Already appearing drained by Michigan State's difficult victory over the upset seekers from Bradley , coach Tom Izzo winced a little more in his postgame interview on the court when the subject turned to the next opponent for the Spartans in the East Region.
Sure, Minnesota is the No. 10 seed that had a losing record in conference play, but a Big Ten team is not what Izzo wanted or expected to see on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Never mind the 79-55 margin when the Gophers visited the Spartans on Feb. 9 in their only meeting of the season. There's no foe with better insight about how to beat a team than one from the same league.
"Definitely feels good to be advancing, you know?" Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston said after the 76-65 win over the resilient Braves on Thursday. "I think coach said at the end of the game, 'Even after all that, we're still one of the last 32 standing right now.'"
After sending eight teams to the tournament, the most of any league in the field this year and the most in Big Ten history, the oldest of the major conferences produced a perfect 5-0 record in the first half of the first round. Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin are on deck on Friday.
The Big Ten wasn't alone with its strong start. Thanks to wins by Auburn, Florida, Kentucky and LSU, the Southeastern Conference is 4-0 with Mississippi, Mississippi State and Tennessee left to play on Friday.
By Saturday, though, at least one Big Ten team is guaranteed to be knocked out because of the bracketing that lined Michigan State up with Minnesota. What's more: The winner would face Maryland in the Sweet 16, in Washington, D.C., no less, if the Terrapins beat LSU.
The Minnesota-Michigan State matchup in the second round will be the earliest two Big Ten teams have ever met in the NCAA Tournament and only the eighth in history. The only time two Big Ten teams have played before the regional finals was in 1980, when Purdue beat Indiana in the round of 16.
There hasn't been an all-Big Ten matchup in any round since Michigan State beat Wisconsin in the Final Four in 2000. That came a few days after Wisconsin's win over Purdue in the regional finals.
The other NCAA Tournament games involving Big Ten games were Michigan's win over Ohio State in the 1992 regional finals, Michigan's win over Illinois in the 1989 Final Four, Purdue's win over Iowa in the 1980 third-place game and Indiana's win over Michigan in the 1976 national championship game.
According to NCAA director of media coordination and statistics David Worlock, the selection committee tries to avoid these earlier-round pairings between teams from the same conference if possible.
The selection principles state that if the teams only played once during the season, including the conference tournament, they can play as early as the second round. Minnesota and Michigan State met only once this season in the Big Ten's 20-game schedule. If teams play twice, they can't face each other until the Sweet 16, and if they play three times teams they can't face each other until the regional finals.
There were actually two second-round intra-conference games in the NCAA Tournament in 2011, when the Big East sent a record 11 teams to the field and saw Cincinnati-Connecticut and Marquette-Syracuse matchups on the first weekend.
Perhaps seeing a matchup like the Gophers and Spartans on Saturday could become less of a rarity in the future, given the committee's recent de-emphasis of conference records when picking the field. More than ever, the at-large teams are being selected in as much of a vacuum as possible, with no maximums or minimums in mind for any of the leagues.
The Spartans, considered the strongest of the No. 2 seeds, were widely seen as getting the rawest deal in the bracket reveal on Sunday when they were placed in No. 1 overall seed Duke's region. As usual, Izzo had plenty of commentary on the process, expressing a belief that the committee looks too closely at proximity to venues when seeding and placing teams.
"The emphasis shouldn't be placed on geography, but it should be placed on rewarding teams that have performed and what their performance is," Izzo said. "We're splitting hairs over what we can be over 10 more minutes in a plane, 100 more miles. So thank God, there seems to be a lot more people than me upset about it."