March Madness: What can we learn from each B1G team in Indy
Even after the regular season, the 14 teams in the Big Ten still have something to show.
And they’ll get that opportunity in Indianapolis this week, site of the league’s conference tournament. It starts Wednesday and concludes Sunday, just before the Field of 68 is set for the NCAA Tournament. But there’s a lot to learn between now and then, like whether Nebraska can continue its hot streak, whether Indiana has the gusto to fight its way into the NCAA field and whether Purdue can get hot again at the right time.
Let’s take a look at what we can learn from each B1G this week in Indianapolis, listed by seeds:
Record: 13-16, 4-16
After a 9-0 non-conference season, part of a 10-1 start that included a Big Ten win at Michigan, the Golden Gophers had their eyes set on a surprise run toward an NCAA bid. But reality took hold, as Minnesota slipped once it hit the gantlet of the conference season. Now, with little to play for in Indianapolis but pride, we’ll see whether new coach Ben Johnson has instilled the kind of culture he wants, one of a tough, never-give-in group.
Record: 10-21, 4-16
Nebraska — NEBRASKA! — is the hottest team in the Big Ten right now. Unbelievable. During his first 3-plus seasons in Lincoln, Fred Hoiberg’s road record was 1-30, but suddenly the Cornhuskers are road warriors. They’ve won 3 straight away from home (and 3 straight overall), beating Penn State, then-No. 23 Ohio State and then-No. 10 Wisconsin. If Nebraska continues the run in Indianapolis with a victory or 2 — it’d get Iowa in the second round — then the Huskers can show the late run was no fluke and take a ton of momentum into the offseason.
Record: 14-15, 7-13
Does the fate of Chris Collins hang in the balance? With its veteran roster, Northwestern was expected to be able to compete for an at-large NCAA berth. Instead, it’ll need at least 2 victories in the Big Ten Tournament even to be eligible for the NIT. Does Collins take the fall? Not sure. His teams are competitive and he guided the Wildcats to their first NCAA appearance ever, although that’s been a few years ago now.
11. Penn State
Record: 12-16, 7-13
Most people feel like Micah Shrewsberry will have Penn State as a player in the Big Ten, it’s only a matter of when. This season, the Nittany Lions they shook things up at times in the league, knocking off Iowa and Michigan State. And many of their losses were competitive, even the final 2: A 5-point loss at Illinois, then a 1-point loss at Rutgers. In what seems like a more open bottom-half of the tournament bracket, we’ll learn this week whether PSU is the team that can make a run from Wednesday. It seems the most likely to do so.
Record: 15-16, 7-13
Do the Terrapins have any life left or are they ready for this tumultuous season to be over? Maryland could extend its season by fighting its way into the NIT, but it’d need at least 2 B1G wins to get back to .500. And that means wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin. But maybe the Terps are just ready to move on, after seeing their coach depart during the non-conference, then failing to meet expectations that had many thinking they could finish in the top-5 of the Big Ten.
Record: 18-12, 9-11
Indiana has a chance to show it’s a changed program under first-year coach Mike Woodson. If the Hoosiers flame out in Indianapolis, then maybe they’re like the last 5 teams, each of which failed to make the NCAA Tournament (although the ’20 COVID team might have, had the tourney not been canceled). But if IU shows some meddle, finds a way to beat Michigan, even in an ugly slugfest, which it’s likely to be, and fights its way into the Field of 68, then the Hoosiers will show they’re on an upward trajectory.
Record: 17-13, 11-9
If Michigan loses to Indiana on Thursday, it raises a lot of questions: 1) Will the Wolverines still make the NCAA Tournament, even though they’ll be only 3 games above .500? The threshold, traditionally, has been 4 games. 2) Will we wonder about Juwan Howard’s ability to rally his team? The UM head coach will be back on the sideline following his 5-game suspension and many will be looking to see how his team responds. A loss, then a snub by the NCAA Committee wouldn’t be a good look.
7. Michigan State
Record: 20-11, 11-9
Michigan State is going to be in the NCAA Tournament, but not many feel like this is a Tom Izzo team poised for a big run. This week in Indy, we’ll see whether any Spartan is ready to step up as a player ready to lead the team. It’s not really happened much, especially on the offensive end, for Michigan State this season. Can Gabe Brown get hot? Max Christie? If the Spartans are going to get hot, then they’ve got to find someone to learn on to score.
6. Ohio State
Record: 19-10, 12-8
Who are the real Buckeyes? Ohio State limps into the Big Ten Tournament having losses in 3 of their last 4 games. What gives? OSU has one of the best, most versatile players in the league in forward E.J. Liddell, but it’s missing key pieces elsewhere. Of course, injuries haven’t helped. But if Ohio State is upset on Thursday, either by Penn State or Minnesota (which seems possible), then it says a lot about the team that will enter the NCAAs.
Record: 22-9, 12-8
No one wants to play Iowa right now. Just ask Illinois, which escaped Iowa’s upset bid on Sunday night to earn the Fighting Illini a share of the Big Ten title. The Hawkeyes continue to be able to score, but they’ve added in solid defensive play during the second half of the conference season, especially in their ability to press and turn teams over. Assuming the Hawkeyes win on Thursday, the Friday matchup vs. Rutgers will be a hell of a game. If Iowa gets by the feisty Knights, then look out; Iowa could make noise in the NCAA tourney.
Record: 18-12, 12-8
Easy enough: If Rutgers wins 1 more game — likely vs. Iowa on Friday — then it’s a guarantee that the Scarlet Knights make the NCAA Tournament. Lose and they’ll likely be sweating it out on Selection Sunday. Does Rutgers have 1 more big win? It’s been a heck of a season for the Scarlet Knights, after a rough November that saw them pick up bad loss after bad loss. But Rutgers, behind Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker, has a knack for making big plays when necessary. Maybe that continues.
Record: 25-6, 14-6
Purdue has a lot to prove in Indianapolis. Formerly the No. 1 team in the country, albeit for only a week, the Boilermakers limp into the postseason, losers of 2 of their final 3 regular-season games. Free throws and turnovers have been an issue of late. But if the Boilermakers suddenly regain their offensive mojo — and that will likely come from Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams, who have had some inconsistencies of late — then the late season swoon will be long forgotten.
Record: 24-6, 15-5
Does Wisconsin still have any magic left? The Badgers made a surprise run to a share of the Big Ten title, after they had been picked to finish 10th in the league in the preseason. But Nebraska’s win at the Kohl Center on Sunday, when UW could have won the title outright, took off some of the shine. And Johnny Davis’ injury, which we don’t yet know a lot about, compounded the issue. Is Davis healthy and does Wisconsin erase Sunday’s sting quickly? We’ll find out in Indy.
Record: 22-8, 15-5
For most of the season, Illinois seemed like one of the most talented — if not the most talented — team in the Big Ten, because it had a gigantic big man in Kofi Cockburn and the quickest set of guards in the league, led by the veteran presence of Trent Frazier. But the group spent very few games together, with players missing games due to injury or illness. But now a unit that seems to be clicking at the right time, maybe Brad Underwood’s group is poised for a big run.