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The Big Ten cares not for your predictions

BY RYAN PROBASCO | MARCH 12, 2014 5:00 AM

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Parity — though a frequently overused phrase — reigns as the all-encompassing word to describe this year’s Big Ten season.

Apologies for the number overload, but consider these tidbits from the last two regular-season slates in the Big Ten. Last season, five teams finished with six or fewer losses in conference play. This season, only three teams can claim that. In 2012-13, three teams finished with five or fewer wins in conference play. But this season, only Purdue played that poorly.

Looking at the teams’ overall record, Northwestern was the only team this year with a winning percentage under .483. Last season, four teams had a winning percentage of .470 or lower.

Nebraska, which was viewed as an afterthought prior to the season, vaulted itself to the No. 4 seed in the tournament and now seems like a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. The Cornhuskers are easily the most exemplary of the unpredictable-nature of this Big Ten season.

“I really thought if this team could go .500 in the league, it would be special accomplishment,” Huskers head coach Tim Miles said during Monday’s Big Ten teleconference. “For us to go 11-7, especially in this league, which is whatever, 1 or 2 in the country, is really an amazing performance by our guys.”

Nebraska wasn’t the only team to sneak up on conference foes this season. Every team that finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings notched at least one win against a team that finished in the top half.

Throughout the year, Iowa was definitely a team many looked at as a contender for the conference’s title. But struggles over the past few weeks — and losing five of its last six games — have clouded an otherwise successful and optimism-filled season.

“Certainly, the last two weeks haven’t gone how we’d like them to go,” Hawkeye assistant coach Kirk Speraw said during the teleconference. “But we’re right there. It’s just a couple possessions here or there. Any time you move from one phase of the season to the next, whether it’s practice to pre-conference, pre-conference into the Big Ten season, or now moving into the tournament season, you have a fresh outlook and a fresh start.”

Many would argue that the hottest teams heading into the tournament are the most likely to succeed in the single-elimination format. Usual contenders Michigan State, Michigan, and Wisconsin all showed flashes of brilliance near the end of the season. But Nebraska may be the hottest team in the conference.

And with the way this season has gone, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a team start its run of success in Indianapolis. Given that opportunity and the unpredictable mess that was the 2013-14 regular season, even the conference’s underdogs are setting their sights high.

“Our focus all this week, and before our last game, was just to get a championship mentality,” Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino said during the teleconference. “To play like champions, to act like champions, because we have an opportunity Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, to hang a banner up. We know it’s certainly going to be difficult.

“But it’s never been done at Minnesota. And that’s what we’re focusing on more than anything.”


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