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Tom Oates: Breaking down the 2019-20 Big Ten men's basketball season
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Tom Oates: Breaking down the 2019-20 Big Ten men's basketball season

From the Get ready for Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball season with the State Journal's annual preview series

There is an interesting phenomenon regarding Big Ten Conference men’s basketball that occurs every year about this time.

No matter what happened the season before, no matter what the conference returns in terms of elite players and veteran teams, experts from around the nation look at the Big Ten prior to the season and see a lot of good and very little great.

With the exception of Michigan State, which is ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll for the first time, a similar thing has happened this season. The Spartans are capable of breaking the Big Ten’s 19-year NCAA championship drought, but the rest of the conference draws a large yawn. As usual, people just don’t see many elite teams in the Big Ten.

Heck, maybe there aren’t any elite teams in the Big Ten. But it’s interesting to see where the conference stood entering last season and compare it to the start of this season.

The Big Ten landed only four teams in the 2018 NCAA tournament, its lowest number since it also had four in 2008 and cause for considerable alarm in Big Ten country. Michigan reached the 2018 national championship game, but the other three Big Ten teams went 4-3 and didn’t get past the first weekend.

When it came time to choose the preseason Top 25 a year ago, the results showed how unimpressed the voters were with the conference. Only three teams — Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue — earned spots in the poll last October.

Fast forward to the end of the 2018-19 season and the conference, despite those low expectations, put eight teams in the NCAA tournament, more than any other league and a record for the Big Ten. The conference did well once it got there, too. Every team except the University of Wisconsin won at least one game, its overall tournament record was 13-8 and three teams — Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan — reached the second weekend, with the Spartans advancing to the Final Four.

It wasn’t just the postseason where the Big Ten showed up, either. The conference flexed its muscle in the computer rankings, with 11 teams finishing in the top 52 and no team lower than 84th. For comparison purposes, the Pac-12 had six teams ranked 94th or lower and the ACC had five ranked 97th or lower.

But was the Big Ten’s impressive show of strength reflected when the Top 25 preseason poll came out two weeks ago? Nope. The conference had just four teams in the poll — Michigan State first, Maryland seventh, Ohio State 18th and Purdue 23rd. Only two other teams — Illinois and Michigan — even received votes.

And when the preseason all-America selections came out, Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston was a unanimous choice on the five-man team, but Penn State forward Lamar Stevens was the only other conference player who received a vote.

None of this matters, of course. The polls only generate discussion — everywhere except the NCAA selection committee suite, that is.

But it has become apparent by now that the only thing that will convert the naysayers is a national championship for the Big Ten. There likely will be nine or 10 conference teams in the hunt for an NCAA bid this season, but that’s not how conferences are measured. Right or wrong, national championships are how conferences are measured.

It’s not like the Big Ten hasn’t had its chances. Last year was the eighth trip to the Final Four for Michigan State under coach Tom Izzo. In the past 19 seasons, Michigan (twice), Michigan State, UW, Ohio State, Illinois and Indiana have reached the national final. The Big Ten has put 14 teams in the Final Four since 2000, tying the ACC for the best mark during that time. But it’s titles that count and the ACC has won seven of them since 2000, three each by Duke and North Carolina and one by Virginia last year.

With that in mind, Michigan State might be the Big Ten’s best chance in years to win the conference’s first NCAA title since the Spartans did it in 2000. Izzo’s team returns Winston, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, along with power forward Xavier Tillman and wing Aaron Henry, both of whom played very well down the stretch last season. If wing Joshua Langford can come back from a foot injury that will sideline him until at least January, the Spartans will be loaded.

Elsewhere, Maryland and Purdue return deep, veteran teams that could get into the national discussion. Ohio State and Illinois are expecting breakthrough seasons under third-year coaches. And you can’t really have a Big Ten race without UW involved, can you?

Whatever happens, the Big Ten will be entertaining. Going to a 20-game conference schedule last year was a huge success. It generated a great race for the regular-season title and helped all Big Ten teams increase their strength of schedule, important when the NCAA hands out tournament bids.

But until the day comes when someone hands out the NCAA championship trophy to a Big Ten team, the conference won’t get the respect it deserves.

Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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