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College Sports

Sports: Big Ten is back, conference basking in success of its programs

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MILWAUKEE — After Michigan State clinched a spot in the Final Four over the weekend, Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker wrote a short but pointed note on Twitter that packed as much of a punch as one of his slam dunks.

“The Big Ten had a down year right?” Dekker asked.

If anyone had that perception, it certainly isn’t the case anymore with two teams in the NCAA Tournament national semifinals — which is being held in the middle of Big Ten country in Indianapolis, no less.

“So we’ve got two representatives left — I think that speaks for itself,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said this week.

The Badgers play unbeaten Kentucky in one semifinal on Saturday night, with the Spartans facing Duke in the other. Both Big Ten squads might be considered underdogs going into their respective games.

It might be fitting given how things have played out this year in the league.

Commissioner Jim Delany sounded like a proud father when talking about the Big Ten’s success. He is realistic, too. He knows that Big Ten teams weren’t quite successful in non-conference play in November and December, although the league won this year’s challenge series with the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Some higher-profile Big Ten teams fell in the series, including Wisconsin’s loss to Duke in Madison.

The regular season title belonged to the Badgers, who set the tempo all year. There was a logjam through the middle of the 14-team league, with clubs beating up on each other.

In the end, only Maryland at No. 12 and Michigan State at No. 23 joined No. 3 Wisconsin in the AP Top 25 at the end of the regular season.

The AP poll at the end of the 2013-14 regular season had four Big Ten teams ranked, including three in the top 12. At one point in 2013-14, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State were all in the top five.

The previous season, four league teams finished in the top 10.

“It’s funny. The last year, or last two years, we had four teams in the top 10 or 12. We moved teams to the Final Four, we were regarded as the strongest conference in those years,” Delany said Tuesday in a phone interview.

“This year, we didn’t have as much success in November and December,” he added. “When I size up our league, I really didn’t think we were quite as good as we had been. I didn’t agree with the fact that we weren’t pretty good — but I didn’t think we were as good as we had been.”

As it turns out, they were even better this year come tournament time.

Wisconsin was the league’s sole representative in the Final Four last season. Now the Badgers have company in Michigan State, where coach Tom Izzo is practically a regular in the national semifinals.

“I did say all year, I tried to stick up for our league. Last year we were the best two, three, four teams, so that makes your conference better,” Izzo said. “Sometimes I think the conferences should be ranked on how teams 12, 11, 10 and 9 are. The depth of a conference makes it different because there (are) no nights off.”

It has been a banner year so far for the league beyond men’s basketball.

Maryland and Rutgers joined the conference this season as the Midwest-centric league expanded eastward. The Terps surprised the league in basketball after finishing 28-7 overall and 14-4 in conference play, two games behind Wisconsin.

In the women’s tournament, Maryland has advanced to a second straight Final Four.

Ohio State won the first college football playoff in January. The Big Ten also had a good showing in other high-profile games on New Year’s Day when Michigan State beat Baylor and Wisconsin defeated Auburn.

“We’re No. 1 in APR in football, basketball and women’s basketball,” said Delany, referring to the conference ranks in Academic Progress Rates. “We had a great January bowl season and national championship season. Taken together, I think everybody is feeling good and feeling prideful.”

Delany notes that the Big Ten regularly sends teams to the Final Four. The last time Michigan State and Wisconsin both advanced to the Final Four in the same year was 2000, also in Indianapolis.

Still, the commissioner understands why some observers may have lowered expectations earlier in the season.

“So when I look at our year, I would say maybe not a great November, December. A good conference year and very good postseason. And that’s how we look at it every year,” Delany said. “I don’t get upset with anybody if they say they can’t play. I think we’ve proved over time we can play.”



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