The just completed Big Ten regular season might go down as the best in conference history. Along those same lines, the Big Ten Tournament promises to be an elite event from top to bottom. Stuff all 12 participants into a single NCAA tournament region and it would be one of the most intriguing brackets in recent memory. The conference is loaded. Nobody is safe.
No conference in America can boast a top 5 like the Big Ten can. Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Michigan are capable of doing great things come March Madness. But first they must get physical in the Big Ten Tourney with the simultaneous goal of coming out a champion but not wearing themselves out so much that they fizzle a week and a half from now when it matters most.
Perhaps no other fact outlines the dominance that lies within this conference than this one: Michigan is a 5 seed.
Below I will outline the path of all 12 teams and highlight their strengths and weaknesses and how I think they will fare. But first, the schedule:
All listed times are Central Standard Time
Game 1: Thursday, 11 a.m. #8 Illinois v. #9 Minnesota
Game 2: Thursday, approx. 1:30 p.m. #5 Michigan v. #12 Penn State
Game 3: Thursday, 5:30 p.m. #7 Purdue v. #10 Nebraska
Game 4: Thursday, approx. 8 p.m. #6 Iowa v. #11 Northwestern
Game 5: Friday, 11 a.m. #1 Indiana v. Game 1 winner
Game 6: Friday, approx. 1:30 p.m. #4 Wisconsin v. Game 2 winner
Game 7: Friday, 5:30 p.m. #2 Ohio State v. Game 3 winner
Game 8: Friday, approx. 8 p.m. #3 Michigan State v. Game 4 winner
Game 9: Saturday, 12:40 p.m., Game 5 v. Game 6 winners
Game 10: Saturday, approx. 3 p.m. Game 7 v. Game 8 winners
Game 11: Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Game 9 v. Game 10 winners
The Path to the Tournament Championship
Indiana: IU will get the winner of Illinois v. Minnesota in the quarterfinals and then likely play Wisconsin or Michigan in the semis. There is no doubt that a Michigan-Indiana rematch would be highly anticipated and what the tournament hosts are most hoping for. The Hoosiers have the veteran leadership and overall skill set that makes them not only the Big Ten’s best team but probably the best team in the nation. They are the odds-on favorites to win this tourney.
Ohio State: OSU will take on the Purdue v. Nebraska winner and has a pretty clear path to the semis as a result. Purdue would have to take out Nebraska and play way over their heads to pull that upset. The most likely scenario has OSU playing Michigan State in the semifinals barring a potential, but unlikely, run by Iowa. The Buckeyes blend top notch defense with Deshaun Thomas’ ability to score in bunches. Due to their defense, Thad Matta’s team can beat any team at any time.
Michigan State: The Spartans finished the season with two wins to help get the mojo flowing again. They will play the Iowa v. Northwestern winner on Friday. As tough as Iowa can be at times I can see that game going either way. Regardless, I see MSU advancing to the semis for a dynamite matchup v. the Buckeyes. If the Spartans can quash their ugly turnover habits then they can make a run in this thing.
Wisconsin: The Badgers haven’t exactly been clicking down the stretch. They got buried by Purdue, lost at MSU, and barely escaped Penn State. For their prize, they will most likely get Michigan in the semifinals, a team that will be chomping at the bit to exact revenge for what happened late in the game in Madison. When Wisconsin isn’t efficient offensively, they are very ugly. Just ask the Spartans. I expect that their only game in this tourney will come on Friday as they lose to Michigan.
Michigan: Of all the teams not getting a 1st round bye in a conference tourney across America, Michigan has to be the best. They will be tasked with playing their 2013 nemesis in round 1, the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Wolverines barely escaped Jermaine Marshall and company in Ann Arbor and then blew a 15-point 2nd half lead to lose in Happy Valley. That was PSU’s first conference win of the year. Michigan sets their sights on a bit of a revenge tour as their path includes PSU, Wisconsin (who beat them in overtime courtesy of an end of regulation hail Mary by Ben Brust), and Indiana. Michigan has had trouble winning games late, something that is a must come tourney time. If they get consistent production on the defensive end then they could hoist the trophy on Sunday.
Iowa: Iowa is the only team not in the top 5 of the Big Ten standings with a non-losing record in conference play. They went 9-9 and have major upset ability when they’re on. That being said, their biggest win came against Wisconsin as they basically beat up on the weaker teams in the league. Northwestern will give them everything they can handle on Thursday. Win or lose that one and they are a likely day 2 out against the Spartans.
Purdue: The Boilermakers went just 15-16, 8-10 and are trying to quickly return to prominence. Like Iowa, their biggest in-conference win was a tremendous performance against Wisconsin that came in the Kohl Center. I don’t see Purdue losing to Nebraska but it’s possible. And if they win they will have to play Ohio State, which is a losing proposition.
Illinois: The Fighting Illini will play Minnesota in a battle of two of the early season darlings of college basketball who fell on hard times in conference play. Consider that they have beaten Gonzaga, Indiana, and Ohio State this year for all you need to know about their potential. After a 5-game winning streak they lost 3 of 4 down the wire and come in searching for answers. But if they get hot from 3-point range they can beat anyone. They might lose Thursday or make it all the way to Saturday, but my hunch is they lose to the Gophers in round 1.
Minnesota: Tubby Smith’s crew was a top-10 team early in the season and is one of just five teams to have beaten the Hoosiers this year. This is a 2nd round matchup that Indiana wants nothing to do with but my gut tells me that’s exactly what they’ll get. Minnesota has a workable inside-out game that could put them in a position to make a run in the BTT. They are also playing for their NCAA tournament lives and will be looking to make an impression, just like the Illini. Their road is tough with Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin/Michigan awaiting.
Nebraska: This is a team that is slowly on the rise but still swimming past the buoys. If they’re fortunate enough to get past Purdue then Ohio State will pull the cord on this life jacket in the quarterfinals.
Northwestern: There isn’t a coach in the conference I wish success upon more than Bill Carmody. Losing Drew Crawford for the season doomed this team from the get-go. They have taken down both Minnesota and Illinois and are certainly capable of handling Iowa if things break right even though Iowa crushed them twice during the regular season. A quarterfinal date with the Spartans would spell doom for their season though. A 3rd loss to Iowa would end their season with 9 straight defeats.
Penn State: Make no mistake, of the bottom-tier teams in the conference, this is the one Michigan is least anxious to face. Penn State has picked it up down the stretch by winning 2 of their last 4 after losing their first 14 conference games. They narrowly lost to Wisconsin on Saturday to close out their regular season. Michigan wants this one bad and I’d be shocked if Penn State pulls off two straight against John Beilein. This is one-and-done folks.
I will be in Chicago covering the Big Ten Tournament live. For real-time updates, follow me on Twitter @isportsJoe