DETROIT – Ragging on the Big Ten has become such a popular pastime that “much-maligned” might as well be a formal part of its name.
Yet here the rough-and-tumble conference is, playing for the national title again.
Michigan State is the fifth Big Ten team since 2000 to advance to the NCAA championship game. Since 1999, 10 Big Ten teams have made it to the Final Four, including two teams in 1999, 2000 and 2005.
The Spartans play top-seeded North Carolina on Monday night.
“There’s a saying in Latin – res ipsa loquitur – ‘the thing speaks for itself,’ ” commissioner Jim Delany said Sunday. “We haven’t won championships as much as we’d like, but we’ve played for it. And I don’t think you have to defend playing for the national championship, whether it’s in the BCS or whether it’s in the NCAA Tournament.
“You’re at a stage where your kids and coaches and fans have an opportunity to win, and that’s all you can ask for.”
The Big Ten’s tough, physical play isn’t for everyone. It often looks like smashmouth football, but on hardwood (no lie, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has had his players practice in helmets and shoulder pads).
It’s a rare shot that goes uncontested, and most baskets come when the shot clock is down to single digits. It isn’t always pretty, and scores can look more like a low blood-pressure reading – think “80 over 60,” though even that might be a tad generous.
But the ugliness can mask some darn good teams. This was Michigan State’s fifth trip to the Final Four since 1999, and the Spartans won it all in 2000. They’ve already knocked off two No. 1 seeds in this tournament, including overall No. 1 Louisville in the Midwest Region final, and sent 2008 champion Kansas packing.
North Carolina’s current players have found themselves at a disadvantage in pickup games against Tar Heels from the 2005 national championship team.
The reason? Owning a national championship ring has its privileges.
“They call these crazy calls, fouls and stuff against us,” junior Wayne Ellington said. “We can’t say anything, because every time we say something to them, they say, ‘You can’t talk until you get a banner up there.’ ”
Ellington said two of the worst offenders have been Sean May, the most outstanding player of the Final Four that year and a player with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, and Melvin Scott, a reserve on the ’05 team.
“Those guys come back and they talk about the memories they have and how much fun they had and how exciting it is,” Ellington said. “We want to have that feeling. We want to be a part of something like that.”