Exactly one month out from the start of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis there are four teams in arguably the nation’s deepest conference that have a legitimate shot to win four games in March and get to the Final Four in Dallas. Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State all have the collective talent, star power, and coaching to make a deep run. The only other team you can even make a case for at this point is Ohio State but in my opinion, their inability to consistently score. The Buckeyes are outside the top 100 in the country in team field goal percentage and outside the top 150 in points per game. Defense is key but it can only take you so far in a single elimination tournament. With that said, let’s look at the key players on the top four teams from four to one in the current standings that will make or break their Final Four dreams.
Wisconsin: Traevon Jackson
Yes, this may be based a little off of Jackson’s game winner this past Sunday versus Michigan State but Jackson’s impact is felt far beyond how many points he finishes with. What that game does show is the junior is unafraid to take and make clutch shots. However, just as important is his ability to take care of the ball, orchestrate Bo Ryan’s precise offense, and guard the opposing point guard. The NBA is a point guard driven league still and while Jackson isn’t necessarily a pro prospect, he will surely guard a few point guards who might be. His leadership and experience will have to be on full display if Wisconsin is going to advance far.
Iowa: Roy Devyn Marble
It might seem obvious that the best player on Iowa has to play well for them to have any chance in the NCAA Tournament but with Iowa it really is the case. Marble is the best pro prospect for the Hawkeyes bar none and as history as shown us, you need future NBA players to advance to the Final Four. Even the Butler teams that made it to back-to-back championship games had Gordan Heyward. Iowa is a very good team as it is but when Marble plays well, particularly when he scores 20 or more, they jump into the elite conversation. One need not look any further then the blowout win over Michigan at home last weekend. Marble got the majority of his 26 points early and Iowa was able to put a stranglehold on the game before halftime. If he has an off game early in the tournament, Iowa is prone to an upset.
Michigan State: Keith Appling
Last year, the Spartans season ended in the Sweet 16 against Duke, a game in which Appling did score 16 points but failed to record a single assist and committed four turnovers. So far this year, he has done a great job embracing Tom Izzo’s message to him to cut down on the turnovers and be more of a true point guard and distribute the ball. It just so happens that he has been able to do that and score at a more efficient rate a true win-win for Sparty. MSU can count on at least 40 points per game out of Adreian Payne and Gary Harris but it is Appling that will put them over the top if they are going to get there. Obviously, this is predicated on the assumption that his wrist is close to 100% in a month but I am not one to question Tom Izzo’s ability to prepare his players mentally and physically for the Big Dance. If his point guard can continue to play how he has all season, and he has his full arsenal of weapons to distribute the ball to, then he and Payne can keep Izzo’s streak alive of having every senior class reach at least one Final Four.
Michigan: Derrick Walton Jr.
Michigan, perhaps more then any other team, has seen first hand the profound effect a point guard can have in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines don’t need Walton Jr. to be Trey Burke this March but the numbers tell us when he plays well, the Wolverines win. In Michigan’s 18 wins, Walton Jr. is averaging 10.5 points per game and has a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. On the other hand, in the Wolverines six losses Walton is scoring just 6.5 points per game and has recorded more turnovers then assists. John Belein’s teams are known for taking care of the ball and it starts with the man who has keys to the offense. Walton Jr.’s play has picked up noticeably in Big Ten play hitting big shots on the road against Ohio State and Michigan State. He also sprinkled in a game winning layup at Nebraska. People forget that this kid came to Ann Arbor as a higher rated prospect then Trey Burke (no, seriously) and this team’s maturation over the last two months is paralleled by the improvement and growth shown by their point guard. If Walton Jr. can contribute 8-10 points per game and keep the turnovers down like he has in conference play, the Wolverines could shock the country and end up in Dallas despite losing preseason All-American Mitch McGary.
Earlier in the season I wrote an article saying that if the Spartans are fully healthy they’re my pick to win it all and I’m sticking with that. However, their injuries have opened the door for Michigan to climb to the top of the Big Ten standings, which could lead to a higher seed and easier road to Dallas for the Wolverines. Despite that, if I had to pick one of these four to get to the Final Four it would be Michigan State, although how these four players perform will go a long way in determining how many teams in the nation’s best conference will wind up in Texas when it’s all said and done.