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March 16, 2007

Big Ten not looking so bad after first round

At least through games in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the oft-maligned Big Ten Conference can hold its head high.

The league's six teams went 5-1 as the field was trimmed to 32, and it easily could have gone 6-0 but Illinois fumbled away a substantial lead in the final minutes against Virginia Tech.

The Big Ten had the best winning percentage of any league that got multiple bids. The ACC went 5-2. The Pac-10 and Big East went 4-2. The SEC was 4-1. The Big 12 was 3-1. All of the two bid leagues went 1-1.

Other than Ohio State and Wisconsin, not many people had nice things to say about the Big Ten this season. But it has every reason to be excited until the second round gets under way on Saturday.

The Illini were a 12th seed anyway, so you can argue they were supposed to lose to a five seed such as the Hokies. The rest of the Big Ten acquitted itself quite well despite only two teams seeded higher than seventh. Ohio State, a No. 1 seed and the No. 1 team in the country, did what it was supposed to do in dispatching of 16th seed Central Connecticut State, 78-57.

Wisconsin, a No. 2 seed, struggled for 34-35 minutes against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. But the Badgers wound up winning 76-63, and it should be noted the Islanders probably could have received a higher seed than 15th.

The other three Big Ten teams to win weren't necessarily the favorites in all corners of the bracket-picking world. Many experts were whispering that No. 8 seed Arizona had the speed and athleticism to give Florida fits in the second round. What they failed to mention was that the Wildcats would have to win their first-round game, and they couldn't. Ninth-seeded Purdue smacked Arizona in the mouth, 72-63, behind 21 points and 13 rebounds from All-Big Ten senior forward Carl Landry.

Seventh-seeded Indiana also had an unexpectedly easy time with tournament-savvy 10th seed Gonzaga. The Hoosiers got huge games out of Roderick Wilmont and D.J. White to blast the Zags 70-57.

The Big Ten prevailed in another 8-9 game as well when Michigan State, the ninth seed, whipped Marquette 61-49. Spartans coach Tom Izzo schooled former protégé Tom Crean as his team defense overwhelmed the Eagles.

So the Big Ten went 3-0 as the higher-seeded team in the first round and 2-1 as the lower-seeded team. The conference had better get all its bragging in quickly, though, because things get much tougher from here. The winner of the 8-9 game draws a No. 1 seed, meaning Michigan State has a date with North Carolina and Purdue gets defending national champ Florida.

The news isn't much better for Indiana, which now must face second-seeded UCLA. Not only are the Bruins loaded, but they'll be playing not too far from home in Sacramento.

Maybe the Big Ten won't emerge with much to talk about from the second round. But if it can go another round with only one loss everyone will be talking about the conference. And then it will be only in glowing terms.

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