There’s been a lot of belly-aching recently, largely from those within the league, that the Big Ten isn’t getting enough respect. The reason for that is this: the conference is trash this season. Having a fair number of OK to good teams does not an elite conference make. The Big Ten teams currently projected to go dancing have a combined one top 30 win out of conference, and Purdue needed a miracle comeback in that game to knock off Notre Dame. I’d be pretty surprised if multiple teams made it to the second weekend.
But despite the lack of elite teams within the conference, all the parity has created incredibly competitive games night in and night out–which bodes well for the Big Ten Tournament. Outside of rutger, there’s not really a team you can completely write off. Consider the bottom five of the conference. You have a team with the two best wins of any Big Ten team (Indiana), a team with the best rebounder not named Caleb Swanigan (Ohio State), a team that’s already knocked off two of the three best teams in the conference (Nebraska), a team that has earned a reputation as being a giant slayer in this tournament (Penn State), and a team that is rutger (rutger). Let’s take a look at how each team can succeed or fail this week in DC.
1st seed Purdue Boilermakers 25-6 (14-4)
Why they’ll win the tournament: Purdue has the best player in the conference. Caleb Swanigan averaged 18.9 points and 12.6 boards in conference play, and leads the country in double-doubles. Surround him with the best three-point shooting team in the Big Ten (the Boilermakers are just north of 40 percent) and you can see why Purdue could win the BTT–as well as possibly win its first NCAA tournament game in over 1,800 days (but who’s counting?)
Why they’ll lose their first game: Michigan is Purdue kryptonite, and coincidentally that’s who the Boilermakers could see first. Swanigan and Ivan Drago clone Isaac Haas are too slow to keep up with Michigan’s bigs, and once Michigan’s offense gets going there’s not much opponents can do.
2nd seed Wisconsin Badgers 23-8 (12-6)
Why they’ll win the tournament: In what is a pretty youthful conference (part of the reason it has been such a rough year), Wisconsin’s experience sets it apart. The senior class of Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter, and Vitto Brown are the second-winningest class in program history–just four wins behind last year’s graduates. That experience–as well as the combined talents of those four and First Team All-Big Ten forward Ethan Happ–give Wisconsin a clear advantage over the rest of the conference.
Why they’ll lose their first game: If teams start playing the percentages and engage in some Hack-a-Happ instead of giving the redshirt sophomore uncontested layups, Wisconsin could have trouble generating much offense. The struggles of Happ (48 percent) and Hayes (58 percent) at the free throw line are partially why the Badgers struggled down the stretch, and the main reason why the Badgers only shoot 64 percent from the charity stripe as a team.
3rd seed Maryland Terrapins 24-7 (12-6)
Why they’ll win the tournament: Melo Trimble has had a bit of a down year, and yet Maryland finished with the second best record in the Big Ten. Freshmen Justin Jackson (10/10 athlete name), Kevin Huerter, and Anthony Cowan have helped Trimble and the Terps win close game after close game all year. With what basically is a homecourt advantage in DC, it would be silly to write Maryland off.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Water finally finds its level as Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law shut down the Terps and Maryland finally loses a close game.
4th seed Minnesota Golden Gophers 23-8 (11-7)
Why they’ll win the tournament: Richard Pitino turned this team around from last year’s eight win season thanks to the emergence of Nate Mason (15.5 points, 5.1 assists per game) and the additions of the likes of Amir Coffey, Reggie Lynch, and Akeem Springs. Lynch, the transfer from Illinois State, was the conference DPOY–although he was known just as much for his tendency to foul out as for his rim-protecting abilities (3.5 blocks per game). The Golden Gophers closed the season by winning eight of nine, and perhaps no team is playing with more confidence.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Lynch puts forth his best Brian Cardinal impression and is forced to watch most of the game from the bench, while Michigan State’s frontcourt dunks all over Minnesota’s backup bigs.
5th seed Michigan State Spartans 18-13 (10-8)
Why they’ll win the tournament: Bah gawd, that’s Tom Izzo’s music! I’ll admit, the worshiping of Izzo as being untouchable in March has gotten out of hand recently, but there’s no question that MSU has been playing better as the season has gone along. And just as a reminder, this is all without Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter, and now Eron Harris. Miles Bridges is the conference freshman of the year, and his frontcourt mate Nick Ward isn’t too far behind. Those two will be heavily relied on, but they’re definitely talented enough to lead the Spartans to the title.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Only two healthy players average more than seven points per game. If Ward gets in early foul trouble, the Spartans just don’t have the firepower to keep up with Penn State. What a wild sentence that just was to type.
6th seed Northwestern Wildcats 21-10 (10-8)
Why they’ll win the tournament: Because every Hollywood producer would eat that shit up. Listen, we all know Northwestern isn’t winning the national title. Hell, it might not even win a game in the tourney. But this is a tournament the Wildcats have the talent to win. They’ve got the floor general in Bryant McIntosh, the scorer in Scottie Lindsey, the lockdown defender in Vic Law, and a guy who plays much bigger than his size in Derek Pardon. If there was ever a year for Northwestern to win the BTT, this would be it.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Northwestern really struggled to score while Lindsey was out with mono, and if Jae’Sean Tate shuts down Lindsey the same thing will likely happen.
7th seed Iowa Hawkeyes 18-13 (10-8)
Why they’ll win the tournament: To win three games in three days you need a deep rotation, and that’s exactly what Iowa has. With senior leadership from Peter Jok, who led the Big Ten in scoring with 20.2 points per game, the extremely young Hawkeyes have improved more than any team of the course of the season. Lethal shooters like Brady Ellingson (50 percent), Jordan Bohannon (39 percent), Nicholas Baer (39 percent) and Jok (38 percent) help Iowa space the floor to get more inside opportunities for freshman stud Tyler Cook. The future is bright for Iowa, and it could give quite the preview of that this week in DC.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Iowa’s complete lack of desire to play man-to-man defense finally causes Fran McCaffery to burst into flames and Indiana breaks 90 against the Hawkeyes again.
8th seed Michigan Wolverines 20-11 (10-8)
Why they’ll win the tournament: The Wolverines have the best offense in the Big Ten, and it’s really not that close. John Beilein’s club is averaging 1.21 points per possision thanks to a balanced attack that features six players averaging eight or more points per game. DJ Wilson has had a phenomenal breakout season in his third year in Ann Arbor, and is one of the most difficult players in the conference to match up with. Michigan’s offense can put up video game-like numbers in a hurry (cut to Purdue, Michigan State, and Indiana sadly nodding), which is why you can never count them out.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Despite all the progress they’ve made, Michigan falls back into its old habits of playing no defense. Malcolm Hill goes off for the easiest 30 points he’s ever scored.
9th seed Illinois Fighting Illini 18-13 (8-10)
Why they’ll win the tournament: After Kendrick Nunn got kicked off the team, this has clearly been Malcolm Hill’s program. He leads the Illini in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals. As certain guards in Storrs have proven, all you need in March is for one guy to be hot, and if Hill gets going he could lead the Illini on a run that might save John Groce’s job.
Why they’ll lose their first game: They just lost to rutger. In basketball.
10th seed Indiana Hoosiers 17-14 (7-11)
Why they’ll win the tournament: The Hoosiers are as healthy as they’ve been in quite some time. Josh Newkirk has shown a nice jump shot in addition to being a blur, Juwan Morgan is as healthy as he’s been since an official injured him in the rutger game (sadly, I’m not even making that up), and James Blackmon Jr. is back to being one of the best scorers in the conference. Robert Johnson burst out of his slump against Ohio State and is playing with confidence again, Thomas Bryant and De’Ron Davis will dominate inside and oh God I’m talking myself into this aren’t I….
Why they’ll lose their first game: The Hoosiers turn it over 25 times against Iowa, sending “Brad Stevens to IU” calls from middle-aged white guys to deafening levels.
11th seed Ohio State Buckeyes 17-14 (7-11)
Why they’ll win the tournament: This could very well be Thad Matta’s Last Stand. Everyone from the 2015 recruiting class except JaQuan Lyle transferred, and it’s been some time since Ohio State was a major player in the Big Ten. So it doesn’t take a genius to see that Matta might be nearing the end. How can he avoid that? By winning the damn conference tournament. The Buckeyes are still a talented, albeit uninspired, bunch. Six players average nine or more points, surprisingly led by Jae’Sean Tate. Tate’s typically been known more for his defense and rebounding, but this year is averaging a shade under 15 points per game. Trevor Thompson is the best rebounder no one’s heard of, and Lyle has the ability to take over a game.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Ohio State legitimately does not seem to give a shit anymore. If anyone is going to lose to rutger, it would be the Buckeyes.
12th seed Nebraska Cornhuskers 12-18 (6-12)
Why they’ll win the tournament: Nebraska is capable of beating anybody, with road wins over Indiana and Maryland to start the conference season and a win over Purdue to its credit as well. The starting backcourt of Tai Webster and Glynn Watson have cooled off but still combine to average over 30 points per game.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Nebraska can’t generate any offense against Penn State’s athletic, pressing defense and another disappointing season of Nebrasketball comes to an early end.
13th seed Penn State Nittany Lions 14-17 (6-12)
Why they’ll win the tournament: As we’ve said about a few teams, Penn State has a bevy of talented youngsters. But what makes the Nittany Lions different is their eagerness to defend. Penn State leads the conference in turnovers forced and is second in both blocks and steals. Only Reggie Lynch blocks more shots than Mike Watkins, and no one in the Big Ten collects more steals than Josh Reaves. Offensively, Penn State features a quartet of slashers who average double figures in scoring and never allow defenses to get comfortable.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Penn State is dead last in rebounding in the conference. Ed Morrow and Michael Jacobson dominate the glass as Nebraska controls the game and knocks off PSU.
14th seed rutger Scarlet Knights 14-17
Why they’ll win the tournament: A giant hole opens in the earth, stretching from Nebraska to Maryland and swallowing up every Big Ten school except rutger. The Scarlet Knights win by default.
Why they’ll lose their first game: Ohio State shows up to the game.
Penn State over Nebraska
Ohio State over rutger
Michigan over Illinois
Michigan State over Penn State
Indiana over Iowa
Northwestern over Ohio State
Purdue over Michigan
Michigan State over Minnesota
Wisconsin over Indiana
Maryland over Northwestern
Michigan State over Purdue
Wisconsin over Maryland
Wisconsin over Michigan State