Michigan's guard Trey Burke drives around Indiana's Victor Oladipo during the second half of their NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor

Big Ten Conference Tournament Preview

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I’m not sure I can remember a more anticipated conference tournament than this year’s Big Ten.

Maybe the 2009 Big East tournament, the year that UConn, Pitt and Louisville all got No. 1 seeds and Villanova made the Final Four.

But even that Big East can’t compare to this year’s Big Ten in terms of excitement. The league is loaded this season, and while there were top ten and top 20 matchups seemingly twice a week, it felt like every single one of those games lived up to the hype. Over and over and over again, the Big Ten provided us with a Game of the Year candidate, as the heavyweights that dominate the top of the conference took turns beating up on each other.

And frankly, there’s no reason that can’t happen again this week. Look at some of the early round matchups: the Illinois-Minnesota winner gets a rematch with Indiana in the quarters, with the winner of that game to play the winner of Michigan-Wisconsin for the right to go to the title game. When an NCAA tournament Final Four contender has to be eliminated before the Final Four of the conference tournament, you know it’s going to be exciting.

(CLICK HERE to browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

The Bracket

Where: United Center (Chicago)

When: March 14-17

Final: March 17th, 3:30 p.m. ET CBS

Favorite: Indiana

If the Hoosiers aren’t the best team in the country, than they are right there in the conversation. Indiana has a couple of the most impressive wins that anyone has notched this year, going into Ann Arbor and East Lansing and to sweep both Michigan schools. In fact, Indiana went 5-2 against the other top five teams in the Big Ten. When they are focused and ready to play, there may not be a team in the country better than them.

If there is a reason to be concerned about the Hoosiers winning the Big Ten title, it’s that their path there is going to be quite difficult. They’ll need to beat either Minnesota or Illinois in the quarterfinals and Wisconsin or Michigan in the semifinals before they even get to the title game.

And if they lose?: Michigan State

How confident are you betting against Tom Izzo this month? I’m not, especially when Adreian Payne is playing hard and Gary Harris is hitting shots from the perimeter. The key for Michigan State comes down to the play at the point guard spot: which Keith Appling is going to show up this week? The one that looked awful in losses to Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State, or the one that took over in the second half against Wisconsin? Appling missed 17 straight threes at one point. He also had a couple of games this season where he looked like the best point guard in the conference not named Trey Burke.

Other contenders: I never thought that I would be saying this, but Ohio State looks like a serious challenger for the Big Ten tournament crown. They get either Purdue or Nebraska in the quarters before a potential rematch with Michigan State in the semifinals. I think the Spartans are a better basketball team, but with Aaron Craft’s ability to shut down Appling, they are a hot shooting night from their role players away from a trip to the finals.

And the, obviously, there is Michigan and Wisconsin. As impressive as the Badgers have been this season, I just can’t see them winning the Big Ten tournament, but that’s the thing about Bo Ryan’s program: they are always lurking just below the surface, waiting for someone to overlook them. Michigan was this close to beating Indiana on Sunday, and there is no question they have the talent to win this tournament. The problem? They have to win four games in four days, with the final three eventually being Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan State or Ohio State. That’s tough.

Sleeper: Purdue

The Boilermakers played really well late in the season, winning at Wisconsin and blowing out Minnesota to sandwich a loss to Michigan in a game that they probably should have win. Purdue has some quality guard play and an underrated youngster in the paint in AJ Hammons. If Matt Painter can get them to get stops, they have a favorable draw — relatively speaking — to the title game.

Deeper sleeper: Illinois and Minnesota

We’ve seen how good these two teams can be when they play well. Both were ranked in the top 15 at one point. Both have wins over Indiana. And both have also lost to Northwestern. They play in the 8-9 game. Someone has to win that before getting a rematch with the Hoosiers.

Studs:

– Trey Burke, Michigan: He’s our National Player of the Year.

– Cody Zeller, Indiana: This year’s national love affair has been with Victor Oladipo, but I have a feeling that Zeller is going to put on a show in the United Center this week.

– Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State: He shoots a lot, but when he gets into a rhythm, he’s a lot of fun to watch. And he can carry the Buckeyes.

CBT Prediction: I’d love to pick something out of the ordinary here, but I just think that Indiana is going to flex their muscles. They’re the best team in the conference. I think they leave no doubt.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.