Ultimate B1G Tournament Preview: Contenders, pretenders and potential bracket busters
The Big Ten has never been deeper.
At least 8 teams are likely to make the NCAA Tournament, each with a chance — of varying degree — to get a Big Ten title first.
Following is a breakdown of the 14 league teams, divided into their likelihood of success in Indianapolis, and other storylines as we count down to Wednesday’s tip-off.
The Favorites To Win
Michigan: The Wolverines enter the Big Ten Tournament limping — literally and figuratively — having lost 2 of their last 3, and having lost point guard Eli Brooks to what appeared to be a nasty ankle injury. For Michigan, the Big Ten Tournament might be a question of importance. It’s likely already locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, so it’ll try to make a run in the Big Ten while knowing that a little extra rest might not be all that bad either.
Illinois: The Fighting Illini have a chip on their shoulder, feeling like their second-place finish in the Big Ten should be considered a first, given that they played more games than the Wolverines. What’s the remedy? Well, Illinois could win the Big Ten Tournament to give itself a legitimate title. One could argue the Illini are the favorite, considering the way they played without star Ayo Dosunmo. But now the masked man is back and on a mission to collect as many titles as possible.
The Goods To Win
Iowa: The Hawkeyes’ chances, both in the Big Ten this week and in the NCAA, might rest with the healing ankle of Joe Wieskamp. The versatile forward is nursing the sprain, suffered in the season-finale vs. Wisconsin, although there’s optimism that he could have a speedy return. But by this week? Iowa might be best served to shut him down until the NCAA. But if it does, then the Hawkeyes’ ceiling is significantly lowered.
Purdue: Is Purdue really still a dark horse? Maybe only for those not paying attention. The Boilermakers have won 5 games in a row, with their freshmen — Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey and the rest — playing like veterans. But the Boilermakers don’t have an easy path in the Big Ten (does anybody?) with a potential Friday matchup with Ohio State, which Purdue has already beaten twice, then perhaps Michigan on Saturday. But the Boilermakers have been surprising all season, so why stop now?
Ohio State: Although Ohio State enters the postseason having lost 4 straight, it’s more than capable of getting back on a roll. The key might be late-game situations, where the Buckeyes inexplicably have been bad in recent outings, losing late leads vs. Michigan State and Illinois. With veterans like Duane Washington Jr., C.J. Walker, Kyle Young, E.J. Liddle and on and on, it seems like OSU shouldn’t be fading. Yet here we are. Is there time still to get it back?
The Outsiders To Win
Wisconsin: Wisconsin returned many of the pieces from its co-championship team a season ago, yet it hasn’t been able to replicate the success. The offense, outside of D’Mitrik Trice, just hasn’t been anywhere near consistent. And defense and rebounding can take you only so far if the offense is limited.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights still feel like a potentially scary team, but maybe that’s all fantasy. Rutgers just hasn’t clicked since January. Sure it’ll put together 40 minutes and jump up on an opponent, but that’s not happened often enough over the last two months.
Michigan State: It’s Michigan State, so anything seems possible. And the Spartans are playing well of late, with wins over Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan over the last couple of weeks of the season. What gives?
Maryland: The Terrapins probably don’t have the size necessary for a deep Big Ten Tournament run, considering they’re at a matchup disadvantage at the No. 5 seed.
The Unlikely To Win
Indiana: There’s no indication that Indiana is poised to make a run. In fact, the opposite. The Hoosiers appear to be playing out the string, just waiting for the madness to be over. And then the fate of Archie Miller will be decided.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions have been a fun team to watch most of the season, like in the ridiculous second-half comeback at Maryland on Sunday, so the radar will be up for anyone having to face them this week. But while they might spoil someone’s week, they’re unlikely for a deep run themselves.
Northwestern: The Wildcats started their Big Ten season on a 3-game winning streak and end on one — let’s just forget all that happened in between — so perhaps they can win a game in Indianapolis. But more than that would be a shocker.
Minnesota: Does anyone even care anymore? Not Minnesota, it doesn’t seem. The Gophers went from potentially dangerous NCAA Tournament team to dumpster fire in about 4.3 seconds. And after Minnesota loses, it might not take much longer than that for Richard Pitino to be dumped.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are a longshot to win a game, let alone more than that. The rebuild continues in Lincoln.
Five To Watch
Rocket Watts: The sophomore guard has been a mystery much of the season, unable to capture the stroke that had many projecting big things for him this season. But he was outstanding in the season-finale, scoring 21 points against Michigan to help — one might think — stamp the Spartans’ ticket to the NCAA Tournament. If he continues to perform at a high level, it changes MSU, giving the Spartans an aggressive scoring guard that they had lacked.
Jaden Ivey: The freshman has turned into the lead guard for the Boilermakers because of his ability to break down defenses and score in traffic. And he keeps getting better every game. Is he ready to carry a team into the postseason? Perhaps. He’s definitely close.
Andre Curbelo: The Illini freshman benefitted from the absence of Dosunmo in that he could show his ability to lead a team. And then his line in Dosunmo’s return: 19 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds off the bench
Hunter Dickinson: The Wolverines’ freshman is a next-level talent who makes everyone around him better, and a big reason Michigan won the Big Ten regular-season title.
Gio Baker: The veteran guard has had a reputation as a big-shot maker during his Rutgers career, but that’s not yet come to fruition this season. Will the big stage make a difference?
The top 7 seeds in the Big Ten Tournament are likely in the NCAA, regardless of outcomes this week.
But what to make of No. 8 Michigan State and No. 9 Maryland? Is their Thursday matchup an NCAA play-in game? That might be much to say, but each probably says they need a victory to seal a spot in the Field of 68. That might especially be true of Maryland, which has sunk in the last week, with losses to Northwestern and Penn State. If it also drops Thursday to Michigan State, then Mark Turgeon might be facing some questions come Friday.