Vindication. Breathe it deep. For who knows when the wind will blow this way again. Still, whether fleeting or the beginning of a new era, the success of the Big Ten could hardly taste sweeter than right now.

As the NCAA tournament commenced just two weeks ago, an unmistakable air of hostility surrounded the Big Ten — one so thick it seemed utterly pungent. Like the previous season, few believed the league could accomplish anything significant on the national stage. However, unlike the previous season, the conference appeared less innocuous with the country’s top-ranked team standing atop it.

For months, experts railed on the supposed weakness of the Fighting Illini’s backyard. A team that suffered just a single loss in a major conference didn’t even hold favor for a national title heading into the tournament — a state of affairs more a product of hog-headed stubbornness than analysis in any sense of the word.

Yet, even down to the end of the regular season, few wished to admit their poor assessment and recognize Illinois as the frontrunner for the crown. What followed was the most notorious example of player-hating since Reggie Miller.

National pundits sneered as Wisconsin chugged along a path cleared by upsets. As if taking care of business in such an upset-laden tournament proved, somehow, a lesser achievement than a flash-in-the-pan shocker.

In Austin, Michigan State and tourney-savvy head coach Tom Izzo battled low expectations to overcome a bracket headlined by a pair of truly overrated teams — top-seeded Duke and No. 2 Kentucky.

Actually, it’s not hard to be surprised by this turn of events considering the team’s inability to garner an excess of quality wins this season. Regardless, with Izzo in March, anything is possible. The fact that so many people wrote them off completely is simply Big Ten-hating at its finest.

Finally, the sense of jubilation when Illinois fell behind Arizona in the Chicago Regional final — at least from my perch in New York — was prevalent as well, and the ensuing disappointment equally palpable.

On more occasions than this columnist would care to recall, I overheard numerous national reporters whining about the prospect of being forced to cover a Final Four matchup between Michigan State and Wisconsin. Oh, horrors.

Never mind the pair of tough fights this season waged between the two teams. Forget about the bitterness harbored over the Spartans’ 54-game winning streak snapped by the Badgers three years ago. And block out the possible appeal of another fine contest between explosive swingmen Alando Tucker and Alan Anderson.

Brush aside all the possible storylines in pursuit of the ultimate question: who’s going to score 90 points?

And just when it seemed runaway sentiment had completely overwhelmed logic, absurdity reached a frightening new level.

The Badgers even addressed the comments of one analyst who called a Wisconsin championship the worst thing that could possibly happen for “offensive” basketball — a completely ridiculous statement. What if a hurricane tore asunder every campus along the Atlantic coastline? Or if a Scottish scientist managed to successfully clone Dick Bennett?

Come on, folks. If you’re going to wax idiotic, at least exercise a little imagination.

Then again, perhaps it’s really my fault for choosing an industry with so many supposed professionals endowed with the attention spans of five-year-olds. Indeed, if adult ADD fell under the health plan of ESPN, I venture the poor insurance provider to pick up that contract would have hit Chapter 11 at least a decade ago.

Sadly, though, for a while the initially senseless arguments of these offense-obsessed pundits seemed to sparkle with a morsel of validity. After spurts of productivity in the ’90s, the conference that led more teams to the dance floor than any other in the history of the tournament hit a fairly deep recession. Last year, only three Big Ten programs received invites — only one even advanced to the Sweet 16. The onset of this season appeared to forecast more of the same — by default, if nothing else.

Then it happened. Despite losing a pair of its five tournament contenders in the first round, the Big Ten went on a rampage, recording an 11-3 record heading into the Final Four. More importantly, after failing to send a squad to the final destination two years in a row — or even the Elite Eight, for that matter — the conference witnessed, this year, a pair of programs skip to the Lou.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin, widely expected to end its pilgrimage in Oklahoma City, came within a few possessions of rounding out the first Final Four trifecta since the ACC pulled it off in 1985.

After defending the conference’s elite teams all season long with theoretical arguments, Midwesterners at long last possess something tangible: absolution packed in a travel-ready pouch, made from space-age materials and GPS activated for remote deployment. Opponents who frequently pointed to the league’s meager RPI as evidence of its glaring frailty now find their fingers aimed at a system sprawling with cracks.

Here’s the funny thing: this phenomenon isn’t a phenomenon at all, but an enduring trend. Even prior to its tournament success, the collective non-conference record of the Big Ten’s berth-earning teams remained superior to every other conference save the ACC (now both stand at 73-15). However, only one major (Conference USA; .5247) carries a lower RPI than the Big Ten’s mark of .5470. Second among all majors and well above the Big Ten with an RPI of .5657, the Pac-10 posts a non-conference record of just 44-16 among its four bid-earners.

Despite all the complexities of the new RPI equation, it doesn’t take a degree in finite math to realize these persistent attempts to quantify achievement simply don’t add up. Perhaps someday, someone will develop a remarkable equation to solve the never-ending woes created by rankings such as the RPI and BCS. Until that day, however, it’s a horrendous mistake to gauge a conference or team’s performance with, at best, vulgar attempts at statistical analysis.

In the absence of definitive proof, the RPI rankings proved as solid an argument as any could muster with randomly assorted figures or hearsay. Fortunately, we have a fine institution to settle these disputes — the NCAA tournament. And, ladies and gentlemen, the tournament has spoken.

Time to put a cap on the Haterade.

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