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.
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Where: United Center (Chicago)
When: March 14-17
Final: March 17th, 3:30 p.m. ET CBS
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.
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.
– 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.