With one prominent exception, almost everyone in the college basketball commentariat took the Big Ten to be this year's best conference.
No league had a greater portion of its teams in the first AP poll or the last. No league earned more top five seeds in the NCAA tournament. And no league had more Sweet 16 entrants.
In a season rife with volatility, the Big Ten's preeminence was the one absolute that actually held.
Until, of course, it didn't.
With its loss to Wichita State on Saturday, Ohio State became the third Big Ten team to fall in as many nights, leaving Michigan as the conference's lone representative in the NCAA tournament and its only hope of securing a coveted Final Four bid.
Jon Wertheim @jon_wertheim
Bless the Big Ten. Great regular season. But "the SEC of basketball" will be lucky to have one team in the Final Four...3/31/2013, 1:09:58 AM
The Wolverines, who barely survived Kansas on Friday to set up an Elite Eight showdown with Florida, are in some ways the most likely last team standing. In other ways, they are the least likely.
Along with Indiana, Michigan was one of two Big Ten teams to top the AP poll this season. There were moments—particularly during a 16-0 non-conference slate—when the Wolverines looked like the country's most talented team.
But there were also bugaboos, particularly on defense and in the painted area. By season's end, the young and exceptionally starter-dependent Wolverines looked like a fading star. And when John Beilein's team lost four of its final eight to finish fifth in the conference standings, few could've imagined a season that extended past late March.
The Wolverines weren't the most complete team in their conference. Nor were they the hottest.
That they're still standing when the other 11 have fallen is a testament both to their resilience and the utter unpredictability of tournament-style basketball.
And for those who would take the results of the last three days to discredit what the Big Ten accomplished this season, that right there is the salient point.
The Big Ten proved its superiority over hundreds of games spanning four long winter months. An upset or two in early spring doesn't—or at least shouldn't—suggest otherwise.
If anything, it calls us back to the frail hierarchy that makes college basketball, and its star tournament, such a joy to watch.
The regular season helps us identify the best teams, conferences and players. And the postseason appoints champions.
Luckily, the two are unrelated.
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