Big Ten Tourney Preview: Few Surprises Here

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.


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