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Why the Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball

The most teams in the tournament? It’s a start.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan vs Michigan State David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

“There were only four teams from the Big Ten last year...That was the fewest since only four teams in 2008, when the league had 11 men’s basketball teams overall instead of the current 14.”

-Stephen Hawkins, AP

What does it mean to be the best conference in college basketball? This season, it is up for debate, especially when considering the results of yesterday’s tournament seeding. The Big Ten placed a conference record eight teams in the tournament field -- more than any other conference. That number is even more impressive when considering the fact Indiana was among the first-four out. With the bids, the conference doubled its tournament presence compared to last season, when just four Big Ten teams made the 68-team bracket.

Michigan State and Michigan both pulled two-seeds though, arguably, Michigan State drew the short straw, as the Spartans landed in the same bracket as top-seeded Duke. Michigan seemed to luck out, as the Wolverines are in the same region as the lowest-ranked one-seed, Gonzaga. Purdue, co-regular season champs, are the three-seed in the South, having fallen to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. Wisconsin (No. 5), Maryland (No. 6), Iowa (No. 10), Minnesota (No. 10) and Ohio State (No. 11) round out the Big Ten’s representation in the field.

However, the Big Ten has some competition, especially at the top. Three of the four one-seeds in this year’s bracket are from the ACC -- a conference which fielded seven teams in total. Along with Duke, both North Carolina and Virginia pulled top-seeds in their respective regions. However, in case a reminder is in order, Virginia became the first one-seed to fall to a 16-seed with the Cavaliers’ loss in the first-round of the 2018 tournament to UMBC. So there’s that little anecdote that one-seeds are not everything.

The SEC, meanwhile, boasts seven tournament teams, including the other two-seeds in Tennessee and Kentucky. Six Big 12 schools made the tournament field, while the Pac-12 had just three (the highest-seeded being Washington at No. 9). In all, 11 conferences sent multiple teams to the Big Dance.

“They came into the conference tournament, much like Ohio State, on a three-game losing streak to close out the regular season. Unlike the Buckeyes, Iowa State found a way to get hot, taking down Baylor, Kansas State and Kansas on its way to an automatic bid.”

-Stephen Means,

Remember the last time Ohio State faced Iowa State? It was only one of Aaron Craft’s top-five moments in his storied career at Ohio State. The then-junior sunk a three-pointer with half a second left in regulation, thereby thrusting a dagger into the collective heart of Cyclones fans everywhere. The Buckeyes, a two-seed, were propelled to their fourth-straight Sweet 16 appearance. That year, Ohio State ultimately fell to Cinderella Wichita State, the nine-seed, in the Elite Eight.

The tables have turned somewhat since those glory days of old. Iowa State, champion of the Big 12, enters the tournament as the No. 6 seed in the Midwest. Having lost the final three games of its regular season conference schedule, Iowa State rallied for a conference championship -- despite entering the Big 12 Tournament as the five-seed. Ohio State, meanwhile, was firmly on the bubble entering the Big Ten Tournament, losers of four of the last five and firmly in the middle of conference standings as the eight seed. The Buckeyes needed a single win over Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament for a chance to make the NCAA Tournament.

The Cyclones will have a geographic advantage this time around as well. While Craft and company’s 2013 heroics were right in their own backyard in Dayton, the Buckeyes will have to travel to Big 12 country to face Iowa State in this year’s tournament.

While this year marks the second-straight season the Buckeyes have made the NCAA Tournament, the program took something of a step back after taking several leaps forward last year. After a surprising first season under head coach Chris Holtmann, the Buckeyes earned an all-but-assured at-large bid as the fifth-seed in the West Regional, playing in the same bracket as Big Ten champion Michigan. This season, the bid was anything but guaranteed.

“Unlike any other sporting event in the country, March Madness attracts millions who fill out brackets, make casual bets with friends or wager at a legal sportsbook, which Americans can now do more than ever before.”

-Bill Miller, president and CEO, American Gambling Association, via David Purdum, ESPN

March Madness brings people together like no other sporting event. Office pools thrive while workers hide under desks to watch major upsets. Anxiety mounts with every iteration of the eight/nine matchup as bracketeers wonder if they made the right choice. Casual fans seemingly become experts as bold pick strategies bring unprecedented success -- for half the first round at least. This year, an estimated one-in-five Americans will place a bet on the NCAA Tournament, either through official means or more casual pools. Total bets look to total roughly $8.5 billion over the length of the tournament. Regardless of the method, however, most bettors seem to be thinking along the same lines in terms of who will take home the championship this season.

Unfortunately, it’s not Ohio State, as few are betting on the Buckeyes to win it all in this year’s tournament. Sadly, Ohio State isn’t projected to even make a run, and is a six-point underdog in its opening matchup with Iowa State Friday. Instead, naturally, betters are tending to favor Duke, the top-overall seed in this year’s tournament. Coach K’s squad is the most-favored team to win the tournament since Kentucky’s 2014-15 team, which ultimately fell in the Final Four. With Zion Williamson back from his unfortunate shoe incident (and earning ACC Tournament MVP honors along the way), the Blue Devils are sitting at 2-1 odds to win it all. In fact, the top-three favorites of this season’s tournament are all from the ACC, with Virginia (6-1) and North Carolina (8-1) trailing rival Duke.

Still, there is some love for the Big Ten among the favorites, with Michigan State (15-1), Michigan (25-1) and Purdue (30-1) among the top-rated teams in this year’s tournament. Other top seeds including Gonzaga, Kentucky and Tennessee also have favorable odds heading into the opening week of the tournament.