The Big Ten season is now over. For some team they already have their NCAA Tournament ticket ready to go, but for other teams such as Indiana, Purdue and Illinois, the Big Ten Tournament gives another chance to push their chances over the top.
For the rest of the teams their is only one chance to get to promise land, and that is to win the whole thing. Could Northwestern win four games in a row and get their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance? Can teams like Nebraska, Minnesota or Michigan salvage a season that seemed to fall well below expectations? The Big Ten Tournament gives every team a chance to dream of a magical run. Lets take a look at each teams path to the championship, starting with the first and second round match ups that we already know, and touch on a few match ups that might occur.
#14 Rutgers VS. #11 Minnesota
Rutgers and Minnesota only met one time this season, in what was a high scoring affair. Minnesota won at home 89-80, Rutgers kept the game close by out rebounding Minnesota by 11 and hitting 5 more free throws while shooting %80 from the line. By the numbers, Minnesota is a much better team in almost every category. If you go strictly from the stats, Minnesota would win the game every time. But these two team have had some very weird highs and lows. Rutgers beat the Big Ten regular season champion Wisconsin, and Minnesota won at East Lansing against Michigan State. This game should be high scoring just like the previous match up, but look for a win by Minnesota unless Rutgers can find the same magic they had against Wisconsin earlier in the season.
#13 Penn State VS. #12 Nebraska
Penn State and Nebraska also only met one time this season. Penn State easily won that match up in University Park by 13 points. That game was the start of the eight game losing streak the Cornhuskers are currently on. Nebraska had high hopes this season and seemed to fall completely apart down the stretch. Will a decent showing, despite a loss yesterday help the team return to their previous form? If so, this could be a great game, if not, then the game will probably be a lot like the first match up.
#10 Northwestern VS. #7 Indiana
In what seems to be a running theme of all the initial matchups, Northwestern and Indiana have also only played once this season. Northwestern won that home game 72-65. To achieve a victory, Northwestern had to shoot lights out, hitting 51% from FG, 40% from thee point range and 82.4% from the free throw line. In fact the difference in the game came at the line, where Indiana went 7-16 and Northwestern went 14-17. For Northwestern to win this matchup they will have to shoot far above their season averages like they did on February 25th. Indiana is coming off a tough home loss to Michigan State on Saturday, and think they will be too much for Northwestern this time around.
#8 Illinois VS. #9 Michigan
Finally a match up that involves teams that have played each other both home and away. Michigan won the first meeting in Chrysler Arena erasing a eight point deficit on the back of a 6-7 three point shooting night of Aubrey Dawkins, who normally averages 6.6 points per game. Illinois returned the feet when the two teams played again at the State Farm Center. Illinois came back from a eight point deficit as well to push the game into overtime. Illinois held Michigan scoreless from the 3:13 mark of the second half until the last 13 seconds of overtime, while going on a 21-2 run to close out the game. On paper these two team are almost identical, very similar shooting percentages and scoring numbers. This is the type of game that will probably come down to who can make the last run.
#6 Ohio State
Wisconsin came into the Columbus and demolished Ohio State by 24 points. The loss knocked the Buckeyes down to the 6th seed and now require them to play an extra day. Possible math ups include Minnesota, who Ohio State only beat by 2 points at Williams Arena back in early January. If they get past that game they will face a very tough Michigan State team that they only beat by 3 points, and is in the middle of a late season surge in which they are playing much better. A semi final match up could include Maryland, which would actually be pretty good for Ohio State, since they beat them by 24 in their only meeting this season. In the end, the final will probably go through the same team for anyone that wants to win the championship, Wisconsin. I don't see how that game would be any different then Sundays meeting.
Iowa has beaten every one of the teams that they could possible face until the Quarter Final round. They beat Nebraska by 28 on the road and also knocked off Penn State on the road by four. They only lost by four at Mackey Arena, which is one of the hardest places to get a win on the road in the Big Ten. The match up between Iowa and Purdue will be a good one with both teams playing very physical basketball. The road to the championship will have to go through Wisconsin in the Semi Final round. Iowa got beat by 32 points in the only meeting between the two teams, and it would be hard to expect them to find a way to win the second match up.
Purdue is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. They lost games in the non conference season to North Florida, Gardner-Webb and Vanderbilt, but hold a 12-6 conference record. They were able to secure a double bye which works really in their favor since they can't afford any bad losses. Their first match up will probably be with Iowa and is a very winnable game. After that they will probably have to play Wisconsin, which will be the juggernaut that everyone will have to go through to win the championship. On January 7th Purdue went up to the Kohl Center and only lost by 7 points. This would actually be a really good game, with Purdue's very physical style confronting Wisconsin's finesse style. In the end Purdue would probably have to beat Iowa, Wisconsin and Maryland in a row, which I have hard time believing they can do.
#3 Michigan State
Tom Izzo always has his team trending up at the end of the season. Michigan State has won 8 of it's last 11 games in route to a double by in the tournament. Most would consider Michigan State the dark horse favorite to win the tournament and maybe one of only a couple team that have a legitimate chance at knocking off Wisconsin. But to get to the game which would be in he Championship game, they will have to go through Maryland which has won both match ups this season. The good things for Michigan State, is that both those match ups occurred during the early portion of the Big Ten season, and this team is just not the same as that the early conference season version. If the Spartans continue to play like they have the last couple weeks they could go on a deep run in the tournament, but they have a tough path with possible games against Ohio State, Maryland and Wisconsin.
Maryland has had a great first season in the Big Ten. In most other years they probably would have held a portion of the Big Ten title, but Wisconsin is just too good this year. They only lost on the road during Big Ten play and that was only at such tough environments such as the Assembly Hall and Value City Arena. They also handed Wisconsin one of only three losses they have on the season. This team would have to be viewed as one of only a few teams that have a legitimate shot at knocking off Wisconsin. To get to the championship game against Wisconsin they will have to get through possibly matchups with Indiana and Michigan State.
Wisconsin is by far the best team in the Big Ten. Their only losses on the season have come at the hands of very good Duke and Maryland teams, and a head scratching lose to Rutgers. The Rutgers game is why everyone in the Big Ten holds out hope that Wisconsin will get tripped up. In some ways Rutgers gave a blue print to how to beat Wisconsin, but it is a very hard one to follow. A team will just have to shoot 10% better from FG, 25% better from three point range and 24% better from the free throw line. The bracket is set up for them to have almost no opposition until the Championship Game. Of the teams that Wisconsin could face before that game, only Michigan and Purdue have come within 7 points. Wisconsin beat Illinois by 29 points, and Iowa by 11 on the road and 32 at home. The tournament is Wisconsin's to lose, and it will probably take a bad game from them and great game by another team to accomplish that feat.
[Editor's Note: There was a correction in the Nebraska section, which mistakenly cited a win over Maryland.]