March 4, 2012; East Lansing, MI, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes forward Evan Ravenel (30), Michigan State Spartans forward Draymond Green (23) and Buckeyes guard William Buford (44) fight for position during the second half at Jack Breslin Students Events Center. Ohio state won 72-70. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE
The Big Ten Tournament tips off in Indianapolis on Thursday. Who will step forward in a conference full of parity and up-and-down momentum?
What, Who, When
The Big Ten Tournament runs from March 8-11 at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Indianapolis gets to have all the fun this year.
The tournament will utilize the standard 12-team bracket, with the top four teams receiving byes to the quarterfinals.
Thursday: No. 8 Iowa vs. No. 9 Illinois, No. 5 Indiana vs. No. 12 Penn State, No. 7 Northwestern vs. No. 10 Minnesota, No. 6 Purdue vs. No. 11 Nebraska
Friday: No. 1 Michigan State vs. Iowa/Illinois, No. 4 Wisconsin vs. Indiana/PSU, No. 2 Michigan vs. NW'ern/Minnesota, No. 3 Ohio State vs. Purdue/Nebraska.
Who The Numbers Like
Ohio State. Unlike most conference tournaments we have recently previewed, there is not an overwhelming favorite. Ken Pomeroy's projections ($) say Ohio State has a 37.2 percent chance of taking the automatic bid, while Michigan State (27.2), Indiana (16.5) and Wisconsin (10.4) each have at least a one-in-10 chance. From Feb. 11-26, the Buckeyes lost three of five before rebounding to beat Northwestern and Michigan State on the road in the final week of the regular season. And after ranking first in Pomeroy's rankings for almost all of January and early-February, the Buckeyes still fell to just second overall, ranking 13th in offense and first in defense. They are still an excellent team despite recent up-and-down play.
Who The Eyeballs Like
Michigan. The most interesting message from Pomeroy's numbers is that Michigan is not well-positioned for a run. The Big Ten figured out the Pomeroy formulas in 2011-12, placing four teams in the overall top 10. Michigan, however, ranks just 20th. Not that this stopped them from beating No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan State, No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 10 Indiana already this season, of course. The Wolverines still probably qualify as the league's hottest team, having won six of seven games to sneak out an unlikely split of the conference title with Ohio State and Michigan State. They are perhaps more prone to breakdowns, as road losses to Arkansas and Iowa can attest, but the three-pointers are falling, and this young team is ultra confident.
Wisconsin. The Badgers might be the league's second-hottest team, though Indiana may have something to say about that. (The two teams can fight it out for that title on Friday, assuming Indiana is able to beat Penn State first.) After losing three of five to fall to 9-6 in conference play, Wisconsin took out Ohio State in Columbus on Feb. 26, then handled Minnesota and Illinois to secure a first round bye. They spent a good portion of the season ranked first in Pomeroy's pace-adjusted ratings, and while that may have been a bit much, the Badgers are still very, very good. Their biggest problem might be their draw -- while they managed to split with Ohio State, they were swept by Michigan State, a team they would likely meet in the semifinals.
(And if you are looking for an even darker dark horse, what about Iowa? Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes were dreadful in non-conference play but improved as the season progressed and finished 8-10 in conference. They took out Indiana and Wisconsin at home a few weeks ago, and they won three of five to finish the regular season. Then again, they would have to play Michigan State on Friday, and the Spartans won their only meeting of the season by 34 points.)
Best Possible Title Game
Michigan State vs. Michigan. Michigan hasn't held up its end of the rivalry bargain too much in the last decade or two, but they are hot, and they split with the Spartans in the regular season. A UM-State final would assure us of some intriguing basketball to watch early on Selection Sunday.
Who Might/Will Get In Anyway
Michigan State and Ohio State. Both teams ceded their leverage for a 1-seed in recent weeks, falling behind Kansas and North Carolina. But along with Duke and Missouri, the Spartans and Buckeyes each still have chances at a top seed if they win their respective tournaments; they will need some help, however. And the good news is, neither is likely to fall to a 3-seed, even if they bow out on Friday.
Michigan and Indiana. Michigan could conceivably receive some sort of silly "conference champions" bump (it is redundant when this happens, as a team's resume already consists of all the wins that took them to the conference title in the first place) and end up with a 2-seed if they make a nice weekend run, but right now both of these teams appear destined for a 3 or 4. Both teams have rebounded well from dicey January slumps; Michigan lost four of seven to fall to 7-4 in conference before winning six of seven, while Indiana fell from 15-1 to 17-6 in early February before finishing strong. The Hoosiers took out Michigan State by 15 on Feb. 28, and they whipped rival Purdue twice.
Wisconsin. The numbers may like the Badgers more than the eyeballs do, but they are still in line for a lovely seed. A weak non-conference slate may hold them back (they missed opportunities to knock off North Carolina and Marquette, and their two best non-con wins were against UNLV and BYU), but they will still likely be a top four seed in one region or another.
Purdue. Matt Painter's Boilermakers are safely in the Field of 68 despite never having really distinguished themselves this season. They began the year 12-3, with reasonably decent non-conference wins over Temple, Iona and Miami, but only three times in conference play did they win more than one game at a time. They lost five of seven in January but did rebound to win five of seven at the end. (It seems every team in the conference had a decent-sized cold streak.) They are likely destined for the 8-9 game in the NCAA Tournament, but at 15-9 a month ago, they weren't guaranteed a shot at the tourney at all. The 8-9 game is better than nothing.
Northwestern. Is this the year Northwestern finally makes the NCAA Tournament? The answer could be determined by whether the Wildcats can take out Minnesota on Thursday. They split with the Gophers this season, losing by 23 in Minneapolis on Jan. 22 (back when Minnesota was good) and winning by 11 in Evanston on Feb. 18. The Wildcats still don't have much of a resume -- their only wins over the Pomeroy Top 50 were against Michigan State and Seton Hall -- and it says something about the other bubble teams that they still have a shot at all, but they appear to be in the field according to most Bracketologists. For now.
Players To Watch
Draymond Green, Michigan State. The Big Ten has four players in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy's Player Of The Year rankings; all four (Green, Jared Sullinger, Jordan Taylor, Cody Zeller) are listed here. Green currently places second, behind just Thomas Robinson of Kansas. The 6-foot-7 senior has done almost everything for the Spartans this season, grabbing defensive rebounds (11th in the country in defensive rebound rate), drawing fouls (4.8 per 40 minutes), making three-poiners (41 percent), occupying offensive possessions (a 27.7 Usage Rate), blocking shots, making steals, and passing well. He has one of the most well-rounded stat lines in the country: 33.1 minutes, 16.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. He did his best to carry his suddenly struggling Spartans through their final two losses (48 points, 20 rebounds, five assists), and if State wins the Big Ten tourney, he will probably be the tournament's most valuable player.
Trey Burke, Michigan. Putting your trust in a freshman to come up large in March is not exactly a slam dunk method for success, but if it is going to work somewhere, Ann Arbor, home of the Fab Five, makes sense. Burke edged out Tim Hardaway Jr. for the title of Michigan's Leading Scorer, and the Wolverines' late hot streak mirrored one of his own. He has been incredibly consistent for a first-year guy, scoring in single digits just three times all year, but he raise his game over the last seven contests: 16.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game. His jumper comes and goes (he shot 44 percent in this seven-game stretch, 43 percent for the season), but he has been getting to the line (4.4 free throws per game in this stretch) and putting together solid ball-handling numbers. Still, Michigan is not a good offensive rebounding team, and the only way they win this tournament is if Burke, Hardaway and company are shooting well. Since Burke took the most shots, that makes him one to watch, no?
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State. A preseason awards candidate (to say the least), Sullinger has mostly lived up to the lofty hype in his sophomore season. He ranks in the nation's Top 500 in overall offensive efficiency, usage, shooting, offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, turnovers, blocks, and fouls drawn. He his 55 percent of his 2-pointers, 38 percent of his three-pointers (he takes about one per game) and 75 percent of his free throws. He did, however, struggle from the field in each of Ohio State's three recent losses, averaging just 13.0 points on 38 percent shooting. Still, he is a constant force on the glass (and at 6-foot-9, 265 pounds, one would hope so), and he is nearly guaranteed to draw a double team. There are quite a few quality big men in this conference, but Sullinger still has a quality case for being the best.
Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin. Let's just say this: averaging 14.6 points per game at Wisconsin's pace is still like averaging 17-18 on a normally-paced team. His numbers have slacked a bit compared to last season -- from 18.1 points per game to 14.6, from 43 percent shooting to 40, from 4.7 assists to 4.1, from 1.2 turnovers to 1.5 -- but that just means he's fallen from incomprehensibly good to simply very good. The good news for the Badgers is that the 6-foot-1 senior from Minnesota may have found his old self recently. In Wisconsin's regular season-ending three-game win streak, he averaged 19.0 points on 13-for-24 shooting and got to the line 29 times.
Cody Zeller, Indiana. The most recent of approximately 24 Zellers to enter college basketball in recent years, Cody, a freshman, might be the best. He made a fast impression in Bloomington, averaging 17.0 points per game on 56 percent shooting in non-conference wins over N.C. State, Kentucky and Notre Dame, and for the most part he was able to sustain his scoring pace most of the year. Zeller makes 64 percent of his two-pointers and 75 percent of his free throws; he gets to the line as well as almost anybody in the conference, and he's both a solid rebounder and defender. Because of Zeller, Indiana ranks eighth in the country in Effective Field Goal percentage and 11th in Free Throw Attempts Per Field Goal Attempt. The most important thing for Indiana's conference tourney chances might be whether Zeller can avoid foul trouble. He committed at least four fouls in nine of 18 conference games, including losses to Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Hoosiers need him on the floor.