It’s been a heck of a year on the hardcourt for the Big Ten. With the unusual struggles of Duke, Kentucky, and programs like Kansas and North Carolina not up to their typical quality, there was little doubt that the Big Ten was by far the best conference for college hoops this season.
The conference wasn’t just deep - there were certainly no easy wins found on the schedule - but top-heavy, too. This begs the question - could we actually see an all-Big Ten Final Four?
While it seems difficult to fathom, it’s not far removed from the realm of possibility. The Big Ten has two one-seeds and two two-seeds in the field. Michigan and Illinois each earned a one-seed after the Wolverines won the regular season Big Ten championship and posted a 20-4 overall record. Illinois finished 23-6, beating Ohio State in overtime on Sunday to claim the conference tournament.
The Buckeyes seemed poised to be a one-seed before a four-game losing streak to end the regular season dismantled those plans. However, they found their footing in the Big Ten Tournament to win three straight (including victories against Purdue and Michigan). Iowa ended the season at 21-8, and have the built-in tourney advantage of having the nation’s most dominant center in Luke Garza.
There has never been a Final Four comprised of teams from the same conference. The closest was in 1985, when the Big East sent Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova to the Final Four. Villanova would go on to defeat the Hoyas in the championship game.
Iowa has potentially the best path to the Final Four. Gonzaga sits atop the West Region, but the Zags have a long history of coming up short in the Big Dance after entering as a high seed. Villanova and Kansas are the three and four seeds, and both enter the tournament after being forced to forfeit conference tourney games, with the distinct possibility that one or both may have to do the same later this week. Either way, both will be very short-handed headed into the tournament.
Illinois could hit some danger spots in its region, especially with West Virginia and Oklahoma State. Both Big 12 squads are capable of beating about anyone, but can be wildly inconsistent at times. Houston could be a challenge as the two-seed, although they will not be nearly as battle-tested as the Illini after winning the AAC.
The East Region is arguably the deepest of the four, but the Wolverines will be the likely favorite across the board. They will need to play at a consistent level in each round, but have proven they can do so by going 14-3 in an absolute slog of a conference schedule. If Ohio State can continue to play at the level the did during the Big Ten tourney, they should have no problem getting to the Elite Eight, with a potential match-up against Baylor that could be one of the best games of the entire tournament.
Outside of those four favorites, the Big Ten is also sending Purdue (4 seed), Wisconsin (9), Maryland (10) and Rutgers (10). Michigan State earned an 11-seed, but will face UCLA in a play-in game on Thursday evening for an opportunity to advance to the field of 64.
According to the current odds heading into the Big Dance, Gonzaga is the national champion favorite followed by Baylor. Next in line are Michigan, Illinois and Iowa, then Ohio State with the eight-best odds to win it all.