For the first time in 31 years, there is a three way tie for the Big Ten regular season championship. While Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan State all took home a share of the crown, each team has to feel like it would have won the title alone if not for injuries to key players.
For Michigan State, a sprained ankle suffered by Kalin Lucas cost him a full game and severely limited him in two more. The Spartans lost all three games and a nearly insurmountable lead in the process.
For Ohio State, National Player of the Year candidate Evan Turner missed six games with a broken back. Ohio State started 1-3 in conference play without him, but stormed back to finish on a 13-1 kick.
Purdue missed Lewis Jackson for almost half the Big Ten season, then lost Robbie Hummel to a torn ACL with three games to play. When Hummel went down, few teams were playing as well as the Boilermakers.
All that makes the Big Ten Tournament very interesting. Among the three co-champions, no team beat any of the others on its home floor. Purdue won in East Lansing and Columbus, but lost at home to the Spartans and Buckeyes. Michigan State and Ohio State met only once, but Ohio State won in East Lansing. On paper, Michigan State had no bad losses in conference play, losing all four of its games to teams in the top five of the standings. Purdue had one bad loss at Northwestern, but became the first team in Big Ten history to win at Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Minnesota in one season. Ohio State's record is the biggest mystery as losses to Michigan and Minnesota came while Turner was injured. The Buckeyes and Wisconsin had the best home records in league play, each finishing 8-1.
Barring a number of upsets, the Big Ten appears to be pretty set as far as NCAA Tournament berths go. Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin are the top four seeds and certain locks for the NCAA's. Illinois is the team that has the most to gain and they are sitting squarely on the bubble at 18-13. They have lost five of six coming into the tournament, and four of those five losses were by double digits. The Fighting Illini will likely have to reach the championship round in order to feel safe, and even then they had better win it. Fortunately, they do have a first round bye and will play Wisconsin Friday afternoon.
If you're looking for a surprise team to win the event and steal the automatic bid, look for the late game on Thursday evening. Sixth-seeded Minnesota has the horses to make a run and win four games in four days. Minnesota still has an outside chance at an at-large bid, but they likely need to make it to Sunday to have any chance. They must first get past 11-seed Penn State and Talor Battle. Penn State finished with the league's worst record, but had close calls with all three regular season champions in their final four games. Penn State struggled in close games all year, so if the Nittany Lions can finally figure out how to close the deal, they will be dangerous.
Purdue and Ohio State each have an outside chance at grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State likely needs to win the event and the committee would have to overlook seven regular season losses, while if Purdue wins the event it would prove they are still worthy despite the loss of Hummel.
Names You Should Know
Evan Turner, Ohio State - Turner is only one of the front-runners for the National Player of the Year Award. Ohio State is a completely different team with him: he averages 19.5 points per game, 9.4 rebounds, and 5.8 assists.
E'Twaun Moore, Purdue - Of Purdue's big three, Moore may receive the least amount of press. He also may be the best scorer of them. Moore leads the Boilermakers with 16.7 points per game and is one of their few players that can create his own shot. However, with only nine points at Penn State in the regular season finale, he broke a streak of 28 straight games in double figures
Talor Battle, Penn State - One of the nation's best players on a bad team, Battle would be one of the biggest names in the country if he played on a better team. The 6' junior guard has had big night after big night this year, topping 30 points four times. He gives Penn State at least a chance against everyone.
Kalin Lucas, Michigan State - One of the best team leaders in the country, Lucas is talented and tested as a point guard for Michigan State. Few players in college basketball have his postseason chops.
Demetri McCamey, Illinois - If Illinois is going to make a big run in Indianapolis, it needs McCamey to have three big games. McCamey leads the conference in assists at 6.9 per game and is one of the deadliest 3-point shooters.
Manny Harris, Michigan - Though Michigan has struggled all year, Harris and his running mate DeShawn Sims give the Wolverines a formidable one-two punch. If both are hot, Michigan can be a very dangerous team.
Mark Titus, Ohio State - The author of the famous Club Trillion may have had shoulder surgery to end his season, but Mr. Rainmaker will be the best cheerleader from the bench in the entire tournament. He is easily the league's MVP in high comedy.
Over the history of the tournament, it has not meant good things if you begin playing on Thursday. Only Iowa in 2001 has won the tournament while having to win four games in four days. They were the last seed lower than No. 3 to win the event as well.
Purdue is the defending champion, but the Boilermakers will be hard pressed to repeat without Hummel. Hummel was last year's most outstanding player of the tournament as the Boilermakers defeated Ohio State 65-61.
Picking Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, or Purdue are the safest bets. These four teams have separated themselves from the rest of the conference lately. They will be favored to win Friday's four games to set up a Wisconsin-Ohio State and Purdue-Michigan State pair of semifinals. Wisconsin has the defensive ability to shut down Turner, and they only lost by nine in Columbus. Their depth also gives them an advantage over Ohio State, so I will pick the Badgers in an upset.
Michigan State defeated Purdue in West Lafayette on February 28, but that was the Boilermakers' first game without Hummel. Purdue was held to a season low 44 points, but forced 23 turnovers. Since then, however, they have played much better basketball in wins over Indiana and Penn State. Most people will pick Michigan State, but Purdue has something to prove to the selection committee - that they are still worthy of a high seed without Hummel. With better rebounding and slightly better shooting, that would have been a Purdue victory. I'll go with the Boilermakers to set up a Wisconsin-Purdue final.
In that final, I like Wisconsin. Their defensive ability is more than enough to stymie the Hummel-less Boilermakers and take the title. Wisconsin was also without guard Jon Leuer in their close loss to Purdue at Mackey Arena.
Thursday, March 11
#8 Michigan (14-16, 7-11) vs. #9 Iowa (10-21, 4-14) - 2:30pm ET, ESPN2
#7 Northwestern (19-12, 7-11) vs. #10 Indiana (10-20, 4-14) - 25 minutes after game 1, ESPN2
#6 Minnesota (18-12, 9-9) vs. #11 Penn State (11-19, 3-15) - 25 minutes after game 2, Big Ten Network
Friday, March 12
#1 Ohio State (24-7, 14-4) vs. Michigan-Iowa winner - Noon ET, ESPN
#4 Wisconsin (23-7, 13-5) vs. #5 Illinois (18-13, 10-8) - 25 minutes after previous game, ESPN
#2 Purdue (26-4, 14-4) vs. Northwestern-Indiana winner - 6:30pm ET, Big Ten Network
#3 Michigan State (24-7, 14-4) vs. Minnesota-Penn State winner - 25 minutes after previous game, Big Ten Network
Saturday, March 13
Semifinal #1 (1/8/9 vs. 4/5) - 1:40pm ET, CBS
Semifinal #2 (2/7/10 vs. 3/6/11) - 25 minutes after previous game, CBS
Sunday, March 14
Championship - 3:30 pm ET, CBS