It’s already been a big winter sports season for the Big 10 Conference, but it has a chance to get even bigger – a whole lot bigger, actually – on Monday night if Michigan can upset Villanova in the NCAA men’s basketball national championship game in San Antonio.
The Big Ten already has a men’s basketball championship to its credit this season. It came when Penn State, which narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, got past the disappointment of that to win the title in the National Invitation Tournament.
Penn State also captured the NCAA championship in wrestling – its seventh in eight years – by edging conference foe Ohio State in the finals at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
The NIT women’s basketball title was won by Indiana.
The Frozen Four, men’s hockey’s version of basketball’s Final Four, has two Big 10 teams in arch rivals Ohio State and Michigan in the semifinals on Thursday night in Minneapolis. They are in opposite brackets, with the Buckeyes facing Minnesota Duluth in the opener, followed by the Wolverines going against Notre Dame, so they could meet in the title game on Saturday night if they win.
A national championship by Michigan on Monday night would be the crown jewel of the conference’s success, for men’s basketball is far and away the most high-profile sport of the winter season.
It had been said this season – over and over and over again -- by the Big Ten’s naysayers that this was a down year for the conference in men’s basketball. Regular-season champion and conference title tournament runnerup Michigan State, which entered the season with the highest expectations of any conference team, lost in the second round in the NCAA tourney, as did Ohio State. Purdue fell in the Sweet 16.
In the end, it is Michigan, which got hot down the stetch to come out of nowhere and make this great run, that is still standing, representing the Big 10, along with Villanova from the Big East, while the heavyweight teams, Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, from the heavyweight league, the Atlantic Coast Conference, are all sitting at home, having not even made the Final Four.
So, guess the Big 10 was pretty good in men’s basketball after all, wasn’t it?
Just like conference was pretty good in all sports this winter.
In one final note, if Notre Dame, which is situated in the middle of Big Ten country and has been seriously courted for membership by the conference a number of times over the years, would end up winning the national title in men’s hockey, it would be the school’s second one this week. The Fighting Irish captured the NCAA Tournament in women’s basketball on Sunday night.