and rebounder, to an ACL tear in late February means Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne have had to step up with no safety net inside. They've been great thus far and are in a region where size won't play a major role, but that's not likely to remain the case if and when they reach New Orleans.
Odds to win the NCAA Tournament: 13/2
Odds to win West Regional: 6/5
Ohio State (29-7 SU, 17-14 ATS)
Reasons they can run four more: When they get all the individual parts revved up and jelling, there's no team more potent offensively than the Buckeyes. Aaron Craft is the best two-way point guard in the conference, a sticky defender who runs the offense seamlessly, rarely forcing the issue and getting the right guys the ball where they want it. The big dog is Jared Sullinger, whose back-to-the-basket game creates opportunities for shooters. Mix in the size and matchup issues DeShaun Thomas and William Buford create and you can see why opponents have to pick their poison when striving for containment.
Reasons they're on borrowed time: Sullinger has lacked burst over the past few weeks and doesn't seem to be 100 percent. Can he rise to the occasion as the level of competition increases? Unlike years past when Dallas Lauderdale was around to play enforcer, this year's team relies on the raw Evan Ravenel and can't overpower you inside or survive Sullinger getting in foul trouble. Like Michigan State did in the Big Ten Championship, teams are going to play off sophomore Lenzelle Smith and dare him to beat them from the perimeter. He must be up to task, but the verdict is out on whether he's ready.
Odds to win the NCAA Tournament: 11/2
Odds to win the East Regional: 11/10
Wisconsin (26-9 SU, 18-14 ATS)
Reasons they can run four more: Root canals don't feel good, so hearing that comparison come up when coaches reference going up against the Badgers defense gives you an idea of the driving force behind Ryan's team. It's a lock that they'll contest everything, methodically slow the pace and force you out of your comfort zone. Senior Jordan Taylor plays like a 30-year-old and is rarely rattled running the show, while unheralded center Jared Berggren is a legitimate 6-foot-11 game-changer whose athleticism and ability are tough to contend with. He's certainly a candidate to go from relative unknown to household name in two weeks time.
Reasons they're on borrowed time: If Taylor is not knocking down his jumper, this team lacks a true go-to scorer. That can be an advantage in that team ball keeps a defense from focusing on locking up an individual, but it can also hurt you when you're desperate for a basket and have to send out an APB for someone capable of easily getting you one. Getting by top-seeded Syracuse and likely East regional finalist Ohio State in Boston is unquestionably the most difficult road any of the four Big Ten schools have in getting to New Orleans.
Odds to win the NCAA Tournament: 30/1
Odds to win the East Regional: 4/1