Predicting how far each Big Ten team will go in the 2023 NCAA Tournament
If you’re looking for hope that several Big Ten-related NCAA Tournament droughts will come to an end this month, you’ve come to the wrong place.
And there are quite a few in play.
Can a Big Ten team win a national title for the first time since 1999? Will top-seeded Purdue reach the Final Four for the first time since 1980? Is Illinois able to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005? Is there any B1G team, period, capable of making the Final Four for the first time since 2019?
According to my Magic 8-Ball, “Outlook Not So Good.”
Here are my predictions for how far each Big Ten team will go in the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
Maryland — First Round
My modest proposal: No. 8 Maryland and No. 9 West Virginia should play their game in Division II Frostburg State’s gym. It’s not quite halfway between the two campuses — a slight edge for WVU — but it’s the best we could do.
Or maybe going somewhere you can fit more than 2,000 people is actually the right call.
But since this game is in Birmingham, Ala., rather than within Maryland’s borders, the advantage goes to the Mountaineers. The Terrapins won twice away from home in Big Ten play. Both came against last-place Minnesota.
The Terps are a Top 10-caliber team when they play at Xfinity Center and a bubble team anywhere else they go. If Kevin Willard can bottle the home magic, this team certainly has the talent to win a couple games.
But I won’t believe it until I see it. Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers are not the Golden Gophers.
Illinois — First Round
The selection committee did a heck of a job pairing the 9th-seeded Illini with No. 8 Arkansas. Either is capable of beating or losing to any team in this tournament.
To wit: Illinois has beaten No. 2 seed UCLA and gone 0-3 against 10th-seeded Penn State. Arkansas has a win over 5th-seeded San Diego State and lost to an LSU team that went 2-16 in the SEC.
They mirror each other elsewhere as well. Illinois is 17th nationally in 2-point shooting percentage and 16th in 2-point shooting defense. Arkansas is 47th in both of those categories. Neither team can hit a 3 if the fate of the universe depended on it — Illinois is 331st nationally and Arkansas 304th.
But the difference here is going to be Arkansas’ ability to turn the Illini over. The Razorbacks are 26th nationally in steal rate, while the Illinois offense is 231st in steals allowed.
That is a less-than-ideal combo, particularly for a program with March demons to exorcise.
Iowa — First Round
I trust the Hawkeyes in March about as much as I trust my own jump shot, which is to say not at all.
Last year was the first time Fran McCaffery’s team was 1-and-done since the 2014 First Four. But when you suffer that loss as a 5-seed, it lingers. At least in terms of how much I can trust your team.
Iowa’s inability to reach the Sweet 16 since 1999 aside, the Hawkeyes are somehow stuck playing No. 9 seed Auburn in Birmingham. This is a pretty outrageous decision by the committee. Why should the Tigers, who would be underdogs in both the first and second rounds, be awarded with a de facto home game?
On top of that disadvantage, former Hawkeyes assistant Bruce Pearl’s defense ranks 5th nationally against 3-pointers. You could scarcely draw up a more ideal scenario for beating the Hawks.
Everything here screams 1-and-done for Iowa.
Northwestern — First Round
Sacramento will at least feel a little bit like home for the Wildcats, what with the purple motif of the hometown Kings and all. And it wouldn’t surprise me if this magical season continues for Northwestern. The game with 10th-seeded Boise State feels like a true toss-up.
But I’m not in love with how the Cats match up with the Broncos. Defense, especially turnovers, creates offense for Northwestern. Boise State’s offense is 31st nationally in preventing steals.
For Northwestern’s offense, getting to the free-throw line is the key to success.
The Cats are 54th in free-throw percentage — but Boise State doesn’t foul a whole lot. The Broncos ranked 261st nationally in percentage of points scored by opponents at the free-throw line — a category in which the higher the number, the better.
Of course, Purdue ranks 361st in the same category, and Northwestern did just fine against the Boilermakers. It wouldn’t surprise me if the same held true against the Broncos.
Penn State — Second Round
Yes, it’s true. I have a Big Ten team getting out of the first round.
In fact, 4-4 will be a fairly respectable record given how many B1G teams are stuck in 8-vs.-9 or 7-vs.-10 games where anything can happen.
In the Big Ten Tournament, the Nittany Lions spoiled a highly anticipated Purdue vs. Indiana meeting in the championship game. This week, they’ll put the kibosh on an even more heated rivalry — Texas vs. Texas A&M.
Fans across the Lone Star State will finally be paying more attention to basketball than football in anticipation of that matchup, but Penn State won’t comply. The Aggies allow a higher percentage of 3-point attempts than any team in the tournament, and the Nittany Lions take the 2nd-most 3s in the country.
Penn State will continue its hot streak with the mild upset of the 7th-seeded Aggies. However, No. 2 Texas will have too much firepower for Penn State’s defense in the second round.
Purdue — Second Round
In a topsy-turvy season, it makes sense that we could see early carnage among the No. 1 seeds.
Houston, stuck playing in Birmingham, will get bounced by Auburn. And Purdue, stuck playing either the best 8-seed or best 9-seed in this field, will fall short of the Final Four yet again.
The Memphis press is custom-built to get the job done against Purdue’s freshman backcourt. But in this case, I think it will be No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic springing the upset.
The Owls are too good a team to be seeded as they are, not unlike Loyola in 2021 or Kentucky in 2014. Those teams knocked off top seeds Illinois and Wichita State in the second round — a pair of teams that deserved better pairings.
The same will be true of the Boilermakers, who are capable of rolling all of the other 8-or-9 seeds in this field.
Florida Atlantic is 19th nationally in effective field goal percentage on offense and 15th defensively in the same category. Purdue is 90th offensively and 39th defensively.
Ken Pomeroy rates the Owls as the No. 22 team in the country — a ranking more befitting a No. 6 seed than a No. 9.
Worst of all for Purdue fans? FAU coach Dusty May is a former Bob Knight manager at Indiana.
A loss here will be a decidedly unpleasant experience.
Michigan State — Sweet 16
The NCAA knowingly created a bracket in which Michigan State, Duke and Kentucky could all be playing in regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden. And each of those teams has potential second round matchups which look conducive to that scenario playing out.
The Spartans must survive a battle against an ancient rival — the Men of Troy. No. 10 USC is more than capable of ending Michigan State’s run in the first round. But Tom Izzo and Michigan State have been through too much this year for that to happen.
I actually think the second round might provide a friendlier matchup. Shaka Smart has done a wonderful job at Marquette this year, but the Golden Eagles haven’t won a Tournament game in a decade. If any 15-seed can replicate the magic of Saint Peter’s, it’s Vermont. The Catamounts have won 15 straight.
Whether it’s Marquette or Vermont, I like Michigan State in Round 2.
But Michigan State is unmistakably soft in the middle. And that means a Sweet 16 matchup with Oscar Tshiebwe and Kentucky would mark the end of the road.
Indiana — Elite Eight
Sometimes, you need some breaks to make things happen in the postseason.
Example: Purdue, which won the Big Ten Tournament by beating the No. 9 seed, 13-seed and 10-seed in order.
I’ve got the Boilermakers catching a bad break in this tournament, while their rivals will get some good ones.
After sneaking past Kent State in the first round, the Hoosiers will find 12th-seeded Drake — the team, not the rapper — awaiting in the second round after the Bulldogs beat Miami.
Indiana will beat Drake by 6, of course. And if the next round finds Indiana meeting Kelvin Sampson and Houston, half the state is liable to melt down before and after the game.
But thanks to Auburn’s home-court advantage, Sampson will lose to the other coach with a shady past: Bruce Pearl.
Indiana will get past the 9th-seeded Tigers to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2002. But there will be no Final Four trip. Texas will nab its 2nd win over a Big Ten opponent, ending Indiana’s season as it did Penn State’s.