Archive for March, 2011

Hitting .300
March 30, 2011

It seems all too appropriate that my 300th Fan Interference (formerly known by the much-less creative title of C3K Sports Blog) blog  post is my annual Brewers/baseball season preview.  

After all, 300 is a big number in baseball. A hitter who achieves a .300 batting average for the season has had an excellent year. The 24 pitchers that comprise the “300 win club” (just 24) are in an even more elite club than Saturday Night Live‘s “five-timers club” (23), or Charlie Sheen’s “hooker’s club.” And, though it’s not as highly regarded (largely due to the fact the statistic wasn’t formally introduced until 1969), only 21 relievers in MLB history have 300 saves.

I guess since I write for the web site Channel 3000, the only milestone that could top hitting 300 blogs would be hitting 3,000 blogs. But since it’s taken me five years to get to 300, I’d say the chances of me hitting that mark are about the same as Prince Fielder signing a long-term contract with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Did someone mention the Milwaukee Brewers? Oh yeah, I guess I did. (Hey, you don’t hit 300 blog entries without getting a little older and slower. Hey, did someone mention Craig Counsell?)

A year ago, I stupidly, along with ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, stood in defiance of most reasonable people and declared that the Milwaukee Brewers would make a triumphant return to the postseason after missing it in 2009. Instead they had their worst year since 2006, finishing 12 games under .500 and in third place in the NL Central. 

Did I mention that Mike Greenberg went a laughable 12-22-3 on his 2010 NFL “Stone Cold Lead Pipe Locks” in 2010? Did I mention that I would sooner pick games based on perceived subliminal messages sent by  Toodee and Plex on Yo Gabba Gabba than to pick games based on Mike Greenberg?

So, like the team put the eternally dull Ken Macha behind them after last season, can the Brewers put losing behind them as well?

As has been the case for the last several seasons, Milwaukee seems to be just fine offensively. They were one of the better hitting clubs in 2010 and, thanks to Prince Fielder’s $15.5 million, one-year contract, they haven’t lost any significant pieces. That’s unless you include losing starting shortshop Alcides Escobar, who hit .235 last year in 145 games, as significant.  Escobar, at only 24, may have more potential than his replacement, 29-year-old Yuniesky Betancourt, but the Brewers, thanks largely to Fielder’s one-year contract, aren’t playing for potential. They’re playing to win now.

The most obvious sign of the Brewers’ intentions of winning immediately was their offseason signing of 2009 Cy Young winner Zach Greinke. Skeptics may deride the signing after his 2010 season, during which he put up very un-Cy Young-like numbers of 10-14 with a 4.17 ERA, while others will point out that even with those numbers, Greinke still would have rated as a standout in the Brewers’ 2010 rotation. A bigger concern is the cracked rib injury that Greinke suffered while playing basketball after camp opened; the team has been vague about when Greinke will return, and although it’s a long season, Greinke’s absence leaves the Brewers starting rotation right where it seems like it’s always been: In a state of uncertainty.

The Brewers’ other major off-season acquisition, Shaun Marcum, was also brought on to bolster their starting rotation, and although his signing wasn’t nearly as attention-grabbing as the deal that landed Greinke, Marcum could turn out to be just as valuable, especially if Greinke has to miss more time than previously feared. Playing for Toronto in the loaded AL East, Marcum’s ERA was just 3.64 last season with a 13-8 win-loss record. But Marcum too has injury concerns: He is just 18 months removed from undergoing Tommy John surgery and has already missing time this spring due to pain in his throwing shoulder.

The unsettling news surrounding the signings of Greinke and Marcum can only make Brewers fans appreciate the presence of opening day starter Yovani Gallardo all the more. As well they should: In a classic “the more things change, the more things stay the same” scenario, look for Gallardo to remain the Brewers’ most reliable pitcher.

Like the rotation, the Brewers’ bullpen is also undergoing changes: Gone is retired closer Trevor Hoffman, leaving last year’s saves leader (24) John Axford, last year’s holds leader (22) Kameron Loe, and 41-year-old journeyman Takashi Saito. The Brewers finished near the bottom in saves last year (35 total), but with the Hoffman drama gone and Axford’s star rising, the bullpen has the chance to be solid if unspectacular.

Despite the Brewers’ best intentions to win now, that clichéd phrase may just sum up the club’s 2011 season. While the offseason signings of Greinke and Marcum should help return the team to .500 , it’s hard to imagine the  club adding the 10 or 15 wins it’s going to take to win the NL Central. 

Final season prediction: 85-77, 2nd place, NL Central.

Here are my divisional picks:

AL East: Yankees. Everybody’s picking the Red Sox. And yes, Boston has had the noisier offseason. But I just have a feeling that the Yankees studs are going to make up for any deficiencies in their starting rotation.

AL Central: Twins. Every year I look for a reason to pick against them. Most years I’m glad I didn’t.

AL West: Rangers. Cliff Lee is gone, but reigning AL champs still best in division.

NL East: Atlanta. The Phillies injury concerns have me concerned, and the Braves will prove there is life after Bobby Cox.

NL Central: Cincinnati. Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, and — unless the Brewers staff performs above expectations — the best rotation in the division.

NL West: Colorado. A streaky team. I like them to be on a good streak more often than bad.

Wild cards: Boston and Philadelphia.

World Series: Braves over Yankees. After smarting over the bad ratings of last year’s Texas-San Francisco matchup, FOX executives rejoice. If only I could predict whether they’ll have NFL football this year.

Enjoy the season. Thanks for reading. And here’s to another 300.

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Wisconsin/Butler Preview: Who’s Elite?
March 23, 2011

Sometimes, though not as often as I’d like, life is good.

And not just because there are two new flavors of Diet Mountain Dew now in stores.

Nope, I’m talking about the fact that I still have life in one of my March Madness pools. 

Though I’d made some poor choices thus far (thanks for nothing, Washington) that I thought made the rest of my bracket as relevant as Sergio Mendes at an Ozzfest festival, it turns out that because so many people had either Pittsburgh, Texas, Notre Dame, Purdue, or some combination in their final four that simply by having all of my region winners (Ohio State, Kansas, Duke, and BYU) intact, I still have reason to hope.

But do the Wisconsin Badgers, who are heading into their fourth Sweet Sixteen under Bo Ryan, still have reason to hope?

All signs indicate that they do:  Wisconsin soundly beat supposed bracket-buster Belmont by 14 and got past Kansas State 70-65 even though Badger point guard Jordan Taylor was completely outmatched by his Wildcat colleague Jacob Pullen, who scored a monster 38 points, including an awe-inspiring 6-of-8 from three-point land.

In appearing on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike In The Morning” on Monday, Bo Ryan had to laugh at Jordan Taylor’s performance, saying of his 2-of-16 night, “I think that qualifies as struggling.”

In reaching the Regional Finals, Wisconsin has not only looked like one of the best teams in the tournament, but they’ve made the college basketball world (and more importantly, themselves) forget about those two disastrous losses that they suffered leading into the big dance.

And, at least on the surface, it looks like Wisconsin’s trip to the Elite Eight is easiest then it could have been: While Kentucky, the No. 4 seed in the East region, has to face No. 1 Ohio State, the No. 4 seed Badgers get to play the No. 8 seeded Butler Bulldogs, thanks to Butler’s dramatic third-round upset of top-seeded Pittsburgh.

But “getting” to play Butler in this case means not only “getting” to play that team hot enough to beat the region’s No. 1 seed, but also “getting” to play the team that made it all the way to the national championship game just last year.

So which team will ride its current hot streak to Saturday’s Elite Eight?

Wisconsin Will Advance If:

1.  Butler’s Luck Runs Out. No disrespect to the Butler players or to their head coach Brad Stevens, but the Bulldogs road to the Sweet Sixteen this year has gone straight through the town of Flukeville. First they beat No. 9 Old Dominion with a tip-in at the buzzer, then they knocked off No. 1 Pittsburgh thanks largely to a Pitt player committing an ill-advised foul at the end of regulation. Sure, the Bulldogs had to play themselves into positions where they could take advantage of those lucky breaks, but to say their first two wins have been convincing would be misleading at best.

2. Jordan Taylor Shoots, Oh I Don’t Know, Better Than 12 Percent. If you would have asked a group of reasonably sane people (so, not the people on line to see Yogi Bear) what the Badgers’ chances of beating Kansas State were with Taylor hitting a total of two field goals in a full 40 minutes of work, most everyone would have said anywhere from “not good” to “impossible.” So the minor miracle that the Badgers got by the Wildcats despite Taylor’s shooting woes means he needs to step it up Thursday night. The good news is that Taylor has shown an ability to bounce back: After his previous worst game of the season — a 1-for-7 game against Manhattan — he shot nearly 46 percent in a victory over Boston College. And just a few weeks ago, he recovered from a 2-of-9 game against Ohio State to have a 16-point game against Penn State in the first round of the conference tournament.  Although 16 points may not seem like a big deal, remember that his entire team only scored 33 points that game.

3. They Can Put Butler Away Early. Despite what some pundits continue to insist, Butler is nobody’s underdog. They are a confident team that has won 11 straight games and is 7-1 in its last eight NCAA tournament games. More to the point, many of those tournament games — like last year’s 52-50 National Semifinal win over Michigan State — were close contests. Coach Brad Stevens will have the Bulldogs believing until common sense says there is no reason to believe. Perhaps being down by 20 points at halftime would help to shake that belief.

Butler Will Advance If:

1. They Hit Their Long Balls. Butler has been on a streak lately from beyond the arc, averaging almost eight made three-pointers in their 11-game win streak and hitting a whopping 12 of them in their upset over Pittsburgh. It won’t surprise anyone that the Badgers’ offensive efficiency, ability to milk the shot clock, and refusal to turn the ball over will limit the Bulldogs’ number of possessions. They will likely need those three-pointers in this one.

2. They Beat Wisconsin At Their Own Game. Yes, the Badgers are the superior defensive team, but Butler’s defense is a far cry from an embarrassment. The Bulldogs have limited their last 12 opponents to 70 points or less and are almost unbeatable when allowing fewer than 60 points. If Butler can pull a Penn State and take the Badgers out of their offensive rhythm, the Badgers are capable of long offensive droughts that could kill them.

3.  They’re Quicker To The Ball. In a weird fluke (flukes and Butler seeming to be synonymous), in their first two tournament games, Butler faced the two teams with the best rebounding margin in the country. Against Old Dominion, Butler outrebounded them 32-29, and against Pittsburgh, the Bulldogs’ tenacity forced Pittsburgh into 12 turnovers, exactly double what Butler committed. While the Badgers lead the country in fewest turnovers per game, Butler can take heart that just last week Belmont forced them to turn the ball over an uncharacteristic 14 times.

While it wouldn’t shock anyone if Butler were to go to their second straight Elite Eight, the fact that they barely got by Old Dominion, a team that is a combined 3-11 in eleven NCAA tournament appearances, and then ousted an overrated Pittsburgh team thanks to a fluky ending suggets that Butler cannot and will not sustain the run they did last year.

While they shouldn’t be overconfident — it was just three years ago that the Badgers played a lower seed in the Sweet Sixteen and lost badly (to Davidson by a score of 73-56) — Badgers fans should be feeling pretty good about not only this matchup but about how their team has looked in the tournament so far. And they’ll be feeling ever better if Jordan Taylor hits some shots early, which I bet he will.

Final score prediction: Wisconsin 68, Butler 62.

Wisconsin/Kansas State Preview: Who Survives?
March 18, 2011

Yes, Virginia, there was a No. 4 seed that went down in defeat during Thursday’s so-called “second round” of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

But unlike many of the pundits had predicted, the No. 4 seed sent home early was not Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers, but Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, a team most had going to at least the Sweet Sixteen.

In fact, Wisconsin, in beating up on the Belmont Bruins 72-58, had by far the most comfortable win of the three victorious No. 4 seeds; Texas beat Oakland by just 4 points while Kentucky needed a layup with two seconds left in regulation to squeeze out a two-point victory over Princeton.

Should Badger fans take Wisconsin’s show of dominance in its first game as a sign that the team will make a deep run this year – or at least last into the tournament’s second weekend, which they haven’t done since 2008?

Or will the Badgers find themselves, as they have the last two seasons, ousted in their second game?

History is on Bucky’s side: The last time Wisconsin got off to such a strong start – in 2008, when the No. 3 Badgers defeated No. 14 Cal State Fullerton by 15 – they then earned a trip to the Sweet Sixteen by beating Kansas State 72-55 in the tournament’s second round.

And who stands in the Badgers’ way of another trip to the Regional semifinals? None other than Frank Martin’s Kansas State Wildcats, a five seed that narrowly avoided being upset by No. 12 Utah State 73-68 Thursday night.

So can Wisconsin knock out the Wildcats in the tournament for the second time in four years?

Wisconsin can advance if:

1. They play defense like they played Thursday night. Facing Belmont in the “second round” was scary for Badger fans because the Bruins ranked a whopping sixth in college basketball in points scored, and the Badger faithful were still smarting from the 93 points Ohio State laid on Wisconsin in their regular-season finale. But the Badgers swarmed the Bruins all night, forcing the Atlantic Sun champs to shoot a paltry 37 percent from the floor and a lousy 6-of-22 from three-point land as Belmont put up their lowest point total of the season.

2. Everybody comes to the party. Yes, Jordan Taylor (mostly in the first half) and Jon Leuer (mostly in the second half) dominated against Belmont, scoring nearly 60 percent of the Badgers’ points. But contributions extended beyond that, mainly from Mike Bruesewitz, who had a great game with eight timely points and a career-best nine rebounds, and Jared Berggren, who added two three-pointers. To beat the No. 5 Wildcats, Leuer and Taylor will need similar help from their teammates, and a better showing from Keaton Nankivil (only two buckets in 23 minutes of work) will be necessary.

3. They take care of the ball. Despite the victory, Thursday night’s game was ugly early, with neither team out of double figures until nearly halfway through the first period. The prime factor in Wisconsin’s early struggles was turnovers: The team committed an uncharacteristic 14 of them, doubling their normal regular-season total. The Badgers were fortunate that the Bruins could not turn more of those early turnovers into points; if they had, Wisconsin might have dug itself an early hole it couldn’t have gotten out of.

Kansas State can advance if:

1. They hit their free throws. Let’s face it: a tournament game between teams seeded fourth and fifth should be close, and of course, typically the Badgers don’t score enough points to blow teams out. Kansas State was terrible in the regular season from the free-throw line, connecting on only 64 percent of their attempts. But it was their free-throw shooting that saved them Thursday night against Utah State, as they made 24 of 28 attempts and nine of ten in the final 1:08. They don’t hit those shots, and Wisconsin is taking on Utah State Friday night.

2. Jacob Pullen has a better game than Jordan Taylor. One reason why (in hindsight, anyway) the potential for a Belmont upset Thursday night seemed at least a little far-fetched was the simple fact that Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor were the two best players on either team. That’s debatable for Friday night, as Kansas State features Jacob Pullen, a senior guard who averages nearly 20 points a game. He continued his superb play Thursday with 22 points, five assists, and 9-of-12 free throw shooting – and he did that while playing with the flu. If Pullen gets on a roll, he can nearly singlehandedly lead the Wildcats to victory.

3. Head coach Frank Martin shows up. Have you seen this guy? He has more intensity in his big toe than former Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha has in his body. One “death stare” from him, and any player on any college basketball team should be motivated to go out and have the game of his life.

So who wins? The Badgers have the better talent, the better defense, and should be feeling very confident after their impressive win Thursday night. On the other hand, their opponent in the first round was probably a little overhyped. Emerging from the Big 12 and not the Atlantic Sun, Kansas State is a more worthy adversary. The Badgers will have to play a cleaner game and spread the scoring out a little more, both very attainable goals.

Final score prediction: Wisconsin 66, Kansas State 60.

Badgers/Belmont Preview: Upset Special?
March 17, 2011

As soon as the No. 4 Wisconsin/No. 13 Belmont matchup was announced for the “second” round of the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, college basketball “experts” began to go Charlie Sheen crazy over the pairing.

The proclamations came fast and furious: “Upset!” “Belmont advances!” “Beware of the Bruins!” “More gravy!” (Whoops, that last one was me at Old County Buffet.)

Now people are always quick to find some potential upsets upon the reveal of the field of 64 (or 65, or 68) tournament teams. Why? Besides the fact that there’s nothing more boring than an analyst who always picks higher seeds (I’m talking to you, Clark Kellogg. Oh, and you too, President Obama.), the obvious answer is there are always at least some upsets come March.

But is Wisconsin a team primed to be upset? Could Belmont be that team to break more brackets than Hampton circa 2001 or George Mason circa 2006?

Let’s look at those questions separately:

Wisconsin is a tenuous No. 4 seed because:

1. Tournament history. Despite being mainstays in the NCAA tournament, appearing in their whopping thirteenth straight big dance in 2011, the Badgers simply don’t fare that well in March. Since their Elite Eight berth in 2005, Wisconsin is a meh 5-5 in the tournament, and they have been upset by lower seeds three of the last four years. Worse, they have suffered memorable blowouts three of the last five years, losing to Arizona (2006), Davidson (2008), and Cornell (2010) by a combined score of 254-200.

2. Recent play. It’s a cliché as old as “We win as a team, we lose as a team,” “It’s not over until it’s over,” or “REO Speedwagon singlehandedly changed the course of American music,” but it’s nonetheless true: Teams have to get hot at the right time. The Packers got hot in late December and rode that streak to a Super Bowl championship. The Badgers, in contrast, are colder than ticket sales to a Color Me Badd reunion tour, losing by nearly 30 to Ohio State on March 6 and then playing one of the worst offensive games in recent college basketball history against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament.

3. Did I mention points are hard to come by? While the Penn State debacle was not completely indicative of the Badgers’ good overall season, it should be noted that Wisconsin is tied for a lousy 191st in the nation in points per game, and they have been known to go cold in the tourney: Just last year, they barely beat No. 13 Wofford in an ugly 53-49 game, and in 2009 they mustered just 49 points in a second round loss to No. 4 Xavier. Part of the problem is that after Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor, and Keaton Nankivil, the Badgers’ scoring options drop off precipitously, with no one else averaging even six points per game.

Belmont is a scary draw for Wisconsin because:

1. They’re hot. Unlike Wisconsin, the Belmont players have to be brimming with confidence, having won 12 in a row, including a 87-46 beatdown of North Florida in the Atlantic Sun conference title game.

2. They can score. For the 2010-2011 regular season, Belmont ranked a whopping sixth in total points scored. And for anyone who says that Wisconsin’s defense is good enough to shut down high-powered offenses, just look at the regular season finale against Ohio State (the Buckeyes shot 68 percent from the field and were 14-15 from beyond the arc) and last year’s tournament loss to Cornell (the Big Red shot a big 61 percent against Bucky).

3. They’re deep. Unlike Wisconsin, seven Belmont players score at least six points a game and a massive eleven players average at least ten minutes a game. In contrast, only seven Badgers average double digit minutes per outing. That means the Bruins should nearly always be the team on the court with the fresher legs come Thursday night in Tucson.

So will the Badgers prevail? Well, picking Belmont to advance is a bit like casting Betty White in your movie as a foul-mouthed grandmother: Too obvious. Wisconsin has the better defense, is superior at taking care of the ball, has the best two players on the floor in Leuer and Taylor, and is by far the more battle-tested team (the Badgers’ strength of schedule for 2010-2011 is 28. The Belmont Bruins’ SOS? 261.)

However, it is fair to point out that with its No. 13 seed, Belmont has received the highest seed for any team from the Atlantic Sun Conference since 2001, when Georgia State earned a No. 11 ranking and beat – who else – the sixth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers.

So will the Atlantic Sun rise again? It’s tempting to think it will. But logically, it seems unlikely.

Final score prediction: Wisconsin 64, Belmont 55.

Big Ten Tourney Preview: Few Surprises Here
March 10, 2011

I’m nervous.

Nervous that my unplanned break from this sports blog (hey, do you think I can make a living just doing this?) has resulted in an irreparable loss of my readership as the high-brow, high-IQ readers I generally attract have gone elsewhere to search for their viral entertainment, like the latest ramblings of Charlie Sheen or the most up-to-the-minute Phil Collins retirement news.

I’m also nervous about coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year.

Let me explain why: This is the first year of a new contract arrangement whereby CBS will share coverage with Turner channels TNT, TBS, and Tru TV.

For the first time, games will not be regionalized to local CBS affiliates; instead all games will be available to everyone, provided they have access to TNT, TBS, and Tru TV.

Now this frankly is a great development for hoops fans like myself who subscribe to cable or satellite, but it isn’t a great development for those who don’t.

So viewers of “free TV” living in, for example, my town of Madison, may not be able to see the Badgers in the tournament unless they make it all the way to the Elite Eight, at which point CBS will have exclusive coverage of all tournament games.

This worries me as: A) A fan of old-school broadcast television who hates to see networks continue to lose important and valuable properties (can’t the networks ship off things like Kitchen Nightmares and Celebrity Apprentice instead?); and B) as an employee at Madison’s CBS affiliate who worries about pissing off our viewers should the very real possibility that many of them won’t be able to watch the Badgers take on the Oakland Golden Grizzlies in first-round action (this according to Bracketology genius Joe Lunardi) come to pass.

I fear that the cute tournament spot that our promotions department created this year should air with a disclaimer like the ones embedded during medication commercials:

“Viewers experiencing chest pains, rapid heartbeat, upset stomachs, high blood pressure, or tremors caused by the inability to see games featuring their favorite teams should report these reactions to a professional cable or satellite installer and not take out their anger on the lovable and well-meaning employees of this station.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the real tournament begins in earnest Thursday, March 17, we have the little matter of the Big Ten tournament, which tips off March 10.

I say “little matter” because for many years the act of watching the Big Ten Tournament has been a lukewarm warm-up to the real thing, like sitting through The Jesus & Mary Chain at Lollapalozza 1992 to get to Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Its tepidness is directly related to its predictability – in its thirteen years of existence, the winner of the Big Ten Tournament has been the #1 seed or #2 seed an incredible 10 times.

So if you’re inclined to such things, bet chalk.

Especially since the division between the haves and the have-nots in the Big Ten has rarely been more pronounced, with wealthy conference leaders Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin dominating over the middle-class of Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State, all of whom have a .500 record in Big Ten play.

Having said that, though, the fact that those four middle teams should feel that they need to improve their tournament resume to get in to the big dance — combined with the very real fact that all four of those teams are good teams that can surprise – may lead to a less predictable tournament this year.

Yeah, and Charlie Sheen may be able to get off the crazy train.

Which means I doubt it.

Let’s take a closer look at this weekend’s ten games:

#8 Northwestern vs. #9 Minnesota. No team in the Big Ten was more of a disappointment this season than the Gophers, who made it all the way to the conference title game last year before going 6-12 in Big Ten play this season, including losing nine of their last ten games. Northwestern hasn’t been great either, either this season (7-11 in conference play), or historically in the Big Ten tournament (never winning more than one game), but Northwestern can hit the threes (leads the Big Ten in makes and attempts) and Wildcat junior John Shurna is the best player on the floor. The Gophers’ awful season will come to a merciful end Thursday afternoon.

#7 Michigan State vs. #10 Iowa. The Spartans haven’t historically seemed to care too much about the Big Ten tournament (they last won in 2000), preferring instead to concentrate their energies on the bigger picture. However, Tom Izzo’s team may not have that luxury this season, as an unimpressive season has them firmly on the tournament bubble. Couple that with the fact that they are playing Iowa, a team that they beat by 19 just eight days prior and it looks like the Spartans will at least make it to Friday’s second run. Whether they make it to the NCAA tournament for the 14th straight season is another matter.

#6 Penn State vs. #11 Indiana. While the Gophers have been the league’s most disappointing team, Indiana has been the worst, losing their last eight games to close out the season, including a 72-48 24-point loss to Illinois to close out the regular season. On the other hand, the inconsistent Penn State appears to be a team ripe for an upset, especially considering they score less points than any other team in the conference. Add to that the fact that the tournament is in Indianapolis, giving the Hoosiers a badly-needed edge and you have a game that could be much closer than you’d think. Penn State will probably survive, but its performance won’t help their tournament resume.

#1 Ohio State vs. #8 Northwestern (projected). What Ohio State did to the Wisconsin Badgers on Sunday should strike fear in the hearts of not only every other team in the Big Ten but every other team in the country. With four players averaging in double figures, the presence of Jon Diebler on the perimeter and Jared Sullinger in the inside, this team should be disappointed with anything less than a Final Four berth. And the scary thing is that they may be playing their best basketball of late, having won their last four games by an average of 22 points. The Buckeyes, even though they don’t need to win, should do so here easily.

#4 Michigan vs. #5 Illinois. Perhaps the most interesting game of the tourney. Both teams appear to be assured of berths in the tournament, but neither team should be taking anything for granted. The team that should be most confident is the Wolverines, who have had a tremendous run since the end of January, winning eight of eleven while losing to Ohio State and Wisconsin by only single digits. But Michigan is a remarkably young team, and heading into postseason play with no seniors is not a typical recipe for success. Couple that with the Illini’s remarkable history in the Big Ten tournament (making the semifinals every year but one), the fact that they could be the deepest team in the conference, and the fact that senior point guard Demetri McCamey is playing out of his mind lately, and Illinois should advance. The biggest question will be whether Michigan’s play from January 27 on will be enough for them to head to the NCAA tournament.

#2 Purdue vs. #7 Michigan State (projected). The saddest thing for the Boilermakers heading into this game is that they likely will not have the chance to exact revenge on Iowa, who surprised them with a 67-65 upset in the season’s final game to end Purdue’s streak of seven straight wins. Until then, things had been going remarkably well for Purdue – they finished the season a perfect 16-0 at home, they had the conference scoring leader in JaJuan Johnson, and they continued to get solid guard play from E’Twaun Moore and Lewis Jackson. I like Purdue to rebound big here, especially considering they pounded the Spartans by 20 just a couple of weeks ago.

#3 Wisconsin vs. #6 Penn State (projected). The Badgers continue to impress despite that crazy loss to Ohio State in the regular season finale. But I attribute that blowout more to Ohio State’s red-hot shooting than anything wrong that the Badgers did defensively. The next time anyone puts 93 points and shoots nearly 70 percent from the field and over 90 percent from downtown, Elisabeth Hasselbeck will be “that old one” on The View. The continued improvement of Jon Leuer and particularly Jordan Taylor and the emergence of Josh Gasser mean the Badgers are better than they were last year. They won’t lose their first Big Ten Conference tournament game for the second year in a row.

#1 Ohio State vs. #5 Illinois (projected). As stated above, Illinois is always tough in the Big Ten tournament. But unless Thad Matta decides to rest his starters and play former mistresses of Charlie Sheen (hey, you can never have too many Charlie Sheen jokes), they’ll advance to Sunday’s championship game.

#3 Wisconsin vs. #2 Purdue (projected). Purdue has won four of its last five games in the Big Ten tournament. Wisconsin has lost their last two. In what should be a remarkably close game that either team could prevail, you have to pick a winner for some reason. Purdue simply has a better recent history in the conference tournament. Works for me.

#1 Ohio State vs. #2 Purdue (projected). Though not as decisively as it did in last year’s championship game when it beat Minnesota by 29, Ohio State eventually pulls away on its way to a clear No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Jon Diebler wins Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.

Enjoy the games. And if you’re Charlie Sheen, keep on winning.