Only 4 NCAA locks, but Big Ten could hang around in March after down season.

What a weird Big Ten basketball season.

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Only four teams are locks for the NCAA tournament. And the two bubble teams, Penn State and Nebraska, are football-bent schools that tend to be hoops after-thoughts.

When was the last time Indiana, Maryland, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa all missed in the same year?

Would you believe 1977? Heck, the NCAA tournament office pool hadn’t even been invented. In 1977, Bracketology was a scientific way to put up shelves.

The first time I remember doing a bracket was in 1978. Judy Moore, the Sun-Times food editor, won by picking Catholic schools.

In 1977, I enjoyed watching Al McGuire lead Marquette to a wonderful title. I watched from my parents’ house, where I was living because I had just been hired at the Chicago Daily News and hadn’t had time to move out yet.

Always loved Al McGuire. He was not only a fine basketball coach who made life fun. He turned down an NCAA bid in 1970 because he didn’t like his draw, and won the NIT instead.

I also liked Marquette because I once spent a fun evening cruising State Street in Madison with Gary Brell, who had been a quirky forward on that ’70 Marquette team. (After Gary had finished at Marquette, of course.)

And now, the four Big Ten teams that will be in this year’s Big Dance will have to shadow-box for nearly two weeks.

I would recommend that they get together and scrimmage in some unlikely place—say, Indy or Chicago. But I’m sure there’s a rule against that.

The downtime is courtesy of the decision to play the conference tournament a week early to enable the Big Ten to play in Madison Square Garden.

Commissioner Jim Delany now regrets the decision, he told my Chicago Tribune friend Teddy Greenstein, because the compressed league schedule ``wasn’t good. Wasn’t healthy.’’

Before the Big Ten tournament began in 1998, there was resistance to it from traditionalists like Bobby Knight and Gene Keady. In those days, I had Jim Delany on my speed-dial. Remember speed dials?

On the phone, and on the golf course, he would share his vision for a Big Ten tournament. I thought it was a great vision. The original plan was to create a unique atmosphere at the United Center, to make a Big Ten conference tournament in Chicago that would emulate the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The problem was, it never took. The United Center, on an island on the West Side of Chicago, is too far from food and beverage and lodging to foster that kind of excitement. And so, adding Indianapolis, which embraces the tournament in ways Chicago doesn’t, made sense.

The other thing is, the Big East always was for and about basketball in a way that the football-driven Big Ten isn’t. And the Big East, in its heyday, had fantastic hoops rivalries—notably Georgetown, Syracuse and St. John’s. Under visionary Dave Gavitt, the Big East practically invented college basketball on TV.

Those days are gone.

The truth is, conference tournaments sound a lot better than they live.

Obviously, they’re great if you win. And hats off to Michigan and John Beilein for winning their second straight. They’re also helpful if a team can enhance its bubble resume—as Penn State may have done.

And occasionally, there’s a Cinderella story. In 1999, for example, 11th seeded Illinois made a fun run to the championship game.

Illinois not only failed to make a run this year. Losing its final game on Feb. 28, it didn’t even get to March. Talk about March Madness.

But there is a positive vibe surrounding Illini basketball. In his first year, Brad Underwood had a young team playing hard and losing close. With so many returnees joined by stud guard recuit Ayo Dosunmu, there’s a lot of ``wait till next year’’ talk.

If that’s so, I’ll be happy for my Illini friends.

I’ll be interested to see how it plays out. Because, for all the Big Ten’s troubles this year, there’s a lot to like around the league next year.

Wisconsin and Maryland, two perennial powers that were young and diminished by injuries, should be back next year. Indiana should continue to make strides under second-year coach Archie Miller. If Minnesota can keep its nose clean and its players healthy, it ought to be competitive.

And Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State—the league’s NCAA-tournament-bound quartet—will continue to be top-notch.

For all the league’s troubles, it wouldn’t surprise me if any of those teams made deep runs this month. Miles Bridges, Moe Wagner, Carsen Edwards and Keita Bates-Diop all are worthy of All-America status. And there's a ton of talent around them.

The thing is, we don’t really know how their long layoff is going to play out.

But all four of those teams could help a down Big Ten salvage something from a lackluster season.