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College Basketball

Big Ten looking to end title drought in 2013 NCAA tournament

CHICAGO -- Tom Izzo does not speak for the Big Ten. But he comes close sometimes. And Saturday, after Michigan State lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, Izzo said publicly what his peers have surely thought privately:

Get me out of here. Now.

"It's hard when you've got good players and even teams and you know what each other's gum is," said Izzo, and I thought that was just a clever turn of phrase, but then I realized he had just lost to a man, Thad Matta, who constantly chews gum.

"It's hard," Izzo continued. "I am really looking forward to playing somebody else, and I think all the Big Ten teams are, and deservedly so. We've beaten the hell out of each other, we really, really, really have, and I think it's going to help all of us in the end ... I'd play the Lakers tomorrow instead of some of the teams I've played recently."

SEC football fans, you have almost met your match. Big Ten folks insist they have the best basketball league. The evidence and eyewitness testimony support them. But there is an awkward truth here, one that you should not bring up at Big Ten dinner parties, where the bratwurst is served with a side of sausage:

The Big Ten has not won a title since Izzo and Mateen Cleaves cut down the nets in 2000. That's 13 years, for those of you who don't know how to tell time. Since 2000, the ACC has won five. The Big East has won three. The SEC has won three. The Big 12 won one.

This is not really a reflection of the conferences' relative strength. Of the five ACC championships, North Carolina and Duke won two each. That stat says more about UNC and Duke than the rest of the ACC. The Big Ten does not have a program that can stand toe-to-toe, year after year, with Carolina and Duke.

But the Big Ten is as deep as any league. Since 1999, Michigan State has made six Final Fours, Ohio State has made three, Illinois made one, Wisconsin made one and Indiana made one. So ... that's nice.

You can make a strong argument that the Big Ten is actually the best league, but I wouldn't make that argument to Mike Krzyzewski. He'll just yawn and show you his championship rings.

So there is quite a bit of pressure on the Big Ten to finally win a national title. The problem is that the league is really just a better version of its usual self -- incredibly deep and talented, but without a clear national title favorite. Indiana has the best chance, but really, Indiana's chance is no better than Louisville's chance.

Still, I'd be shocked if the Big Ten gets shut out of the Final Four. Five teams are legitimate Final Four threats -- admittedly, some are more legitimate than others. A quick breakdown of the league's hopefuls:

1. Indiana

A lot is being made of Indiana getting shipped away from Indianapolis for the second weekend. Tough break, I guess, but the Hoosiers probably have the easiest path to the Final Four of any No. 1 seed. In the Sweet 16 they're looking at a wildly unpredictable Syracuse team, and in the last 35 years of NCAA tournaments, wildly unpredictable Syracuse teams are actually quite predictable.

In the Elite Eight, Indiana would probably face Miami, which is new to this whole operation, or Marquette. There is a reason Tom Crean left Marquette for Indiana. He gets better players now.

Two of those players, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, are the best tandem in the tournament. The 7-foot Zeller is a matchup nightmare, and Oladipo is an elite athlete who happily plays the role of defensive specialist and rebounding machine who scores when it's needed. The best hope, when facing Oladipo, is that he will leap to block a shot, land three days later, miss a bunch of classes and get suspended.

2. Ohio State

For years, Thad Matta did a great job of recruiting so well that people thought he couldn't coach. Well, forget that. Matta's work this season was extraordinary. You watch the Buckeyes and expect them to score 40 points, and instead they score ... well, whatever enough is that day. And in the weakest corner of the bracket, with the first two games in Dayton, why can't Ohio State make the Final Four again?

3. Michigan

Some day, when Trey Burke is an NBA All-Star, let's remind each other that we knew this would happen when he was in college and scouts said he was too small and not quite athletic enough. OK? OK.

Michigan is vulnerable against physical, veteran teams that slow the game down and skillfully exploit the Wolverines' youth. But the Wolverines may not have to face any team like that until the Final Four. Michigan may have been bumped from a three seed to a four, but in terms of matchups, the selection committee did the Wolverines a huge favor.

4. Michigan State

The Spartans are fourth on this list because they are a No. 3 seed in the same region with Duke, the best No. 2 seed, and Louisville, the best No. 1 seed. That is absurd. I don't know how that happened. My suspicion is that the selection committee pored over reams of statistics, charts and game tape instead of just asking me. Inexcusable.

Nonetheless, this is Izzo's time of year. He loves opening the shades at his practices to let the light in, subtly letting his team know it is MSU's time to shine. He is a masterat winning the second game of a tournament weekend. Young coaches, take note: Izzo and his staff give players information in short bursts throughout the off day -- 20 minutes here, a half hour there -- so they can digest it without getting overwhelmed. Nobody prepares better than Michigan State, and the Spartans are always built to win at any pace, which is a huge advantage in the NCAA tournament.

Izzo really loves rallying a team like this one, which looks like a national champion for long stretches and then puts together 10 minutes of the ugliest offensive basketball imaginable. This team is more talented than several Michigan State teams that made the Final Four. Forward Adreian Payne could be one of the top 10 players in the country if he realized that nobody can guard him in the post.

I can't bring myself to pick the Spartans because the region is too loaded. But ... well, you know Izzo and March. My favorite Izzo stat is this: In the last 14 NCAA tournaments, MSU has made the Final Four six times and lost to a team that made the Final Four four times. You have to be really good to beat this team. Unfortunately for Izzo, Duke and Louisville are really, really good.

5. Wisconsin

I know, I know. You can't stand the Badgers. They are perfectly capable of going out and losing to anybody 41 to negative six. But this is still a really good team, maddeningly physical and smart, and in the first round Wisconsin plays Misssisippi, which should be high comedy. Wisconsin is extremely disciplined, and Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson is fond of the 30-foot jump shot.

The No. 1 seed in Wisconsin's region, Gonzaga, is not an overly athletic team like Louisville. The No. 4 seed, Kansas State, won't be too many people's Final Four choice. And Wisconsin has already beaten the No. 2 seed, Ohio State, once in three tries.

If Wisconsin makes the Final Four, it will be a beautiful underdog story, in an ugly sort of way. But the Big Ten is not interested in underdog stories. Not this year.

The conference has waited 13 years for a national title. It's silly to say this is a national-title-or-bust year for the league. But man, it sure feels that way.

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