Big Ten Tournament Preview

The Big Ten Tournament, held since 1998, is a bit like debating the merits of the classic, “old school,” Sesame Street characters (Ernie, Bert, Grover) compared to the newer, much more annoying, ones (Rosita, Abby Cadabby, Baby Bear) with your kindergartner.  It’s ultimately meaningless, but nevertheless an enjoyable way to spend several hours.

Do you like exciting, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants unpredictability? Well, then spend a weekend with Charles Barkley, because you won’t find it at the Big Ten Tournament.  In the eleven years of the tourney, the champion has been either the #1 seed or #2 seed nine times. Four of the last five years has seen the #1 seed play the #2 seed in the championship game. If the NCAA tournament is “March Madness,” the Big Ten tournament is strictly “March Common Sense.”

The draw of a Big Ten team being able to play its way into the field of 64 with a strong showing in the Big Ten tournament has proven to be a false one: Only in 2001, when #6 seed Iowa won the whole thing and thereby received an automatic bid into the tournament could you realistically say that a team that was headed to the NIT played its way into the Big Dance. Even last year’s Illinois team, which made it all the way to the tournament championship game as a #10 seed, had to settle for the NIT.

(Side note: How long will we have to suffer with the NIT? Now that the NCAA owns the NIT, just expand the NCAA tournament and let the NIT die a horrible death already. Purists may complain, but it would increase interest in the tournament while alleviating the sting from those teams that would otherwise be subjected to the stigma of playing in the NIT “tournament of losers.”)

With the Big Ten having such a strong season, there is even less incentive than usual for teams to excel in the tournament: At least six teams should be in regardless of what happens this weekend, and the two teams that I believe are on the wrong side of the bubble — Minnesota and Michigan — will have to go deep into the tournament to make the trip to Indianapolis count. Of the two, Michigan certainly has the better chance. 

The team that has the most to lose is Penn State, who by losing at Iowa on Saturday drew the misfortune of playing home favorite Indiana in Thursday’s first round. A loss to the Hoosiers and the selection committee would almost certainly re-think inviting the Nittany Lions to the dance for the first time since 2001. Fortunately for Penn State and much to John Cougar Mellencamp’s chagrin, the Hoosiers flat-out stink.

Despite its history of predictability, despite its real lack of impact on the NCAA tournament, this year’s Big Ten tournament — due to the strength of the conference — should nevertheless produce some exciting basketball games. And no matter what, it beats watching “Korea vs. Pool B runner-up” in the World Baseball Classic.

Here’s a closer look at the tournament games:

Thursday’s First Round:

#8 Minnesota vs. #9 Northwestern. On paper it’s an upset, but will anyone be surprised if the Wildcats topple the Gophers? Northwestern has won five of its last seven, while the Gophers have lost six of its last nine. Oh, but the Gophers did whip the Cats by 27 just two weeks ago. That’s about as likely to happen again as The Love Guru 2. I’ll take Northwestern.

#7 Michigan vs. #10 Iowa. I like the Hawkeyes’ Jake Kelly. But I like Michigan’s combo of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims more. Despite the fact that Iowa prevailed in their last meeting, give me Michigan.

#6 Penn State vs. #11 Indiana. Tom Crean will have this team winning at some point. But not now. Penn State will win, but the Hoosier-heavy home crowd might keep it close.

Friday’s Second Round:

#1 Michigan State vs. #9 Northwestern (projected). Despite some lapses, including a loss to the Wildcats in January, Tom Izzo’s team is clearly the best in the Big Ten and the only team I trust to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Give me the Spartans.

#4 Wisconsin vs. #5 Ohio State. The best game of the tournament’s first two rounds should come down to play makers. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, Ohio State will have the best player on the court in Evan Turner. If the Badgers can force the Buckeyes into turning the ball over like they were able to the last time the teams met (OSU coughed it up 19 times on Valentine’s Day), they’ll likely win. But I doubt it. In a close one, I’ll regrettably take the Buckeyes.

#2 Illinois vs. #7 Michigan (projected). Illinois is entering the season on a bit of a down note, having lost its last two games. But their defense (first in the conference) should be enough to get them past the Wolverines.

#3 Purdue vs. #6 Penn State (projected). Purdue is really sputtering offensively, shooting 34 percent in its last two games (both losses).  But they’ll get a boost from the Indianapolis crowd and they’re ultimately too talented to go winless in the tournament. I’ll take the Boilermakers.

Saturday’s Semi-Finals:

#1 Michigan State vs. #5 Ohio State (projected). The only drama to this game will be wondering when Tom Izzo is going to shave his head. Give me MSU.

#2 Illinois vs. #3 Purdue (projected). In a matchup of struggling teams, I’ll take the team struggling less. That’s Illinois.

Sunday’s Final:

#1 Michigan State vs. #2 Illinois (projected). Remember what I said about the frequency with which the #1 seed plays the #2 seed in the final of this tournament? Here it is again. As to which team will prevail, the Spartans won the Big Ten title outright by four games. No team has won the conference by such a large margin since 1985. The Spartans are good. The conference tournament — and maybe, maybe a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but I doubt it — will be theirs.

Enjoy the games.

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