At the surface level, the stakes of the Big Ten Tournament are pretty obvious.

The winner cuts down the nets, hoists a trophy and clinches the Big Ten’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

But the Big Ten tourney, which begins Wednesday evening, has a different meaning for each of the 14 teams in this week’s field.

For a handful, winning the whole thing is the only path to the Big Dance. To those on the bubble, that might be achieved with just 1 or 2 wins more. And the teams at the top have a chance to move up a line or 2 in NCAA seeding if they run the table.

Here is the breakdown of where everyone stands:

Gotta win out

  • Minnesota
  • Nebraska
  • Northwestern
  • Penn State
  • Maryland

The season’s over for any of these un-fab 5 if they don’t win the title.

Of this grouping, Maryland has the only chance, and not just because the Terps are the only ones who wouldn’t have to win 5 games in 5 days. Maryland has a championship-caliber backcourt in Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala to go along with a potentially favorable bracket.

First-round opponent Michigan State comes in having lost 5 of 7, and Johnny Davis figures to be limited for quarterfinal opponent Wisconsin — if he plays at all.

If the Terps draw No. 3 seed Purdue in the semifinals, it’s another solid matchup. The Boilermakers squeaked past Maryland by a point at Mackey Arena on Feb. 13.

For fans of consolation, both Maryland and Northwestern need 2 wins in Indianapolis to qualify for the NIT.

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Win 1 and in*

  • Michigan
  • Indiana

Michigan might have to win 1 more game to clinch an NCAA Tournament bid. Indiana definitely needs a W. And depending on how things shake out across the country, the Hoosiers might even need another.

But the stakes are fairly uncomplicated for both of these teams. And they have to go through each other Thursday to get there.


  • Michigan State
  • Ohio State

The Spartans and Buckeyes both traveled to Indy moving in reverse.

Michigan State was 3-7 in its past 10 games, and all of those wins were at Breslin Center. There’s no Izzone at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

When Ohio State beat Illinois on Feb. 24, the Buckeyes looked like they would be the team to beat heading into the Big Ten tourney. Instead, they’ve crumbled, dropping 3 of 4. That slide includes losses to 10th-seeded Maryland and 13th-seeded Nebraska.

Ohio State allowed at least 1 point per possession in its final 5 games, so a defensive tune-up is sorely needed this week.

Both Michigan State and Ohio State are NCAA tourney-bound, but it would be impossible to feel good about either team if they go 1-and-done this week.

Playing for history

  • Rutgers

There’s no team in a stranger spot than the Scarlet Knights.

As the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, Rutgers should be safely in the NCAA Tournament field. But if Rutgers ends up with Nebraska or Northwestern instead of Iowa in the quarterfinals and loses, it could be disastrous. The Scarlet Knights would probably be banished to the NIT.

Not a likely scenario, but a potential scenario nevertheless.

And then there’s the obverse scenario: This tournament could also be the program’s greatest moment since reaching the 1976 Final Four.

The Scarlet Knights haven’t won a conference championship in any men’s sport since joining the Big Ten in 2014-15. And they haven’t won a men’s basketball championship of any sort since the 1991 Atlantic 10 regular-season title.

Playing to move up a seed line (or 2)

  • Iowa
  • Illinois

If the NCAA Tournament began today, we’d be writing a different article.

Also, Iowa would probably be a 6-seed and Illinois a 4.

Fortunately, none of these things are the case. And if either team runs the table this week, they could potentially move up 2 spots on those seed lines by Selection Sunday.

The Hawkeyes and Illini are lined up for a potential meeting in the semifinals Saturday, which would be a welcome matchup after their captivating showdown in the regular-season finale. The winner of that game would almost certainly assure themselves of improving their NCAA seed.

Playing for a 1-seed

  • Purdue
  • Wisconsin

The top of the Big Ten has cannibalized itself this season, making it quite unlikely the conference will produce a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But there is still a modicum of a chance for the Badgers and Boilermakers to nab the last No. 1 seed if they win the Big Ten tourney. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Wisconsin as the final No. 2 seed (8th overall) and Purdue as the top No. 3 seed (9th overall) on Tuesday.

There are enough quality wins left in the Big Ten tourney for either team to break into the top 4.

Even if that doesn’t happen, Wisconsin and Purdue have likely done enough this season to assure themselves of favorable geography in the first 2 rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Both Milwaukee and Indianapolis are hosting first- and second-round games, and the Badgers and Boilers are probably heading to those homes away from home regardless of how this week pans out.