I’d like to report to you that we are looking at a conference tournament that was going to be chock full of surprises. I’d like to tell you that, with the right wins, the Big Ten will be sending six or even seven teams to the Big Dance. I’d like to say that the teams playing this Sunday in the final contest of the Big Ten season are going to be fighting for a number one seed two hours later on the Selection Sunday special on CBS.
I would like to tell you all these things. But let’s face it, the Big Ten Conference this year is just like the economy: in a recession.
When I predicted the outcome of the regular season, I was expecting this sort of mediocrity. In the end, there were a few differences between my forecasts and the end results, but I am not going to feel too badly about predicting Purdue as a middle-of-the-road team, nor will I lose any sleep over suggesting that Illinois would be one either. Both played differently than expected — and that’s part of the fun of predicting the outcomes of sporting events — but, overall, it was the intense patchiness that consumed the entire conference (even Wisconsin) and that sealed the four and maybe five team’s fate in the upcoming Field of 64. Needless to say, it was a pretty weak showing.
So, this weekend, those of us that crave the glory of Big Ten basketball as much, if not more, than most things, will be much maligned to sit back and watch what might be one of the more inconsequential tournaments in the ten-year history of its existence.
Here are my predictions:
So, what happened this year? Let’s do a quick rundown of what went right, what went wrong and where each team is going:
11. Northwestern (1–17): Bill Carmody might have coached his way out of a job this year. Kevin Coble stepped in a little too late to have a major effect and even though these Wildcats played some hard-fought games, thirty minutes of basketball creates records like this.
10. Michigan (5–13): John Beilein set the stage for what I would consider the best chance for a major turnaround next season. Manny Harris is looking at First Team All-Big Ten for next year if he can raise those juicy stats by a couple digits per column. Including the one with the Ws in it.
9. Illinois (5–13): Don’t go off and start calling for Bruce Weber’s head just yet. He had more than a few tough breaks, and a couple of players that didn’t work out the way that he thought they might. Next season will be wholly better, and they played a lot of solid basketball, generally, for thirty-five minutes a game.
8. Iowa (6–12): Is it just me or does Kurt Looby have the longest arms in the nation? He’ll be gone next year, but leading scorers Justin Johnson and Tony Freeman won’t be. Todd Lickliter will have his work cut out for him recruiting at this level, but if he can make a winner out of a Horizon League team like Butler, he can definitely make a go of it at Carver-Hawkeye.
7. Penn State (7–11): Nittany Lions fans are licking their wounds this year, literally. What a way to go down. Their best players dropped, one after another, at the most critical moments of their season. The Nits won their first two games in the conference, both on the road, only two drop ten of their next 12. And yet, even without Cleary and Cornley, they dropped both Michigan State and Indiana? Talk about hot and cold. If the Nittany Lions can take Illinois and then Purdue, they have a shot to be invited to the NIT.
6. Minnesota (8–10): Much respect for Tubby Smith in his first year, despite the fact that his Gophers played one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the country. If he can keep on the recruiting trail with that hands-on approach (he was in Peoria last week scouting local Central product Verdell Jones), he will have the Gophers back in the Dance by ’09–’10.
5. Ohio State (10–8): That Ohio State is still fighting for an at-large bid is a testament to the type of coach that Thad Matta is. He has not one, not two, but THREE blue chip players coming in next year and if he can find a way to knock off the Spartans back to back, he’ll give his younger players some much needed experience to avenge that NCAA Finals loss last year.
4. Michigan State (12–6): Tom Izzo will either be on a plane home after their first game in the tournament, or they’re going to defy odds again, and make a serious run to the Final Four. Drew Neitzel has probably played his way out of the NBA unless he is cutting down the nets on April 7, 2008. As for next season, I’ll go out on a limb and say that they’ll be dancing again, no matter what.
3. Indiana (14–4): Kelvin Sampson. Dan Dakich. Good luck, Hoosiers. You are going to need it.
2. Purdue (15–3): Not much can be said about this particular team except positives, but only because they had such low expectations. At this point, even a first round loss in the Dance could be chalked up to a lack of experience with this young squad. They have shown more than a few vulnerabilities, but any team that can handle Wisconsin at home deserves a serious look from competitors. I don’t know any pundit who isn’t thinking that this squad could make a Final Four run. Even this year.
1. Wisconsin (16–2): Bo Ryan is up for coach of the year on a national level, and rightfully so. He took a team that lost two players to the pros and regrouped to put together a real winner. Victories against teams like Texas (down in the Lone Star State) and a Sampson-era Indiana (this one in Bloomington) validate the strength of this squad. They very well might be the team to beat this year, and in the years to come.
Season’s Record: 139–43
Last Week’s Record: 6–3
Big Ten Record: 72–25