Big Ten Tournament: Preview and Prediction

Another crazy, competitive Big Ten regular season has come to a close, and on Thursday, the 2014 Big Ten tournament will get under way in Indianapolis. View the bracket here.

For the No. 22 Michigan State Spartans (23-8, 12-6 Big Ten), it certainly has been a journey getting to this point. After an impressive 18-1 start, injuries and chemistry issues eventually got the best of them as they finished a disappointing 5-7 down the stretch.

Still, the Spartans managed to earn themselves a first-round bye in the tournament and will take on the winner of Iowa vs. Northwestern on Friday night at approximately 9:00 pm ET.

With the tournament looming, isportsweb’s Michigan State writers Ryan Squanda and James Edwards III offer their thoughts below on how they see the tournament playing out for Michigan State.

KEY PLAYER FOR MICHIGAN STATE: Keith Appling (James and Ryan)

SQUANDA: Before his wrist injury, senior point guard Keith Appling was playing the best basketball of his college career. Averaging 15 points and 5 assists per game, Appling was even vaulting himself into the discussion as a potential All-American point guard.

However, after injuring the wrist, Appling’s productivity and consistency fell off incredibly. He attempted to play through it for a while but eventually sat out three games when the pain just became too much.

In his six games since returning from injury though, Appling has averaged just 4.7 points a game.  He’s a shadow of what he was earlier in the season, as it’s evident it’s more of a mental thing right now.

While Appling looked good on his senior day against Iowa, finishing the game with 12 points and even connecting on two 3-point shots, something he hadn’t done in over a month, he followed that up with just a 2-point performance in 35 minutes against Ohio State.

Over the course of the past two years, Appling had really become sort of a closer for this Michigan State basketball team, someone they had gone to in crunch time, but with his confidence issues as of late, the Spartans haven’t had that in almost two months.

At the end of the day, which Appling we see show up in the Big Ten Tournament will likely be the key to how far they advance.

EDWARDS: For the past four years, Appling has epitomized the brand of basketball that has made Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo one of college basketball’s most successful and recognizable coaches in the past 15 years: toughness and grit.

Fast forward halfway through Appling’s senior year, and that physical, in-your-face style of play has caught up with him. Appling was not only a serious contender for Big Ten Player of the Year before his wrist injury, he was arguably one of the top contenders for the National Player of the Year as well.

Michigan State senior point guard Keith Appling.

Michigan State senior point guard Keith Appling.

Appling was finally blossoming into a well-rounded point guard before he was sidelined with his lingering wrist injury. Not only was he creating for himself with hard drives to the lane and jump shots from every spot on the floor, but his ability to make any shot on the court was freeing up his teammates.

Since returning, like Ryan said, Appling hasn’t been nearly as confident offensively, and while confidence must be instilled in any player at any level to get the best out of them, that lack of confidence, and lack of attack, has hurt the rest of the Michigan State offense.

Izzo has said that defense is a huge issue for his club right now, but the indecisiveness on offense has led to an average of almost 14 turnovers per game over MSU’s last five games, and when you give teams that many extra possessions, your defense definitely can’t get better.

Appling must find his swagger if the Spartans have any chance of winning the Big Ten tournament. He needs to be aggressive offensively because that will open up his game, his teammates’ game, and lead to less turnovers.

TOURNAMENT PREDICTION

SQUANDA: With the exception of the 2012 Big Ten tournament, which MSU won, over the course of the past decade, Izzo and his Michigan State teams haven’t had much success in the conference tournament.

And with their recent struggles over the past six weeks, I don’t see this year’s tournament being any different.

On Friday night, the Spartans will take on the winner of Thursday’s match up of Iowa vs. Northwestern, a couple of teams they swept the season series against. Barring another disappointing upset, I do see Michigan State getting past their first game in the tournament.

However, after that, they’ll likely meet up once again with the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that beat them in Madison a little over a month ago on a buzzer beater, 60-58. Unfortunately for the Michigan State though, this is as far as I see the Spartans going.

As for the championship game, Michigan has been the best team in the Big Ten all season long, finishing the Big Ten regular season with 15-3 record, three games clear of the rest of the field. When the tournament is all said and done on Sunday, the Michigan Wolverines will have won the championship game over the Wisconsin Badgers.

EDWARDS: Izzo has called this year’s Big Ten tournament “my most important Big Ten tournament,” and he’s not exaggerating.

With the expectations that this team had coming into the season, to their stellar start, to the numerous injuries that have hindered their growth and chemistry, and to the recent losses this team has endured, this season has been one hell of a ride.

Not only is this Big Ten tournament huge for the Spartans in terms of seeding in the NCAA tournament, but it’s huge because they need as much time on the floor at full strength as they can get.

Michigan State opens up Big Ten tournament play against the winner of Northwestern and Iowa — two teams that MSU has swept this season. I expect the Spartans to get past either one of these teams, no matter the winner, but it’s their second game of the tournament that is concerning if your a MSU fan.

Barring any major upset, the Spartans will face the No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers. Not only did the Badgers beat the Spartans in their lone meeting this year — Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson hit a game-winning shot — but they’ve arguably been one of the nations best teams over the past month, despite losing their last regular-season game to Nebraska. Wisconsin is 8-1 in its last nine games with victories over MSU, U of M and Iowa during that span.

I believe the Spartans pull out a close one in their meeting with the Badgers, and then advance to the finals where they will play #1 seeded Michigan.

The No. 12 Wolverines swept the Spartans this season on their way to a Big Ten regular-season championship. These two teams matchup up very well against one another, however, in the end, it will all come down to if the Spartans can build chemistry as they move through the tournament, and if they can find a go-to player in the final minutes.

I’m convinced that if the Spartans ever do put it all together that they are without a doubt the most talented team in the nation. But how much longer can we use that excuse?

As the tournament progresses, and before we hit this Michigan State-Michigan showdown, I think we will see flashes of the MSU team that we have all pictured in our mind, and by the time the finals rolls around, I think this team will be a serious contender for a national championship.

Big Ten tournament finals prediction: MSU 74, U of M 70