Last week, amid the pre-tournament calm, we knew at least two things about the 2013 Big Ten:
1. It was the best conference in the country for the first four months of the season, and by a wide margin.
2. If it didn't live up to that billing in March, almost nobody would care.
A disappointing collective NCAA tournament performance may have been well understood by the people who follow this sport year-round, and folks like me would have spent time discussing exactly what it means to be successful in a college hoops season. We would have cited solid statistics.
We would have proclaimed how much of a crapshoot March Madness really is, how wild things can get, how you can't throw out an entire season based on one month (or even one weekend) of wacky single-elimination results. We would have reminded you that the same Florida Gulf Coast team that turned a whole country into Dunk Oceania lost to Lipscomb twice.
And none of it would have mattered! Most people just watch the tournament. What they see in March is what happened in college basketball that season, and there's no point in arguing otherwise, because they don't care enough to engage. See? Gonzaga was overrated. We knew it. End of discussion.
Which is precisely why we should all take a moment to thank the Big Ten for making it easy on us: By so thoroughly dominating the first weekend of the tournament -- it went 6-1 in the first round, finished the weekend with a best-ever 10 wins and sent its best four teams to the Sweet 16, more than any other conference -- the league rendered this entire discussion moot.
The question is: What happens now?
What about an all-B1G Final Four?
Yes, those four remaining Big Ten teams aren't just the league's four best, they also happened to be conveniently spaced into each of the tournament's four regions, meaning it is entirely conceivable all four could find themselves on the way to the Georgia Dome by this time next week.
How conceivable? On the Official Eamonn Likelihood Scale of 1 to 10 -- with 1 being "Eamonn uses a treadmill in the next two weeks" and 10 being "The PR people in the Big Ten league office have spent all week doing the 'Florida Gulf Coast Manager Dance'" -- I'd put it at about a two.
That might be generous: The Las Vegas odds on an "all-Big Ten Final Four" have moved from a pre-tournament 250-to-1 to their current 62-to-1, which, for everyone reading this column not named Aaron Craft, is significantly less than my arbitrary scale above. Then again, those are the kind of odds Lloyd Christmas would have killed for.
Yes, I'm telling you there's a chance. Here's why:
Ohio State is in the driver's seat. The utter carnage doled out by double-digit seeds in the West Region has been stunning. In the matter of three days, we lost No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 3 New Mexico, No. 4 Kansas State, No. 5 Wisconsin (whom your humble author may or may not have picked to proceed to the Elite Eight), No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 8 Pittsburgh and No. 10 Iowa State. Left standing on the top side of the bracket are No. 9 Wichita State, which knocked off the top-seeded Zags; and No. 13 La Salle, which finally ended Marshall Henderson's reign of terror with Tyrone Garland's "South Philly Floater." Shout out to his cousin, Vern.
Ohio State's opponent in Los Angeles on Thursday will be the No. 6-seeded Arizona Wildcats, who are not a 6-seed in terms of talent but only got such a so-so spot in the bracket thanks to lags in their consistency in Pac-12 play. Like all teams with future professionals and a mix of young talent and savvy veterans, they are capable of making a deep run in the tournament. They are to be feared.
But with that disclosure out of the way, Buckeyes fans must be licking their chops. Every team in their bracket is objectively inferior to their defense-dominant squad, and if they manage to handle Arizona's sizable front line they have a meeting with either a No. 9 seed or a No. 13 seed in the Elite Eight. I know, I know: Nothing is given, we'll take it one game at a time, insert your own cliché here. Blah blah blah. It would now register as an upset -- and possibly a major one -- if Deshaun Thomas & Co. don't break through.
Michigan State is playing the best basketball in the tournament -- and it can match up with Duke. Vin Scully once said "Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher," and he's right: Trying to make game-to-game conclusions about which team "has the momentum" is probably not the best way to do serious basketball analysis. But it is not unfair to look around and pick which team is playing the best right now, and it is hard, with the possible exception of FGCU, to find a team that played a more impressive two games than did the Michigan State Spartans last weekend. The first was an utter romp of Valpo that looked much closer (65-54) on the score line than it was; the latter was a 70-48 second-half-led demolition of an equally athletic and high-speed Memphis team. The Spartans are eating offensive rebounds like media buffet table pretzels, Gary Harris is hitting shots, Adreian Payne is dunking on everyone, Keith Appling and Derrick Nix are snapping each other with towels in timeouts and calling each other "brothers" after the game -- this is exactly what a Tom Izzo team should look like in March.
The Spartans have an undeniably brutal road to the Final Four, which begins with their Sweet 16 matchup with No. 2 Duke and, barring upset, will force them to go through a No. 1-seeded Louisville team on a mission. No doubt about it. It's brutal. But the matchup with Duke isn't quite as rough as you might think. Duke's primary defensive emphasis is running shooters off the 3-point line; the Spartans don't need to shoot a ton of 3s to power their offensive attack. Duke's main matchup advantage is typically forward Ryan Kelly; Payne has evolved into a confident outside shooter and rim-runner who is taller and more athletic. If you're a Michigan State fan, you don't love the idea of having to beat Duke and Louisville in three days. But it could be worse.
3. Indiana is still Indiana. With the possible exception of occasionally turnover-prone Michigan State facing the turnover-swarming monster that is Louisville, there may be no tougher single matchup for any remaining Big Ten team than what Syracuse will present to Indiana on Thursday.
The Orange front line is big, lanky, physical and athletic, the kind of personnel that frequently gives Cody Zeller issues. The size and reach differences between 6-foot-4 Brandon Triche and 6-foot-6 Michael Carter-Williams and 6-footers-on-platforms Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Hulls make it hard to imagine how either will find unencumbered looks. Indiana prefers to play uptempo, ball-movement offense; when it gets mired in a 60-possession, half-court game, it stagnates. And more than anything, the only two areas where Indiana is legitimately weak -- turnovers on offense and rebounding on defense -- just so happen to be the two areas in which the Orange do most of their best work. Syracuse doesn't shoot it well, but it turns you over and crashes the offensive glass, and if you can't stand up to that, good luck.
But the Hoosiers are still the favorite, and for good reason: They're the Hoosiers. It's still a team with Zeller and forward Christian Watford -- both of whom are versatile offensive players and excellent passers, and will have to be Thursday in the middle of that Cuse zone -- and arguably the best all-around player in the country in Victor Oladipo, a guy who (cliché alert) usually finds a way to make a big play down the stretch. Indiana spends all season tracking deflections and turnover stats; few coaches will be able to prepare their teams for a passing-lane-crushing defense like Tom Crean can. If IU can be even semi-sound on the defensive boards and force the Orange to take jumpers instead, the Hoosiers should be able to mitigate the struggles that could come on the offensive end.
And if the Hoosiers do survive Syracuse, neither uptempo Marquette nor Reggie Johnson-less Miami is particularly scary, at least relative to the rest of the field.
4. Michigan still has Trey Burke. There are a few dogmatic tropes that pop up around this time of year, but none is repeated so often as this: Guard play is important in the NCAA tournament. It's easy to make fun of this sort of thing, almost as easy as it is to forget that these things usually become tropes because they're true.
But "guard play" is one thing. Burke is entirely another. The Wolverines' point guard and potential national-player-of-the-year candidate doesn't just do a lot of scoring, and doesn't just set up his teammates, and doesn't just not turn the ball over, and doesn't just have one of the more reliable and closing-moments-ready step-back jumpers in the game. He does all of those things, and he does them a lot.
Burke ends 29.1 percent of his team's possessions. It feels like so much more for obvious reasons: Whether he shoots or dishes or not, Burke touches the ball every single time down the floor, often for a majority of the shot clock. The Wolverines are surely better when the ball is moving, when Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas are hitting shots, when Glenn Robinson III is running at the rim and when Mitch McGary -- who had his best performance of the season in Michigan's round of 32 blowout of undersized VCU -- is rebounding and scoring on the low block. But in tight tournament games, knowing that you can put the ball in the hands of a player as good and as self-assured and mistake-free as Burke is an incredible luxury, one no other team in the tournament has.
Like I said, I don't actually think the Big Ten is going to get four teams in the Final Four. Zero could happen, too. But it is at least conceivable -- not only generally but in the specific matchups each team faces this weekend -- that the four remaining Big Ten teams could end up stamping the 2013 season in the most demonstrative way.
I do know one thing: If it happens, the Big Ten league offices will soon resemble a Pitbull commercial.
You've been warned.