Hickey: 10 questions for the 2023 Big Ten men's basketball tournament
The 2023 Big Ten men’s basketball regular season was insane to the last drop.
Thanks to Northwestern’s 65-53 win over Rutgers in the final game of the B1G regular season on Sunday night, the Wildcats enter the Big Ten Tournament with the No. 2 seed. The Cats would have plummeted all the way to the No. 9 seed with a loss.
That’s how jumbled this league is. And that jumble is poised to make for maybe the most intriguing Big Ten Tournament ever played.
The 2023 #B1GMBBT bracket is set!
Who’s taking home the 🏆❓ pic.twitter.com/8JzmrtN4UF
— Big Ten Men's Basketball (@B1GMBBall) March 6, 2023
Top-seeded Purdue is clearly the tournament favorite, but there’s no telling which team the Boilermakers might face for the title. Or if they’ll even make it out of the quarterfinals — Rutgers and Michigan are both capable of putting an early end to Purdue’s Big Ten Tourney run.
Here are 10 storylines to monitor in this year’s Big Ten Tournament.
1. Will Purdue earn a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed?
For much of the season, Purdue looked like the presumptive No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament — a benefit that comes with the ability to pick the regional at which you’d like to make your tournament run. A border state arrangement of Columbus and Louisville would have suited Purdue nicely.
Now, the Boilers are instead trying to get the last of those 4 top seeds. They likely need to cut the nets down in Chicago to do so — and maybe still get some help.
2. Will Northwestern live up to its seed?
Northwestern is the only team that has played in every single Big Ten Tournament since 1998 without reaching the championship game. The Wildcats reached the semifinals as a No. 6 seed in the 2017 Tourney. It is the lone time Northwestern made it as far as Saturday.
Given that the Wildcats have the No. 2 seed in the field, anything short of the semifinals would be a massive letdown. But should Northwestern find itself playing for its first Big Ten title since 1933 in front of a hometown crowd on Sunday, it will make for a fun afternoon at United Center.
3. Which bubbles will burst?
There are 3 teams entering the Big Ten Tourney with their NCAA Tournament hopes hanging in the air.
Penn State likely needs to beat No. 7-seed Illinois to guarantee its first NCAA appearance since 2011, though the Nittany Lions might still sneak in after a sweaty weekend with a loss.
Wisconsin and Michigan, on the other hand, almost certainly need to win twice. A Wednesday slip-up against Ohio State would sink Wisconsin’s ship, and a loss to 5th-seeded Iowa the following day would lead to a weekend of scoreboard watching for the Badgers.
If it had won at Indiana on Sunday, Michigan potentially needed just 1 more win to get into the field. But the Wolverines squandered that opportunity in overtime, and now must beat Rutgers on Thursday to have any hope. A quarterfinal win over Purdue, however, would most certainly seal the deal — so there is some benefit of being the 8-seed.
Due to where they are at in the bracket, it’s possible all 3 bubble teams will win their way into the Big Dance — or lose their way out of it.
4. Will Land of Lincoln rivals duke it out again?
As has been noted previously in this space, Illinois and Northwestern share a rivalry only through means of geography. Nothing about the programs has ever been very close.
But the teams split the season series, including Illinois’ 18-point comeback for a 66-62 win in a classic matchup on Feb. 23. A rubber match in front of a split audience is a dream come true for the Big Ten.
However, Illinois must get past Penn State to set up that quarterfinal matchup, and the Nittany Lions have punked the Illini twice this season.
5. Will Hoosier State rivals finally meet again?
Indiana and Purdue have played once in the Big Ten Tournament. Seriously. Purdue beat Indiana 76-71 in the inaugural Big Ten Tournament in 1998, and that’s been it. No third leg of the Big Ten’s best basketball rivalry since Year 1.
If we finally get a rematch, it means the No. 3-seeded Hoosiers and the No. 1 Boilermakers are playing for the Big Ten championship on Sunday. Both schools have a significant enough alumni reach in the Chicagoland area, which includes Northwest Indiana, to dwarf the atmosphere Illinois and Northwestern might pull in on Friday night.
6. Can Indiana hang a banner?
Trayce Jackson-Davis noted that the Hoosiers could use some additional banners for Assembly Hall’s rafters in his Senior Night speech.
The end of Trayce Jackson-Davis’ senior night speech. #iubb pic.twitter.com/PXoegj542f
— Zach Osterman (@ZachOsterman) March 6, 2023
There are 5 proud national championship banners at IU, but none for winning the Big Ten Tournament. At least not for the men.
Bob Knight always dragged his heels against the Big Ten adding a tournament, and Indiana basketball has always seemed to approach the event in that spirit. The Hoosiers haven’t even reached the tournament final since 2001.
It might seem like a small accomplishment for Mike Woodson to change that in his second year — it’s not the banner long-time IU fans are chasing — but it would actually be Indiana’s biggest moment since the 2002 run to the national championship game.
7. Can an opening-round dark horse arise?
No double-digit seed has ever won the Big Ten Tournament, and only 2 have ever made it as far as the final. Illinois did it in both instances, first as an 11-seed in 1999 and then as a 10-seed 9 years later.
But something feels different about this year’s field. It’s not inconceivable for a team playing on Wednesday to at least reach the semifinals.
In particular, keep an eye on the Buckeyes.
Chris Holtmann’s wildly underachieving Ohio State team has finally resembled its early-season form over the past 3 games. The Buckeyes stunned Illinois and Maryland before providing Michigan State with a test in the season finale. And Wisconsin is a very beatable opening-round opponent.
From there, Ohio State would get an Iowa team it beat 93-77 on Jan. 21 followed by the Michigan State team it just challenged at Breslin Center.
No. 11 seed Nebraska is another team capable of making a run. The Huskers are 1 of the hottest teams in the conference with 5 wins in their past 6 games. A win over Minnesota basically guarantees an NIT berth, which would be quite a step forward for Fred Hoiberg’s program.
But that might not be all they are aspiring for. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Nebraska facing Indiana in the quarterfinals.
8. Which Thursday team is best positioned for a title run?
What if I told you that Penn State could win a Big Ten basketball title before it wins its next Big Ten football title? And it’s not because James Franklin’s program is in bad shape.
It’s because this bracket sets up well for Micah Shrewsberry’s program.
The Nittany Lions will have to navigate through a pro-Illinois crowd Thursday evening, but they’ve already trounced the Illini twice this year. After that comes Northwestern — another team Penn State defeated on the road. And after that could be Indiana — a team Penn State destroyed by 19 in Happy Valley.
Purdue is a troublesome matchup for Penn State, but the Nittany Lions would have a shot against any other potential championship game opponent.
9. Can Maryland win away from Maryland?
“Maryland, My Maryland” was Maryland’s state song from 1939-2021. But it’s also a bit of a theme for this year’s Terrapins, for the only place they win is in Maryland, Their Maryland.
The Terps were the only Big Ten team to go undefeated on their home floor this year. But Maryland’s only true road wins came at Louisville and Minnesota — teams ranked 222nd and 284th nationally per KenPom.
Historically speaking, the No. 6 seed is a very good spot to be in the Big Ten Tourney. The 6-seed has an all-time winning percentage of .593, which is actually ranks 3rd behind the top-2 seeds.
Maryland is an interesting litmus test balancing the power of the 6-seed against the Terps’ struggles to travel.
10. Who is least likely to win a game?
It’s obviously 14th-seeded Minnesota, which is the Big Ten’s worst team by a mile. Or do they measure in kilometers up there?
And even if the Gophers upset Nebraska, there’s little hope of making a run. Ben Johnson’s team is so bad because it has so little depth.
But save for the Gophers, Rutgers is the team that enters this tournament inspiring the least confidence. Rutgers is in a rut, going 2-6 since losing Mawot Mag to a season-ending injury — and both wins required last-second heroics.
The Scarlet Knights looked dismal in a 58-45 home loss to Michigan on Feb. 23, and they are a much worse team when they aren’t at Jersey Mike’s Arena. Another loss to the hungry Wolverines feels likely, and with that Rutgers could be looking at another NCAA Tournament that begins in Dayton.