Big Ten got last laugh with two in Final Four

The Big Ten was generally viewed this season as no better than the third best conference overall in the nation. That was a step down from recent seasons. But now that it has arrived in the sport's biggest stage, the Big Ten boasts two teams in the Final Four.

The national perception of the Big Ten Conference for the 2014-15 season was that the conference had slipped a little bit.

The feeling was that the Big Ten simply wasn’t that strong.

Bad non-conference losses just added fuel to that perception. Michigan State lost at home to Texas Southern. Nebraska, picked fourth in the Big Ten, dropped a home game to Incarnate Word. Michigan lost back-to-back games to New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan. Both games were at home., which has ranked conference strength for nearly 20 years, had the Big Ten ranked third in its conference rankings this season behind the Big 12 and the ACC. The previous three years the Big Ten had been No. 1 and the year before that was second.

So it’s not surprising that more than a few people are surprised that the Big Ten is sitting in Indianapolis this weekend with two teams in the Final Four. Wisconsin will face Kentucky in one semifinal matchup on Saturday and Michigan State takes on Duke in the other.

Five of the seven Big Ten teams that made the Big Dance won at least one game. Only Indiana and Purdue were knocked out in the first game.

The top-ranked Big 12 Conference was completely shut out.

“I think the conference got beat up early because early in the season some of our teams lost some games we probably shouldn’t lose,’’ said Wisconsin fifth year senior guard Josh Gasser. “You lose those games and you can be put down with the bottom feeders.

“But I think the conference has been really good. Everyone was just beating up on each other.’’

Wisconsin is the team that ran away from the pack and captured the Big Ten title with a 16-2 record, a full two games ahead of second place Maryland.

But even the Badgers struggled at times. Wisconsin lost to Big Ten cellar dweller Rutgers 67-62 in the third conference game. Rutgers went on to finish 2-16 in conference play. Now, Wisconsin did lose Traevon Jackson and Frank Kaminsky during that game but the point was still made that the Big Ten from top to bottom was extremely competitive in 2015.

“I kind of felt like we were a little overlooked this year as a conference with everyone talking about the ACC, Big East and American conferences,’’ said Michigan State junior guard Denzel Valentine. “Everyone was saying we were having a down year. It was a tough season from top to bottom.

“Still, our worst team beat our best team. Even though Kaminsky was out they still have great players and Rutgers was able to beat Wisconsin. I think that says a lot.’’

Just how significant is it that the conference has two teams in the Final Four?

Consider this: This is the first time that has happened in 10 years and just the sixth time officially overall. It has actually happened on eight occasions but in two cases (Ohio State in 1999 and Michigan in 1992) the appearances were later vacated by the NCAA.

The last time it happened was 2005 when both Illinois and Michigan State advanced to the Final Four. Illinois made it to the national title game that year before losing to North Carolina, 75-70.

Wisconsin sophomore Jordan Hill said he thinks the fact the Big Ten has two teams in the Final Four has made a statement. He said he believes the conference is very resilient.

“It’s a tough league to play in because any team can win on any night,’’ Hill said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the last team in the conference or the first. I think when you play in such a rough conference and you play in so many close games, when you get to this point in the year I think you’re more ready to be able to handle those types of situations.’’

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