And so the Big Ten Tournament has began in its first year after the conference moved to 14 teams - with 2 games between 4 teams that may not earn a single postseason bid between them.
In the first game, Penn State served a dizzingly bad Nebraska team with a disappointing but merciful end to a miserable season. After landing a spot in the preseason top #25, Nebraska has gone on to finish the year 13-18. The Cornhuskers' loss was a close one, 68-65, but Nebraska fell into the same trap they've fallen into all season. Terran Petteway scored a game-high 29 points and Shavon Shields chipped in 20. Nebraska's 3 remaining starters combined for a total of 6 points and their biggest output from the bench was just 4 points. Woeful offense ultimately stopped Nebraska from waging a successful comeback bid over a Penn State team that was lured into playing the Cornhuskers' disjointed style of offense. DJ Newbill scored a team-high 26 points but needed 22 shot attempts to score those points. Still, as a team the Nittany Lions simply outshot the Nebraska Cornhuskers who had 16 of their shot attempts blocked. Brandon Taylor isn't likely to notch 5 blocks against the Nittany Lions' next opponent - the Iowa Hawkeyes - but Penn State will attempt to find a way to top the more talented Hawkeyes in hopes of rewriting the story of their Big Ten season.
What followed that contest, which was at least close towards the end after Penn State's 16-point lead evaporated, was a fairly lifeless contest between Minnesota and Rutgers. Rutgers is the worst Big Ten team in quite some time, closing their season with just 10 victories to their credit. Minnesota did as expected, winning by 12 against a point spread of 11 points. Joey King had a fantastic game, scoring 20 points on just 11 shot attempts. But against Rutgers' hapless defense Minnesota was able to get everyone involved; 4 of Minnesota's starting 5 reached double figures and Deandre Mathieu nearly made the mark with 8 points. Minnesota will go on to play the Ohio State Buckeyes today, a team that will press them much more than the Scarlet Knights were able to.
So What Did We Learn?
These teams certainly appear to be who we thought they were. The opening round of the Big Ten Tournament was a completely chalk affair. Penn State beat a Nebraska team that seemed to have mostly given up on the season and Minnesota blasted a truly putrid Rutgers team. Penn State played unusually selfish yesterday and will need to spread the scoring around more if they want to upset Iowa. The Hawkeyes finish at the rim with much more efficiency - I can't see them getting blocked 16 times today like Nebraska did - so the Nittany Lions will need to be much more efficient from the field and they're unlikely to survive turning the ball over 12 times against an Iowa team that excels in transition offense. Minnesota got to play the league patsy in Rutgers, but did at least play well. Like the blocks Penn State scored against Nebraska, the Golden Gophers shouldn't expect to rack up 10 steals against Ohio State but the Gophers have turned teams over all year long. If Minnesota can keep their own turnovers around 10, an area in which they've struggled all year, they could actually give Ohio State a pretty good game.
Wednesday's games will be rendered meaningless, outside of the personal pride involved in running the respective programs, if neither Penn State nor Minnesota is able to score an upset in today's games. Though likely on the outside looking in, both Penn State and Minnesota could play their way into the NIT conversation with a win today. While neither team is likely to advance, Penn State did finish as the tournament runner-up in 2011 as a 6 seed. A run to the conference tournament title game wouldn't be unprecedented for a double-digit seed - Illinois has finished as runner-up with both a 10 and an 11 seed. So we can still holdout hope for the moment. Otherwise Wednesday's games were mostly useful for helping the conference make a bit more money on "All Session" Big Ten Tournament tickets. In any case, here's to hoping that Thursday's slate provides a few more surprises than Wednesday managed to.