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Big Ten Tournament Preview: Four Storylines to Follow

The conference championship is wide open. Who cuts down the nets, and do the bubble teams perform well enough to make the Big Dance?

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Tony Perkins (11) drives the ball against Illinois guard Andre Curbelo (5)
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Tony Perkins (11) drives the ball against Illinois guard Andre Curbelo (5)
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten Tournament field is set, and seeding was finalized in quite dramatic fashion on Sunday night. Early in the day, Wisconsin shockingly lost at home to Nebraska, which meant that Illinois was still alive for a share of the regular-season championship. Not to mention, since the Illini had the tie-breaker over Wisconsin, they would clinch the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament with a win over Iowa.

And as you all know by now, that’s exactly what happened!

Although Illinois gave Iowa a golden opportunity to take the lead by fouling Keegan Murray on a three-point attempt in the final 15 seconds, he would miss two of the three free throws, and Illinois would hold on to win and storm the court.

So, this is the story of how we ended up with this bracket, which has plenty of great matchups and interesting storylines to dive into. Rutgers somehow got a double-bye, Ohio State dropped to No. 6, and Indiana faces an uphill battle for their bubble life. Which of the top four seeds has the best draw, and who will ultimately cut down the nets on Sunday afternoon? Let’s explore all these questions and more, including my picks for every matchup.

-Bubble Bonanza

Three teams in the Big Ten have been on the dreaded bubble for the better part of a month. Rutgers, Indiana, and Michigan all have chances to punch their tickets to the Big Dance with a strong performance, but each of them needs to pick up at least one win to feel good about their chances.

Let’s start with Indiana and Michigan, who are trending in very different directions and play each other in the 8/9 matchup. Indiana has lost seven of its last nine games and most recently, blew golden opportunities to solidify its resume against Rutgers and Purdue.

Michigan, on the other hand, has been playing its best basketball of the season, picking up massive wins over Michigan State and Ohio State (without Hunter Dickinson) in March. While I won’t say they are a tournament lock, I think they can take a loss to Indiana and still make the field. But they could really use a win to feel confident going into Selection Sunday.

If the winner of Indiana/Michigan goes on to beat Illinois, I am inclined to think that locks them into the field. My prediction is Michigan wins, 70-62, then beats Illinois, 67-65 before falling to Iowa, 80-73.

Rutgers' resume is looking a bit more stout, and they will face the winner of Iowa and Nebraska/Northwestern. Frankly, Rutgers should be in regardless of what happens, but again, a win over Iowa would likely lock them in the field. I’m not exactly inspired by the way they closed their last game against Penn St, nearly blowing a 15-point second half and allowing Penn St to end the game on a 12-4 run. I’ll pick the more consistent Iowa to take care of business.My prediction is Iowa wins, 78-75.

-Stopping the Slide (MSU & OSU)

It hasn’t exactly been a confidence-inspiring past month for Michigan State or Ohio State. Both teams had been in the AP top-15 earlier in the year, but in late February and March have started to slip.

Michigan State’s fall from grace has certainly been the more striking of the two. Ranked No. 10 in the nation going into February, they have gone 3-7 in their past 10 games, and fallen out of the top-25 completely. Somewhat confoundingly, they managed to pull an upset over Purdue, and beat Maryland to finish the season strong. Still, I just don’t think this is the Spartans’ year. They don’t have the leadership or talent to compete deep into March.

The Spartans will face 10-seed Maryland, and 2-seed Wisconsin if they win. My prediction is MSU beats Maryland, 70-64, then loses to Wisconsin, 69-65.

Ohio State was playing good basketball late in March; they even picked up a road win at Illinois. But they followed it up with two of the worst consecutive losses possible, losing at Maryland and vs. Nebraska at home. They bounced back with a win over Michigan State, but ended the season losing to Michigan at home.

Frankly, I think the Buckeyes must be exhausted. They’ve had very little recovery time; the break between Sunday and Thursday (four days) will be their longest since 2/15-2/19. I like the Buckeyes to get back on track, hopefully with Kyle Young back in the lineup. My prediction is Ohio State beats PSU, 75-55, beats Purdue 80-79, then loses to Wisconsin, 76-74.

-Can any Double-Digit Seeds Make a Run?

Let’s be real, this storyline is just an excuse for me to talk about Nebraska. And my goodness, do they deserve it. I mean, this team was the punching bag of the Big Ten just a few games ago. Their only win of the season was at home against a terrible Minnesota team. By all accounts, Nebrasketball was having another brutal season. They had a 0.1 percent chance of not being last place in the Big Ten.

But then, somewhat miraculously, Nebraska started winning. And these weren’t pushover wins; they beat Ohio State and Wisconsin, both on the road. What this says about the future of the program remains to be seen, but this is at the very least an encouraging sign for Nebraska fans that were scratching their head when Hoiberg received a contract extension.

Frankly, I don’t see any double-digit seeds advancing past the quarterfinals, but I would give Maryland and Nebraska the best odds at doing so.

-Who Cuts Down the Nets on Sunday?

I’d be lying if I told you that I have a confident pick for who cuts down the nets; the conference is wide open. Of course, this makes things exciting, but for my pick, I’m going to make some assumptions and play the numbers.

First off, I’m only considering the top-four seeds, who have a double-bye to the quarterfinals. While I think Iowa, Ohio State, and even Michigan are all capable of winning it all, they are all at a significant disadvantage. Not only is it possible they lose their opening round, but by the time they get to the championship, they’ll be playing their fourth game in four days, as opposed to the top-four seeds, who will only be playing three games in a row.

Next, let’s look at probable quarterfinal matchups. In my eyes, there is one team with a significantly easier road to the semifinals: Wisconsin. Assuming the top-seed advances, the quarterfinal matchups will be: Illinois-Michigan, Rutgers-Iowa, Wisconsin-MSU, and Purdue-OSU. This is obviously subjective, but I’d much rather face Michigan State than the other three teams.

And once we’re into the Saturday semifinals, honestly I think it’s a crapshoot. So I’m picking Wisconsin simply because I believe they have the best chance of making the semifinals. This is of course assuming Johnny Davis—who was injured in the Nebraska game—plays. Maybe that’s not the bulletproof logic you were looking for, but that’s what I’m going with.

-My Complete Picks

Wednesday, March 9

  • Nebraska over Northwestern
  • Penn State over Minnesota

Thursday, March 10

  • Michigan over Indiana
  • Iowa over Nebraska
  • Michigan State over Maryland
  • Ohio State over Penn State

Friday, March 11

  • Michigan over Illinois
  • Iowa over Rutgers
  • Wisconsin over Michigan State
  • Ohio State over Purdue

Saturday, March 12

  • Iowa over Michigan
  • Wisconsin over Ohio State

Sunday, March 13

  • WISCONSIN over Iowa to win the Big Ten Championship