With 14 teams in the field for the first time, the Big Ten Tourney has a new look this year. The top four teams in the conference advance directly to the quarterfinals, getting a double bye for their strong play. I’ll be in Chicago for Illinois’s games later this week, and in advance of that I’ve broken down the field as I see it, including some predictions (which you can take with a grain of salt) and a little bit of what this all means for Illini fans.
1. Wisconsin (28-3, 16-2)
The odds-on favorite to not only win the Big Ten Tournament this year, but to repeat as a Final Four team, as well. The reason, in brief: Frank Kaminsky. The seven-footer’s season numbers have a video game quality to them: 18.1 points per game, 8.3 rebounds, 1.6 blocks. Kaminsky has been in double figures in every game he’s played but one. It’s not a stretch to say that he could be the national player of the year because his contributions are so much more than what is reflected on the stat sheet. I wouldn’t bet against him or Wisconsin.
2. Maryland (26-5, 14-4)
Teams aren’t supposed to be as good in their first year in a new conference as Maryland has been this year. But there is no denying the Terps quality: Melo Trimble is one of the nation’s top 3 freshmen and Dez Wells is a beast in the paint. When their star power doesn’t mesh and mistakes pile up, however, Maryland doesn’t look like a contender in the Big Ten. Losses to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, and Iowa showed the blueprint for beating the Terps, and I think it leaves them vulnerable in the Big Ten Tourney.
3. Michigan State (21-10, 12-6)
Ten losses prove that MSU’s season has taken a roller coaster-like trajectory, but no one can debate the depth and talent of the Spartans’ roster. Tom Izzo has nine guys on his roster averaging double-digit minutes this season. He has skill deep into the bench that he can trust with valuable minutes. As players get past the 30-game threshold and bodies start to wear down, that kind of depth is priceless. Oh, and Tom Fucking Izzo is the coach. His six Final Fours speak for themself.
4. Purdue (20-11, 12-6)
Well, I really got this one wrong. In my Big Ten preview for the magazine I said Purdue was a “dumpster fire” and would manage to fuck up an easy conference schedule. Egg on my face, that’s for sure. It is surprising that Purdue has put together the conference season it did after losing to Gardner-Webb and North Florida, though. Like Michigan State, however, their success comes from depth. Matt Painter has put together a squad of 10 guys he can call on for more than 10 minutes a night. A.J. Hammons is the closest thing to a star the Boilermakers have, but they haven’t really needed one person to do it all. I’m still not bullish about Purdue, but I wouldn’t count them out of the Big Ten Tourney, especially as a good run would seal their NCAA stock.
5. Iowa (21-10, 12-6)
How did Iowa get up this high? Their head coach’s name is Fran, for fuck’s sake. The biggest reason for the Hawkeye’s success this year is a 6’9” ginger named Alex White. The senior forward has been a dominating offensive force for Iowa, especially lately. For the season White is averaging 15.6 points per game, but over the last five games he’s gone for 20.4 points and 9.4 rebounds. There is a lot to be said for guys who get hot at the right time of the year, and this is most definitely the right time of the year. If White can keep it up, Iowa could be the dark horse contender for the Big Ten Tournament title.
6. Ohio State (22-9, 11-7)
I have no idea what OSU is doing this low in the rankings. D’Angelo Russell is on the list with Melo Trimble of the top 3 freshmen in the country, and Thad Matta’s squad is as deep as anyone else in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are even fifth in the nation on field goal shooting (49.3%), so the record and standing in the conference are a little mind boggling. Each of OSU’s 9 losses have come against RPI top 100 teams, with Michigan (84) being the worst of the bunch (but a rival school and, therefore, somewhat of a pass). With a game in the books versus each team in the Big Ten, though, I like Ohio State to make it to the final of the tourney, and maybe even win it.
7. Indiana (19-12, 9-9)
The Hoosiers tied with Illinois but get the better seed because of 80-74 win in Champaign, which is just one of many instances of the Illini shooting themselves in the foot. Indiana is going into the tournament with some negative momentum after losing its last three, including blowing a lead to Michigan State in the final game. Many people in Bloomington are already preparing/hoping for life after Tom Crean, leading to this great website: www.tomcreanbuyout.com. Even with the better seeding, Indiana is no certainty to beat Northwestern and move on to the quarterfinal round.
8. Illinois (19-12, 9-9)
Not where this team wanted to be or should have been, but the first and last games of the conference season were mirror images (blowing a big lead in the second half) and here the Illini are. Illinois is probably the team with the most to gain from a good tournament performance. The top six teams are all likely already in the NCAA field; if Indiana loses game one they probably will not make it in, clearing a spot for Illinois. Beating Michigan is a must, obviously, and beating Wisconsin (whom they would play in the second game of the Big Ten Tourney) would make Illinois a likely at-large bid. At least playing well against Wisconsin gives them an outside chance, but no guarantee; more on that below.
9. Michigan (15-15, 8-10)
Michigan stole some games this year (against Illinois and Ohio State, specifically) but, while they’re not as bad as the team that lost to New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan, they’re not Big Ten contenders either. Without Caris Levert there is not enough talent to carry this team very far. Zak Irvin can play, and Illinois knows first-hand how guys like Aubrey Dawkins can surprise you, but with losses in 7 of their last 9 games I don’t count on Michigan doing much in the Big Ten Tourney.
10. Northwestern (15-16, 6-12)
If there’s a double-digit seed worth fearing in the Big Ten Tourney, it’s Northwestern. The Wildcats had to scratch and claw their way out of the Big Ten basement, but they showed real tenacity to get a single bye and Indiana should be wary of this match-up. After starting the conference season 1-10, NU won 5 of its last 7 games, including a 72-65 win over Indiana at home. With the Hoosiers faltering and the United Center being just a jog from Evanston, Northwestern is the most likely upset of day two.
11. Minnesota (17-14, 6-12)
Before Big Ten season started, Minnesota got something of a pass for scheduling some difficult road games. The bloom is off the rose, though, and Minnesota is pretty disappointing. Last year’s NIT champions looked fairly miserable throughout conference play, losing their first 5 and 5 of their last 6. Andre Hollins is a very good player, but didn’t even get third team All-Big Ten honors. The Gophers may get to Thursday, but I don’t see them beating Ohio State.
12. Nebraska (13-17, 5-13)
If Minnesota was disappointing this season, Nebraska was an utter failure. The Huskers, almost entirely intact after making the NCAA Tournament last season, regressed in a way that is almost incomprehensible. It could have been forecast after the Huskers lost to Incarnate Word early in the season, but winning just 5 conference games this year is an embarrassment for Tim Miles. At this point, even beating Penn State in the Big Ten Tourney is doubtful for Nebraska.
13. Penn State (16-15, 4-14)
This was another year of Penn State basketball, which is about as accurate and charitable a thing anyone can say about the Nittany Lions right now. D.J. Newbill (20.7 points per game) is a legit stud, but Penn State could never put anything together to really help him. His game winner against Minnesota on Sunday could be a momentum builder for Wednesday’s game against Nebraska, or it could just be a nice parting gift to Nittany Lion fans.
14. Rutgers (10-21, 2-16)
If Penn State basketball fans can be happy about one thing this season, it’s that Rutgers is now the ugly stepchild of Big Ten hoops, so they’re off the hook. But one thing Rutgers has that only three other teams can claim this year (so far) is a win over Wisconsin, which is a pretty big deal. So, hold on to that win, Rutgers, hold on tight and never let go.
#12 Nebraska vs. #13 Penn State: Terran Petteway plays with pride and Nebraska wins in a never-close but not lopsided game.
#11 Minnesota vs. #14 Rutgers: The Gophers were disappointing, but not THAT disappointing; Minny to win.
#8 Illinois vs. #9 Michigan: Overtime for these two in Champaign was how the Illini can play when it’s all working. I think that happens and Illinois cruise.
#5 Iowa vs. #12 Nebraska: Another big game from the big ginger and Iowa wins easy.
#7 Indiana vs. #10 Northwestern: Upset of the day, the Wildcats stay hot and embarrass Tom Crean again.
#6 Ohio State vs. #11 Minnesota: Ohio State only just beat the Gophers in Minneapolis earlier this year, this time it’s not even close.
#1 Wisconsin vs. #8 Illinois: I wish I could bet on Illinois to show, like in horse racing, because I think they make this competitive but cross the finish line second.
#4 Purdue vs. #5 Iowa: Recent history matters most in March, so I’m taking Iowa, winners of its last 6 regular season games, to move on.
#2 Maryland vs. #10 Northwestern: The NU hot streak gets iced by Melo Trimble and Dez Wells here. Bonus prediction: at least one incredible Wells dunk in this game.
#3 Michigan State vs. #6 Ohio State: Toughest game of the Tourney to predict, but I’ll take the Buckeyes because MSU can have some ugly lapses at times.
#1 Wisconsin vs. #5 Iowa: If anyone can stop Alex White it’s Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers.
#2 Maryland vs. #6 Ohio State: In January OSU straight-up killed the Terps, making Trimble a complete non-factor. I think Thad’s crew can do it again.
#1 Wisconsin vs. #6 Ohio State: More competitive than the 72-48 spanking Wisky gave the Bucks on Sunday, but the Badgers win because they want a #1 seed and winning the Big Ten would really help.
What Illini fans should hope for
Unless Illinois goes nuts in the Big Ten Tourney, its chances of making the NCAA field of 68 rely on a few things happening, some in Illinois’s power to control and some not.
The most obvious thing Illinois can do is win. Losing to Michigan is an automatic NIT bid and beating Wisconsin almost guarantees an NCAA bid. What Illinois can only hope for, as I mentioned, is that Indiana loses to Northwestern and other bubble teams don’t live up to expectations. Other teams that Illini fans should watch, Tulsa (needs to make its AAC conference championship), Richmond (has to beat VCU and Davidson in the A10 Tourney), Texas A&M (must beat LSU in quarterfinals of SEC Tourney), Old Dominion (must win automatic bid), UCLA (if they can’t beat Arizona they’re in the same boat as U of I, but in a weaker conference), and Miami (needs a semifinal berth to get in, just like the Illini).
Along with that, fans should hope for very few surprises and hope that selection committee values playing in the Big Ten more highly than playing other conferences. Illinois would almost certainly be the seventh or eighth team from the Big Ten in the field, which is a tall order. Unless Illinois beats Wisconsin, though, it’s going to be tense as hell on Sunday.