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College men's basketball: Can Big Ten quartet save conference?

Brad Penner / USA Today Sports Michigan State guard Cassius Winston (5) drives against Michigan guard Jaaron Simmons (5) during a Big Ten tournament semifinal game at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Spartans and Wolverines are two of the four conference teams to make the NCAA tournament.

The Big Ten has taken a beating all season when it comes to national perception. If you judge the league by how it ranks among the six major conferences, this might not be the year the league breaks its 20-year drought of not winning an NCAA men's basketball tournament.

But how fair is it to dismiss the chances of Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State to win it all based on the Big Ten's ills?

"Our eyes aren't lying to us," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "The league didn't have its best year, but its best teams can still win a national championship, go to the Final Four, have a great tournament."

A Big Ten team hasn't won it all since 2000. Only the Pacific-12 Conference has a longer major conference drought back to Arizona in 1997. Since Tom Izzo coached the Michigan State's Flintstones with Mateen Cleaves to the NCAA title, six Big Ten teams have lost in the national championship game.

Four teams this season argue they have as good a chance as any of their Big Ten predecessors to win the title.

The Spartans arguably have the most talented team in the country. Purdue has one of the most experienced starting lineups in the country. Ohio State's Chris Holtmann is arguably the coach of the year. Michigan is one of the nation's hottest teams with a nine-game win streak after taking the Big Ten tournament crown in consecutive seasons.

Michigan State was ranked No. 1 in the nation this season for the first time since 2016. The Spartans dropped from the top spot the following week starting the New Year with losses to Ohio State and Michigan. They regained the No. 1 ranking during a 13-game winning streak at the end of the regular season, but a loss to Michigan in the conference tourney dropped Izzo's team to a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region.

Izzo has his most talented team maybe ever with potential top-five NBA draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr., a 6-foot-11 freshman, and All-America sophomore Miles Bridges. The Spartans also have a 14-0 record when All-Big Ten sophomore point guard Cassius Winston scores 13 or more points this year.

"The next step for us," Izzo said earlier this season, "we have to learn to win big games on big stages."

Purdue, a No. 2 seed in the East, looked like the Big Ten's top national title contender during a 19-game win streak, but it faltered in big games. The Boilermakers lost three straight in February, including against Ohio State and Michigan State. They also dropped the conference tournament final against Michigan.

But Vincent Edwards, Isaac Haas, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson have the most wins for a senior class in Purdue history. Sophomore Carsen Edwards had a breakout year to earn All-America honors.

"They brought back four seniors from the (2017) Big Ten champions," former Purdue star and Big Ten Network analyst Robbie Hummel said. "And they have a sophomore who is as explosive a scorer as anybody in the nation. They have a lot of pieces."

Ohio State (2007), Michigan (2013) and Wisconsin (2015) are the last three Big Ten teams other than Michigan State (2009) to reach the NCAA title game in the last 10 years.

The Badgers saw their streak of 19 straight tournament appearances end, but they had to deal with inexperience and injuries. Northwestern and Minnesota were even more disappointing. A year after reaching the Big Dance, the Wildcats and Gophers suffered injuries that sunk them to the bottom half of the league after being ranked in the top 25 preseason poll.

Nebraska and Penn State suffered because quality wins in the Big Ten were hard to find. The Cornhuskers became the first Big Ten team not to receive an NCAA bid after 13 conference wins. The Nittany Lions, who beat Ohio State three times, are the first to not make the NCAA tourney after finishing with a Big Ten record of .500 or better and win two conference tournament games.

Four Big Ten teams are going dancing, the league's fewest since 2008. Only the Pac-12 has fewer with three. In comparison, the Atlantic Coast Conference had the highest with nine NCAA tournament bids. The Southeastern Conference had eight. The Big 12 and Big East were right behind with seven and six, respectively.

Sending multiple teams to San Antonio would likely overshadow a season when the Big Ten was arguably the worst from top to bottom in recent memory, but breaking the conference's national title slump would be an even bigger statement.

"Depends on how you look at it," Bilas said. "But leagues are usually judged by how their best teams do."

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