With this year's addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten tournament will have a new format to accommodate fourteen teams. Unlike years past, the top four squads at the end of the regular season will receive a double bye and be just two wins away from competing for the championship.
Under head coach Thad Matta, Ohio State has enjoyed more success in the conference tournament than any other team in the Big Ten. Matta is 21-6 (.778 winning percentage) at the helm of the Buckeyes in Big Ten tourney games, reaching the finals seven times, and winning four titles.
At present, the Buckeyes are on the outside looking in at the Big Ten's top four. At 8-5 in conference games entering Sunday's matchup with arch rival Michigan in Ann Arbor, Ohio State is all alone in fifth place in the standings. But the team's final position is far from set in stone.
The Big Ten is a logjam after frontrunning Wisconsin, with seven teams within 2.5 games of each other, and the remaining handful of games over the next couple of weeks are vitally important to tournament seeding. Let's take a look at what's to come for the Buckeyes, and the other six teams they're contending with.
Ohio State (19-7, 8-5 in Big Ten play)
Ohio State's losses in conference play have not been shocking in any way. The Buckeyes have not lost a game to a team not in contention for a top four spot, and none by double digits. Four of the team's five losses have been by five points or less.
Of the final five regular season games, Ohio State should be favored in four, with the lone underdog situation coming in the season finale at home against the Badgers. Winning four of five, or perhaps even sweeping the remaining slate, is not out of the question. One would think finishing with twelve or thirteen conference wins would make the Buckeyes strong contenders for a double bye.
Wins vs Contenders: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland
Losses vs Contenders: Iowa (2), Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State
Games remaining: Michigan, Nebraska, Purdue, Penn State, Wisconsin
Maryland (22-5, 10-4)
The Terrapins have equipped themselves nicely in their first season in the Big Ten, currently sitting in the second spot in the standings. Like Ohio State, none of Maryland's losses in conference have come to teams not in contention for a top four seeding. Unlike the Buckeyes, though, Mark Turgeon's squad has lost big when they've gone down, losing by 16 points or more in three of its four defeats.
Maryland may have the easiest remaining schedule of the seven teams jockeying for position. Only a home game on Tuesday night against Wisconsin comes against a team with a winning record in conference play. Taking three of the last four, or all four if the Terps can pull the upset against the Badgers, will have them solidly among the double bye teams in Chicago.
Wins vs Contenders: Michigan State (2), Purdue, Indiana
Losses vs Contenders: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Iowa
Games Remaining: Wisconsin, Michigan Rutgers, Nebraska
Purdue (18-9, 10-4)
The biggest surprise in the Big Ten this season by far has been the success of the Boilermakers. Picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, Purdue has used a strong paint presence, highlighted by junior center A.J. Hammons, to put itself in position to make the top four in the regular season.
One of the hottest teams in the Big Ten after having won seven of their last eight, the Boilers have stumbled only once against a team not in contention. The three losses for Matt Painter's team against contenders have all been by single digits. A tough remaining schedule awaits over the final couple of weeks, though, as Purdue will play its final three games against teams it is fighting for a double bye.
Wins vs Contenders: Iowa, Indiana (2), Ohio State
Losses vs Contenders: Wisconsin, Maryland, Illinois
Games Remaining: Rutgers, Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois
Michigan State (18-8, 9-4)
Finding the Spartans in contention is nothing new during the Tom Izzo era, of course. As the defending Big Ten tournament champions, and winners of two of the last three, Michigan State is a team with veteran leadership and postseason experience, led by seniors Branden Dawson and Travis Trice.
After dealing with injury issues early in the season, Izzo seems to have the Spartans peaking at the right time, having won five of their last six. Three of the team's four losses in Big Ten play have been narrow, and only one has come at the hands of a conference cellar dweller. Four of Michigan State's five remaining games come against contenders, though.
Wins vs Contenders: Indiana, Iowa, Ohio State
Losses vs Contenders: Maryland (2), Illinois
Games Remaining: Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana
Indiana (18-9, 8-6)
The Hoosiers currently occupy sixth place alone in the standings, and have been up and down for the past month. Indiana has not won back-to-back games since having a four-game winning streak snapped by Ohio State on January 25th. Tom Crean has his team living and dying by the three-point shot this season because of a lack of size in the paint, and when the Hoosiers are hot, they can beat anyone.
All six of Indiana's losses in the conference have come against teams currently ahead of them in the standings, with the last two defeats coming by razor-thin margins, The Hoosiers have contests against two of the league's three worst teams in the week coming up, before finishing up with two contenders. At this point, Indiana will need to handle its business on the court and get some help to move into the top four.
Wins vs Contenders: Ohio State, Illinois, Maryland
Losses vs Contenders: Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue (2), Wisconsin, Maryland
Games Remaining: Rutgers, Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan State
Illinois (17-9, 7-6)
Illinois opened Big Ten play by losing four of its first six games, including a couple of head scratchers against squads near the bottom of the standings. Head coach John Groce has dealt with injuries and suspensions all season long, having to juggle lineups and rotations to keep the Illini afloat. That theme to the season continued this week when it was announced that junior guard Aaron Cosby would be transferring.
After the poor start to the season, Illinois reeled off wins in six of eight, including four in a row. That hot streak came to an abrupt halt against Wisconsin last Sunday. The Illini are hurt by having three bad losses on their resume in conference, and will need serious help to secure a double bye in the Big Ten tournament. With three of its remaining five games against conference contenders, Groce and his team have an uphill battle ahead off them.
Wins vs Contenders: Maryland, Purdue, Michigan State
Losses vs Contenders: Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin
Games Remaining: Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue
Iowa (16-10, 7-6)
Much like last season, the Hawkeyes are fading in the Big Ten race after starting out strong. Iowa has lost five of its last eight, including possibly the worst loss in conference play of any team not named Wisconsin. An experienced team, Fran McCaffrey's squad has fans of the Black and Gold scratching their heads.
After starting 4-1 in Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes will need serious help from the teams ahead of them to secure a spot in the top four. Four of Iowa's losses have come against opponents near the top of the standings, including two to the Badgers. With a favorable schedule over the final two weeks of the season, the Hawkeyes need to find some sort of consistency to take advantage.
Wins vs Contenders: Ohio State (2), Maryland
Losses vs Contenders: Michigan State, Wisconsin (2)
Games Remaining: Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State, Indiana Northwestern
Anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's with two weeks left in the Big Ten regular season. As was the case last year, conference team's have beaten up on each other the past two months, producing some shocking results, and muddying the race for conference tourney positioning. While Ohio State doesn't own a bad loss, opportunities to boost its chances for a double bye in Chicago have been squandered in close defeats. Every game remaining is winnable for the Buckeyes, and perhaps no team is as dangerous when put in a favorable position in the conference tourney. Matta knows how to win in the postseason, but the key is finding the team's stride before it gets there.