For any conference that sends 6 or more teams to the NCAA Tournament, getting 3 teams to the Sweet 16 qualifies as the baseline for a good run for that league as a whole.

For the 2nd straight Tourney, the Big Ten fell short of that standard. Of 9 teams B1G teams in the field, only Purdue and Michigan remain alive.

The disappointment is undeniable. Especially when the league sent the most teams to the Big Dance out of any conference in America. Doubly so considering that just 1 B1G team made it through to the Sweet 16 a year ago.

But disappointment is not disaster. This year’s underwhelming performance is nowhere near the nightmare that 2021 was. Not by a long shot.

Last season was a bloodbath for the Big Ten, and the level of expectation made that disaster all the more noteworthy.

Half of the top-8 overall seeds in the 2021 field came out of the Big Ten. Michigan and Illinois were 1-seeds, and Ohio State and Iowa each earned 2s. Purdue was also positioned well as a 4-seed. It felt more likely that multiple B1G teams would reach the Final Four than none.

Every one of those teams ended up losing to an opponent with a worse seed. Even Michigan, which made it all the way to the Elite 8 before falling to 11th-seeded UCLA.

How this year is different

The Big Ten produced no top-8 overall seeds this year. Wisconsin and Purdue both earned 3s. And the only team that felt primed for a Final Four run was Iowa, which streaked through the Big Ten Tournament and earned a 5-seed.

Only the Hawkeyes should be considered a massive bust this year.

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Iowa’s loss to 12-seed Richmond was embarrassing and inexcusable. The Spiders were completely outclassed in their 79-51 2nd-round loss to Providence. Iowa was capable of beating Richmond by a similar margin but gagged.

But just about every other Big Ten loss played out as expected.

Indiana won in the First Four before getting handled by 5th-seeded Saint Mary’s. Rutgers fell to Notre Dame in a double-overtime First Four classic that could have gone either way. Ohio State and Michigan State held off talented 10-seeds in the first round before going toe-to-toe with 2-seeds in the second round.

Yes, Illinois and Wisconsin both lost to teams with worse seeds in Round 2. But those defeats come with significant caveats.

Illinois, the 4-seed in the South Region, lost to a Houston team that carries a 5-seed but is rated as the 2nd-best team in the entire country by analytics gurus Ken Pomeroy and Bart Torvik.

The Cougars were dinged by the selection committee for a lack of Quad 1 wins, but they are a top-10 team in offensive and defensive efficiency. In the eyes of who actually determines an upset — oddsmakers — Houston was a 4.5-point favorite.

That’s not an upset.

As for Wisconsin, the Badgers were dealt with maybe the worst break of any team in this tournament when freshman point guard Chucky Hepburn suffered a game-ending injury with 4:30 remaining in the first half.

The Badgers are not a deep team, and without Hepburn they were toast.

Hepburn is the most important player on Wisconsin’s roster behind Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis, who also entered the postseason at less than 100% health.

Iowa State’s specialty is creating turnovers, and beating them without your only legitimate point guard is darn near impossible. If Hepburn doesn’t get hurt, it’s reasonable to think the Badgers pull out the win instead of committing a season-high 17 turnovers in a 5-point loss.

In that scenario, the Big Ten has 3 teams in the Sweet 16 — a respectable number by any measure. And one that changes the entire conversation about how the league stacks up.

But we don’t measure these conversations on what-ifs. We measure them by what has actually happened. And that leaves the Big Ten in a bit of a purgatory heading into the Sweet 16. The league’s performance is undeniably better than last year, but still not quite up to par.

Boilers the barometer

What happens to Purdue from here could ultimately be how we gauge this year’s Tourney from a Big Ten perspective. As an 11-seed, Michigan has already done all that can be asked.

If the Boilermakers get bounced by 15-seed Saint Peter’s in the Sweet 16, the conversation heads back to where it was a year ago. That’s a letdown of dramatic proportions.

Should Purdue lose to UCLA in the Elite 8, it’s a bit like Illinois losing to Houston. The Boilers have the better seed, but the Bruins should probably be favored in that matchup.

And if Purdue makes the Final Four for the first time since 1980, all of this hand-wringing will feel quite overblown.