Big Ten could be big winner
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the NCAA selection committee finishes its work Sunday afternoon, it might very well release a bracket that looks as if it was created by Salvador Dali.
How's this for surrealism:
Eight Big Ten teams could be in.
More than the Big East, which is looking at seven.
More than the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is hoping for seven.
More than anyone else.
Although this would tickle Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany like a noon kickoff in the Big House, it could produce Linda Blair "Exorcist" reactions along the East Coast and elsewhere. Heads spinning, vomit and cusswords flying.
And understandably so. It's crazy. But it could happen.
The season-long, nationwide consensus has been that the Big East and ACC have been head-and-shoulders-knees-and-toes better than every other conference. But after Take Care of Business Thursday at the Big Ten tourney, the heartland could swoop in late and occupy one-eighth of the field while the Big East and ACC are left with no more than seven bids each.
Three Big Ten bubble teams took the court at Conseco Fieldhouse on Thursday -- Minnesota against Northwestern, Michigan against Iowa, Penn State against Indiana. All three avoided damaging defeats. The Gophers blew a lead, then rallied late to beat the Wildcats 66-53; the Wolverines smoked the Hawkeyes from the opening minutes and won 73-45; and the Nittany Lions similarly rolled up the outmanned Hoosiers 66-51.
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Now these three move on to the quarterfinals with five teams that already figure to be in: Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
So simply by avoiding a really bad day, the Gophers, Wolverines and Nittany Lions had a really good day. It's not clear beyond a doubt that they locked themselves into the bracket -- especially Penn State -- but they certainly did not kick themselves out.
At its hotel just a few blocks from Conseco, the NCAA selection committee surely took notice. Meanwhile, other bubble teams played their way further into trouble. Providence, Arizona, Kansas State, Miami, UNLV and Rhode Island lost critical games Thursday.
There is no toteboard in the NCAA selection committee meeting room keeping track of bids by conference. But everyone else keeps track. And at various points this season, there was discussion of whether the Big East deserved nine or 10 bids and whether the ACC deserved nine. There was little discussion of the Big Ten's getting eight teams -- until everything just sort of fell into place.
Now, people in the league are getting downright bullish.
"I spent three years in the Big East," said Indiana coach Tom Crean, late of Marquette. "It's a tremendous league, but this league doesn't take a back seat to anybody's league.
"There's no question that Michigan State should be a No. 1 seed no matter what happens here, and nobody should be shocked it this league gets nine [including Northwestern]. OK, maybe we get happy with eight. But there ought to be a major revolt if it's seven because it wouldn't make any sense."
If it comes to a great eight from the Big Ten, credit the fact that all the bubble teams have solid wins and none of them cratered at any point.
There were no massive losing streaks like the ones that doomed Notre Dame and Georgetown. And there have been some serve-notice victories that jump off the résumés: Minnesota beat Louisville on a neutral floor; Michigan beat Duke and UCLA; Penn State won on the home courts of this tournament's top two seeds, Michigan State and Illinois.
On Thursday, Minnesota faced the toughest task and had the toughest time. Northwestern has won 17 games this season, quite a year by the Wildcats' perennially meager standards, and was still fighting for a bid of its own.
That determination showed when Northwestern rallied from a 14-point deficit to take a 49-47 lead with 7:46 to play. But the Wildcats, who have lost several games in agonizing fashion this year, then went empty on three straight attempts to make it a two-possession lead, and Minnesota took advantage of the reprieve.
Namely, it got a bailout from freshman center Ralph Sampson III, whose basketball ability has not yet matched his bloodlines.
He's the son of That Ralph Sampson: the 7-foot-4 center who made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high-schooler and was a four-year force at Virginia despite never making a Final Four.
The Gophers finally figured out Northwestern's 1-3-1 half-court trap and got the ball inside to Sampson III for an old-fashioned three-point play. Then Sampson took over the paint at the other end, grabbing rebounds and blocking shots. In the final 5:11, Sampson produced seven points, five rebounds and two blocks.
Although those are not his father's numbers, you have to understand how far the 6-11 Georgian has come as a collegian. I saw him play in high school and thought his only major selling points were size and surname. I figured he'd be at least a year from even a minimal contribution at Minnesota.
Instead, he has started most of the season and averaged a respectable 6.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots. Credit Tubby Smith, who has done some fine work developing players in his career.
"I think I improved 100 percent in my overall game," Sampson said. "Under the leadership of coach Smith and all the veteran players, they helped me evolve my game 100 percent since the first day I walked in the door."
Said Smith: "He's certainly developed and grown into a pretty good player for us, and he really has come on. He's as hard a worker as we have in our program. He's always willing to stay late, come early. That's why he's improved."
It would be at least a little ironic if Minnesota's first NCAA bid since 2005 was in part secured by the son of a guy whose greatest collegiate failings came at NCAA tournament time.
But it sure wouldn't be the strangest thing to happen this March. Not if the Big Ten is suddenly going to rise up and become the boss of the bracket.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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