Can Wisconsin follow OSU, give Big Ten a championship double?
Twelve weeks after Ohio State won the Big Ten’s first national football championship since 2002, Wisconsin plays Monday night for the conference’s first national basketball title since Michigan State won in 2000.
The Badgers are playing for themselves, obviously, but are proud to represent the Big Ten.
"I thought we’ve had some teams from the league that had very good chances of (winning the title)," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "It’s amazing how this game can just snap (in a) two-minute period, a 30-second period. I mean, there have been chances for Big Ten teams since 2000. Now we have a chance.
"For Ohio State to do what they did for themselves (in football), then for the Big Ten, makes a huge statement, especially since it was the first one with the setup the way it is now in football with the playoff system. This would be better late than never if we could get it accomplished, (end) the 15-year drought.
"So, yeah, we’re going to try to represent the Big Ten. For sure."
Even in the absence of the game’s biggest prize, Big Ten basketball is in the midst of a healthy and productive period. Wisconsin becomes the fifth team from the conference in the last decade to play in the title game; the others were Michigan in 2013, Michigan State in 2009, Ohio State in 2007 and Illinois in 2005.
Both Wisconsin and Michigan State making the Final Four this year made 10 Big Ten Final Four appearances in the last 10 years. In 2005, both Illinois and Michigan made the Final Four.
After Wisconsin rallied to beat Michigan State in the conference tournament title game Mar. 15, then-injured Wisconsin guard said he told fellow Ohio native and Michigan State point guard Travis Trice in the postgame handshake line that he believed the teams would cross paths again in the Final Four.
"See you in Indy," Jackson said he told Trice.
He was right.
"Obviously you want to represent the conference well throughout the tournament," Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said. "You’re rooting for teams like Michigan State, who made it pretty far. We’ve had some really good teams in this league over the years.
"I’m kind of surprised there hasn’t been a national champion, but that doesn’t take anything away from the conference as a whole, I don’t think. We’re just trying to represent the conference. It’s not about the Big Ten, it’s about us, what we can do to win a national championship."
For the eighth straight year, the Big Ten sent at least two teams to the Sweet 16. Michigan State advanced to the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in the past eight years, and the Spartans’ run of seven Final Fours in the last 17 years is the most by any team in that span.
Michigan State finished third in the Big Ten this season. The Spartans made the Final Four as a No. 7 seed; the other three Final Four teams were all No. 1 seeds. Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team to advance to the Final Four as a No. 1 seed since Ohio State in 2007.
Wisconsin advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the past five seasons. Michigan State’s current streak of 18 consecutive NCAA Tournaments ranks third nationally, while Wisconsin’s 17 straight trips is tied for the fourth-longest current streak in the nation.
"We played so many good teams (in the regular season)," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said last week. "I said it all year, I tried to stick up for our league. Sometimes I think the conferences should be ranked on how teams 12, 11, 10 and 9 are. The depth of a conference makes it different because there are no nights off.
"Playing in the Big Ten really did help us in the tournament. I think you’ve got some teams like a Minnesota who maybe pressed, played more zone. You’ve got Iowa, who is really a big team this year. I think Illinois was a real tough team, along with Purdue. Ohio State was one of the more skilled offensive teams. So we had a lot of different variety of teams. Maryland was sensational. I think what you had is the year before, there was us, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin. We had four teams in the top 10 at one time. We didn’t have that this year.
"Wisconsin was the king. Maryland was right there. There were about six, seven teams that were in that dogfight in between. All of them were good enough to win a lot of games. I think that and the crowds you play in front of help prepare you for the NCAA tournament."
Izzo’s 46 NCAA tournament wins are the most by a coach in Big Ten history.
The Big Ten has produced some pretty good players lately, too — and not just Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, who was named the Naismith Player of the Year. Michigan had a down year but had five first-round NBA draft picks playing in the NBA this season, all early entries to the draft.
A Big Ten player has been selected in the lottery in six of the last eight NBA drafts, and once declarations are final this year it’s almost certain that will become it seven of nine.