At the beginning of last season, the talk surrounding the Big Ten was that the conference was down, that it could no longer compete on the national stage and would not produce a contender for the national title.

But when the dust had settled and the season was over, it was the Big Ten’s own Indiana playing in the final game of the 2002 NCAA Tournament against Maryland. The Hoosiers were one of five teams that represented the conference in the “Big Dance” last season, puling upsets over powerhouses from other elite conferences such as Duke and Oklahoma, representing the ACC and the Big 12, respectively.

En route to the final showdown with the Terrapins, Indiana faced teams from five different conferences and got a good taste of what the competition was like on the national level. Tom Coverdale, the 2002 South Regional MVP, said a key contributor to the Hoosiers’ success came months earlier though.

“A lot of people said our conference was down last year, but going through that conference season, and playing all those tough games is what allowed the top teams to do well in the Tournament,” Coverdale said.

Parity has been a buzz word surrounding the Big Ten for the last few years, which has prompted some to say the conference cannot produce a dominant program. For example, Indiana went 11-5 last season, good enough for a four-way tie for the Big Ten regular season title. Maryland, on the other hand, was 15-1 in conference play and won the ACC title outright. Wisconsin, whose 11-5 record also earned it a share of the Big Ten title lost games to four of the bottom five teams in the conference: Penn State, Michigan, Iowa and Northwestern, proving anyone really can beat anyone.

“The way the conference is so balanced and so wide open, people think it is an off year if there aren’t one or two teams that kill everybody,” Coverdale said. “We’ve had teams around the Final Four and final eight the last few years, so it is still one of the top conferences.”

The parity in the conference does have its advantages in the Tournament, where every night is a must win game.

“I think it prepares you more than anything,” Coverdale said. “Last year we felt like we were so much more prepared than some of the other teams we played just because of the strength of schedule we had, and it is no different this year. Playing against all the top teams prepares you for tournament play.”

While the Big Ten has parity, some leagues do not.

“The thing that is different from the Big Ten and other leagues is that while it doesn’t have the appearance of being as top-heavy as the ACC or Big 12, our league is not bottom heavy at all,” Illinois coach Bill Self said.

Self is one example of what makes the Big Ten so competitive – its coaches. While some, like Gene Keady, have been with the conference for years, others, like Michigan’s own Tommy Amaker, are new to the league.

For Amaker, who has coached in such elite conferences as the ACC, the Big East and now the Big Ten, the three leagues are comparable. But the the Big Ten does have its own distinct style.

“I had always heard, prior to last year, that the Big Ten was a very physical league,” Amaker said. “I would agree, and I mean that in a very positive, clean sense of the word because I think the Big East years ago had the bad reputation, unfairly, of being a physical league and was looked upon in a negative light. I think in our conference you can’t have enough big bodies, I can assure you of that. I like the league, it is a tough league, it is a very physical type of conference to play in.”

According to Coverdale, the physical nature of the league and the experience of the physical play aided the Hoosiers as they entered the Tournament.

Despite what the critics may say, the recent parity is a good thing for the Big Ten. While the conference does not always produce a “dominant” team, the Big Ten does boast teams that are competitive. In each of the last four years, the Big Ten has sent at least one team to the Final Four. The streak could continue this season with traditional powerhouses Michigan State and Indiana tabbed in the preseason Top 25.

But don’t count out teams like Wisconsin and Minnesota. Both have legitimate shots at the conference title and even if they do not win a share of the league crown, they will benefit from the difficult schedule when selection time rolls around. Since 1998 the conference has sent at least five teams – almost half the league – to the “Big Dance” ever year. In the wide-open Big Ten, where anyone can beat anyone, even teams picked to finish in the lower half warrant consideration, since they can easily move up to the top five in the conference.

“Before it’s all said and done, you’ll see some of those teams picked close to the bottom rise to more impressive standing,” Penn State coach Jerry Dunn said. “That’s an indication of how balanced the league is.”

The difficult schedule, level of coaching and the physical play of the Big Ten make the conference one of the pre-eminent conferences in the nation, and no one should be surprised to see a Big Ten team back in the Final Four next season.

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