The Big Ten enters conference tournament week with some intriguing storylines after an unbalanced league schedule and a lot of competitive teams towards the top of the standings. Indiana took home the conference’s regular-season title by two full games, but the Hoosiers played a much weaker schedule than many of their top Big Ten counterparts as this conference tournament should truly tell us where Indiana is at heading into the Big Dance.
Michigan State is also peaking at the right time as Denzel Valentine looks like a potential National Player of the Year and the Spartans look like a major national-title contender. Besides the top two seeds, Maryland, Purdue, Iowa and Wisconsin will all try to improve their NCAA tournament seeding with strong showings in Indianapolis while Michigan and Ohio State try to do everything they can to claw their way into the at-large discussion.
When: March 9-13
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana
Final: Sunday, March 13, 3:00 p.m. (CBS)
Favorite: Michigan State
Would you want to bet against Michigan State in March? Yeah, me neither. The Spartans have won six consecutive games entering the Big Ten Tournament (by an average of 21.1 points per game) as they’re playing perhaps their best ball of the season. Denzel Valentine is one of the best players in the country, Bryn Forbes is a great second option and one of the nation’s best shooters and the Spartans might have more talent on this roster than last year’s Final Four team.
And if they lose?: Indiana
The No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers played an easier schedule than some in the conference this season, but they still deserve plenty of credit for winning the league by two full games. Winners of five consecutive games, Indiana has improved immensely on the defensive end since the start of the season and they feature one of the most potent offenses in the country. Although Indiana is the No. 1 seed, they’re 0-1 against No. 2 seed Michigan State this season, suffering an 88-69 loss in East Lansing on Feb. 14.
- Maryland: The Terps are 2-4 in their last six games, but they have enough talent to compete with any team in the league if they come together.
- Purdue: Purdue’s front-court depth makes them a tough out in a tournament setting, but the Boilers have to hit perimeter shots to beat the Big Ten’s elite teams.
Entering as the No. 6 seed, it’s hard to call the Badgers a “sleeper” in this since they’re safely in the NCAA tournament field, but they do have the kind of team that can make a run in Indianapolis. If the Badgers get Maryland in the quarterfinals, they gave the Terps everything they could handle in splitting during the regular season. Wisconsin also owns a win over the conference’s top two seeds, Indiana and Michigan State, this season.
The Bubble Dwellers:
- Michigan: The Wolverines have dropped four of their last five entering the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has to beat Northwestern in its opener on Thursday and then follow that up by beating No. 1 seed Indiana on Friday. Even if Michigan wins those first two games, they probably wouldn’t truly feel safe unless they win another game to make the tournament title game.
- Ohio State: Ohio State is doing everything they can to stay relevant on Selection Sunday, but they’re going to have to win multiple games to get in as an at-large team. The Buckeyes have to beat Penn State on Thursday and probably need another win against Michigan State after that to even be considered. Much like rival Michigan, Ohio State is going to need as many wins as possible next week to feel comfortable as a credible at-large threat.
Big Ten Player of the Year: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
The runaway winner of this award is Valentine, who is also a strong contender for National Player of the Year. The 6-foot-5 senior was simply dominant whenever he took the floor this season, as Valentine averaged 19.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game. While filling up the box score every night, Valentine was also ruthlessly efficient, as he improved all of his shooting splits from his junior season (47% FG, 84% FT, 45% 3PT). Besides putting up big numbers, Valentine is perhaps the country’s most important emotional leader, as he gives the Spartans the kind of attitude that makes them legitimate national title contenders when he’s on the floor.
Big Ten Coach of the Year: Greg Gard, Wisconsin
You could just as easily give this award to Indiana’s Tom Crean for the tremendous job he’s done this season, but Indiana was supposed to be good. Wisconsin was in shambles when Greg Gard took over for Bo Ryan on Dec. 15. It took awhile for the Badgers to adjust to the veteran assistant — and overcome the emotional departure of Ryan — but Gard has coached Wisconsin to the point of making a NCAA tournament at-large bid when they were only 9-9 on Jan. 12. That’s a remarkable turnaround, and now, the Badgers are a team that nobody wants to play in March again.
First-Team All-Big Ten:
- Denzel Valentine, Michigan State (POY)
- Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa: One of the nation’s most versatile forwards, the senior was top 15 in the Big Ten in scoring (second), rebounding (11th), free-throw percentage (ninth), 3-pointers made (13th) and blocked shots (first). Uthoff’s improvement made Iowa a legitimate threat in the Big Ten and he gave the Hawkeyes a rim protector that they needed.
- A.J. Hammons, Purdue: Among Purdue’s loaded frontcourt, the senior was the toughest cover, as he averaged 15.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in Big Ten play while shooting 57 percent from the floor. Hammons’ numbers are even more impressive when you consider the limited minutes that he played compared to many starting-caliber players in the Big Ten.
- Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Another senior to make the All-Big Ten first team, Ferrell was sensational as Indiana’s team leader and point guard. Ferrell continued to improve his all-around numbers while also stepping up as a better defender and team leader. During a season in which the pressure was on Ferrell to win, he guided Indiana to a Big Ten title.
- Melo Trimble, Maryland: Although some of his numbers went down after a breakout freshman season, Trimble became more of a point guard in his second season in College Park. Trimble averaged 5.2 assists per game after only 3.0 per game as a freshman, as he had more weapons around him this season. Still one of the game’s great clutch players, Trimble has ice in his veins with the game on the line.
Second Team All-Big Ten:
- Peter Jok, Iowa
- Bryn Forbes, Michigan State
- Malcolm Hill, Illinois
- Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
- Matt Costello, Michigan State
Defining moment of the season: Indiana clinched the outright Big Ten title on Iowa’s home floor. It’s the second time in four years that Tom Crean has won an outright Big Ten regular season title.
CBT Prediction: Michigan State beats Indiana