Posted 03/14/2013 at 12:11 PM
The Big Ten Tournament is back in Chicago this season and the nation’s top conference will provide interesting battles for seeding this weekend. Here is a quick glance at some of the storylines in this year’s tournament.
Best 1st Round Game - Minnesota vs. Illinois: Given how the season started for both of these teams it is shocking to see Minnesota and Illinois relegated to the 8-9 match-up to open up the tournament. While there will be some conversation about this being a meaningful game to ensure a berth in the NCAA Tournament, it is clear that both of these teams will be in the Big Dance field. There are simply too many high end wins and too strong of schedule ratings to leave either team out even with underwhelming 8-10 conference records and some ugly stretches of play this season. The winner of this game gets Indiana tomorrow and both of these teams have wins over Indiana this season. Minnesota is one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the nation but guard play has been erratic with Andre Hollins disappearing at times late in the season after several huge games early in the year. Tubby Smith certainly deserves some criticism for losing control of this squad and suffering another late season slide but this team is talented enough to beat anyone if they bring the appropriate intensity. Illinois has a huge win over #1 Gonzaga in Spokane on the resume but Illini are incredibly 3-point reliant and can be very streaky. This match-up may come down to which star guard, Hollins or Brandon Paul can rise up for a big game. While both teams are most likely in the NCAA Tournament field, the loser could drop to a very unfavorable spot; potentially even to one of the play-in games, while the winner will have a big opportunity to boost its standing.
Team with the most to play for – Iowa: The Hawkeyes certainly pass the eye-ball test as a team good enough to be in the NCAA Tournament and going 9-9 in the Big Ten for a sixth place finish is an impressive showing for a program that has been buried towards the bottom of the league in recent years. Iowa will be a force in the Big Ten next season but this year’s team did not quite do enough to get into the tournament at this point. Iowa picked up several solid wins, beating Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois but they could not score a big one as they went 0-5 against Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio State. That they only played Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State once each actually may have hurt the Hawkeyes as the overall schedule rating was not quite as strong, through without this Big Ten schedule 9-9 might not have been possible. A costly overtime loss at Purdue will haunt this team as well as the road loss at Nebraska, a game that was moved due to bad weather and put Iowa in a tough situation. There also is not enough on the non-conference resume as a nice win over Iowa State was wiped out by an ugly ACC/Big Ten challenge loss to Virginia Tech. That said a Big Ten Tournament run might be enough to propel the Hawkeyes into the field should the bubble expand. Beating Northwestern is the obvious first step but that should not be a major hurdle. It will then be a critical game with Michigan State, hoping to avenge a 3-point regular season loss. Iowa will need to win that game to even be considered and they probably would need to advance to the title game to have a realistic shot, which would mean most likely beating Ohio State. Incredibly the #6 seed in the Big Ten tournament is 29-13 all-time, with only the top seed performing better so Iowa may be in a good spot.
Biggest Upset Threat – Penn State: The Lions have been a dangerous team late in the season, including covering in six of the final seven games of the conference season. Michigan is the team Penn State has to be thrilled to draw as they played the Wolverines as well as anyone in the Big Ten season, losing a down-to-the-wire game in Ann Arbor and then delivering a great comeback win at home for one of the upsets of the season. While Penn State has just two Big Ten wins on the season, they came very close in late season games with Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin and this is a team that has improved tremendously from the beginning of the season. Michigan will be ready for Penn State given how hard of a time they have had in this match-up but this is a team that has faded late in the season, going 5-5 in the last 10 games including going just 1-9 ATS in that span. Michigan is not playing with confidence right now and also could get caught looking ahead to Wisconsin in the quarterfinals given how the Badgers beat Michigan in one of the more memorable games of the season.
Biggest Upset Risk – Indiana: The Hoosiers are the most talented team in the conference but this team has been very beatable. It was laughable that many called Tom Crean ‘Coach of the Year’ in the Big Ten (an award won by Bo Ryan) as Crean’s team failed in several big spots this season and he was out-coached in several big moments. Crean always been a tremendous recruiter but as the tirade after the recent Michigan game showed, he often has his priorities out of order. That a team with this much talent and experience had to back into a Big Ten championship is incredible. Indiana will have to play either Minnesota or Illinois, teams that both beat the Hoosiers this season and teams that will be playing with some urgency. Indiana will have the most pressure as the top seed and unlike many past years this year’s tournament is in Chicago and not Indianapolis negating the usual advantage Indiana has. Most assume that Indiana already has a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament locked up even if they would lose early in this tournament and that is probably true. That could leave a team that is perhaps looking ahead and the recent controversy involving Crean can’t help the cause here. The top seed in the tournament has won the past three seasons and five of the last six seasons in the Big Ten tournament but Indiana has never won it and actually has one of the worst all-time records in the tournament at 9-14.
Pick to Win – Ohio State: While the Buckeyes under Thad Matta have often fallen short of NCAA Tournament expectations despite some great teams this team has been in the Big Ten tournament final six of the last seven years including winning three championships. Ohio State was the top seed in all three title runs but they got to the final as the #3 seed last season and as the #5 seed in 2009. With Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Indiana suffering a few late season stumbles the Buckeyes are riding a five-game winning streak including beating Minnesota, Michigan State, Indiana, and Illinois for a great finish to the season. While Trey Burke was a deserving Player of the Year winner in the conference Deshaun Thomas has been the most consistently dominant player in the conference and few are better at point guard than Aaron Craft. This is not a deep team but the Buckeyes have seen a few role players emerge late in the season and this is a team that will have a somewhat favorable path in the bracket. While Purdue has been playing well of late, getting the winner of the Purdue/Nebraska match-up is certainly the most favorable quarterfinal draw in this field. Michigan State will likely have to duel with Iowa in a very meaningful game late Friday night and a taxing late night game between those teams could help Ohio State should they meet the winner in the semifinal on Saturday. Ohio State had to play arguably the toughest schedule in the Big Ten season, playing Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, and Wisconsin twice each so this is team that can make a case as being even better than its record.