McGraw: Maybe Big Ten is underrated this year? Tournament starts Wednesday

  • Northwestern guard Boo Buie (0) takes a 3-point shot against Rutgers during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Piscataway, N.J.

    Northwestern guard Boo Buie (0) takes a 3-point shot against Rutgers during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Piscataway, N.J. Associated Press

Updated 3/6/2023 6:47 PM

The college basketball world seems to be in "Won't Get Fooled Again" mode with the Big Ten.

During the past two years, the Big Ten was regarded as one of the best conferences, but crashed and burned in the NCAA Tournament.


The Big Ten landed just three slots in the Sweet Sixteen during the past two tournaments -- three out of 32, to be exact. And Michigan made it both years, so only two different schools got beyond the first weekend.

Heading into this week's Big Ten Tournament at the United Center, maybe that disrespect is more perception than reality, though. The league is currently rated the second-best conference behind the Big 12 by Sagarin and NET ratings, the same as last year. The Big Ten was No. 1 in 2021, when it got just one team past the second round.

Anyway, the point here is the Big Ten might be better than people think this season. Just because there's been extreme parity -- one game separates second and eighth place -- doesn't mean it lacks quality.

Plenty of nonconference results stood up well. Illinois has victories over two teams currently ranked in the top seven, UCLA and Texas. No. 6 Marquette lost to two Big Ten teams, Purdue and Wisconsin. The Badgers are the No. 12 seed in the Big Ten tournament, by the way.

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Maryland beat ACC regular season champ Miami, Iowa beat Iowa State and Clemson. Michigan State lost to No. 9 Gonzaga by 1, Wisconsin lost to No. 3 Kansas in overtime.

Northwestern coach Chris Collins put it well after winning at Rutgers on Sunday night.

"I'm exhausted, but it's really fun to compete in a league that's this good," he said.

The jokes may continue, but there's evidence the Big Ten might actually be underrated this season. Check back in a couple of weeks, of course.

Cats climb the ladder

Heading into the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern already qualifies as the league's biggest surprise. The Wildcats will be the No. 2 seed and face the winner of Illinois-Penn State on Friday.

The Wildcats' previous high seed in the men's tourney was No. 6 in 2017.

Northwestern's tourney seeds since then: 10, 14, 13, 12, 12.


In the preseason Big Ten media poll, the Cats were picked to finish in 13th place, ahead of Nebraska. But for the first time ever, NU will be sitting out the first two days of the event.

"We wanted the double-bye," coach Chris Collins said Sunday. "All the teams are really banged up and tired. The grind of the season is crazy, so to get an extra day to get home and get ourselves ready to play on Friday, it was just an important game."

For anyone still looking to brush up on the team and hop on the bandwagon, Northwestern is led by a pair of senior guards from New York state. Boo Bouie averages 17.2 points and Chase Audige 14.1.

Anything at stake?

The larger conference tournaments are typically low-stakes events, since leagues like the Big Ten and Big 12 always get a high number of NCAA bids.

Seven Big Ten teams seem to be in solid tournament position: Purdue, Maryland, Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois, Iowa and Northwestern.

Teams still on the bubble are Michigan, Rutgers and Penn State. Michigan and Rutgers square off in the 8-9 game on Thursday morning, which could serve as an NCAA elimination. Penn State finished the regular season with wins over Northwestern and Maryland, and would obviously help its cause by beating the Illini on Thursday for the third time this season.

Michigan is currently No. 54 in the NET ratings, but ranked 38 by KenPom and 29 by Sagarin, so it's hard to tell if the Wolverines need to beat both Rutgers and No. 1 seed Purdue to get an NCAA bid.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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