The Big Ten Tournament kicks off on Thursday in Indianapolis and it should be a good one. Several teams will have their March Madness destinies swaying in the balance depending on how quickly they get bumped or how far they advance.
This is the way I see it as we head into the Big Ten Tourney’s 4-day vortex: four teams are a lock to advance to the NCAA tourney – Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State are all in.
Teams that must perform well
Two teams that could potentially play their way out of the dance are Nebraska and Iowa. I think both of these teams will make the NCAA field but an overly ugly loss in their first games could be trouble. If Northwestern bumps Iowa on Thursday night it could be curtains for Fran McCaffery’s boys, but I highly doubt it.
Nebraska will most likely play Ohio State on Friday and even a loss there should be ok based on the strength of their 11-7 conference record and 35th ranked RPI. Should Purdue deal the Buckeyes a Thursday upset though, and then Tim Miles’ crew gets bumped by the Boilermakers, then there will be some tense moments in Lincoln on Selection Sunday. Their 57th ranked BPI is cause for some concern. Nebraska being left out seems like an unlikely scenario though as the Huskers are probably safe.
In theory, and aside from winning the whole tournament, there are three teams that could potentially play their way into the tourney with a big weekend in Indy. If Minnesota (19-12, 8-10, 49 RPI, 52 BPI) can slip past a feisty Penn State team on Thursday and then knock off the Badgers they’ll find themselves on the bubble. If they could then pull off a Saturday win against the Spartans or Hawkeyes then they’d probably dance.
Illinois (62 RPI, 65 BPI) and Indiana (87 RPI, 66 BPI) probably have to get to Sunday to give themselves a legitimate shot at some love from the committee. Only one will get that chance though as they square off at noon on Thursday to kick off the festivities.
Whoever wins gets to face a Michigan team that has had recent success against both squads. Get by Michigan though and suddenly a Sunday appearance seems possible as a likely Saturday showdown with the Buckeyes or Huskers seems winnable for either team. But they have to beat a Michigan team that has been playing inspired basketball for most of the winter for any of this to matter. Odds aren’t on the side of either of these schools and they’ll likely find themselves working the NIT circuit.
The question hovering around Big Ten hoops this year has been: Is the league really as good as everyone thinks? Upsets have been happening with regularity with no regard for home venue or stature of the opposition. Is this the sign of a conference that is legit from top to bottom or of a group that has taken a collective step in the wrong direction?
The M.O. of the just concluded regular season seems to set the table for a series of upsets in Indianapolis. Their top-seeded status notwithstanding, Michigan is the team to beat. They have played with elite chemistry despite the departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. and the season-ending injury to preseason All-American Mitch McGary.
The Wolverines won this tournament in 1998 but thanks to Uncle Ed Martin, those results have been vacated. Michigan should advance past the Indiana-Illinois winner and John Beilein’s team matches up exceptionally well with Nebraska and Ohio State. I expect Michigan to play on Sunday. Who they will square off against is a tougher call.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans have the look of a team destined for an early out in the NCAA tourney. If he can utilize his three days in Indy to perfection, construct some leadership, and get his guys believing in each other then they still have the talent to go a long ways.
Bo Ryan’s Badgers have had a tremendous season but that ugly defensive meltdown that led to a 1-5 stretch in late January/early February has me worried. Wisconsin rarely holds up well in March and until they prove me wrong, I’ll remain skeptical.
Iowa has a boatload of talent but seems to find ways to lose more often than they should. This reeks of a lack of leadership across the roster. McCaffery will have to pull out all the stops to get this crew to play to their potential. It could lead to a special run through the BTT and big dance, but it remains unlikely.
Michigan and Michigan State fans have been pining for a matchup in this tourney for years. This is the year that it happens, and it’s also the year that Michigan puts an official Big Ten Tournament win in the books.