For the first time in its history, the Big Ten Tournament will host 14 teams, with the Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers Scarlet Knights joining the fray this weekend at the United Center in Chicago. With the Big Ten having 8 teams either safely in the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament, or floating squarely on the dreaded bubble, just about everyone has something to play for besides a coveted Big Ten Championship. Let's examine the popular story lines for (just about) each team heading into Championship Weekend.
#1 seed - Wisconsin Badgers - Can they play their way to a #1 seed?
Since the beginning of the New Year, discussions have been swirling about the Badgers and their NCAA Tournament seed. When it became fairly evident early on that they were the cream of the crop in the Big Ten, rumbles began about the possibility of ending up in the same Midwest regional as the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats if the Badgers were to be assigned a #2 seed. For some, this increased the desire to obtain a prestigious #1 seed in order to avoid such a daunting regional. However, it's basically guaranteed that if Wisconsin wants to win the national championship that made Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky return to school for another go around, they'll have to go through the Wildcats at some point, so the whole hub-bub about a #2 seed vs. a #1 seed seems to be a bit of waste of time. Nevertheless, if the Badgers truly want a #1 seed, it would stand to reason that they must win the BTT and have Duke, Virginia, or Villanova falter in a convincing way.
#2 seed - Maryland Terrapins - How high can Maryland's seed rise?
The Bracket Matrix currently has Mark Turgeon's squad as the best #3 seed in the field. They would appear to have a #3 seed locked up due to the three teams trailing them all playing in the same conference tournament (Big Twelve). However, the more interesting topic of discussion for Maryland is that if they run the table in the BTT and beat Wisconsin in the final, do they have the resume of a #2 seed? Could they possibly usurp the spot designated for Kansas if the Jayhawks falter in the Big Twelve Tournament? Would this cause the Big Twelve to have 4 (!!!!) #3 seeds, something that I'm fairly positive has never been done by any conference? I'm sure most fans would love a Wisconsin-Maryland rematch in the final so it will be interesting to see how things go for Maryland in the lower half of the BTT bracket and if the team can muster any motivation beyond a BTT title or a slightly improved seed in the NCAA Tournament.
#3 seed - Michigan State Spartans - Which Big Ten Tournament edition of MSU will arrive in Chicago?
In the last 8 years or so, Michigan State has appeared as a bit of a two-face when in comes to the Big Ten Tournament. With titles in 2012 and 2014, there's the good Michigan State. With early exits in 2009 and 2010, there's the bad Michigan State. There has been speculation that Tom Izzo prefers to concentrate on the next weekend when the real dance starts and doesn't fully emphasize success in the BTT. While this could be inaccurate hearsay, it will be interesting to see how the Spartans respond after finishing the regular season in a flurry with strong wins against Purdue and at Indiana that catapulted them to an advantageous seed.
#4 seed - Purdue Boilermakers - Will Purdue make the Big Dance?
After losses to North Florida, or should I say Atlantic Sun Champions North Florida, and Gardner-Webb at Mackey Arena in late December, most believed it would continue to stay ugly in West Lafayette this season. However, Matt Painter turned things around during the Big Ten grind and grabbed the last double-bye for the BTT. However, those ugly early season losses don't appear to be sitting well with bracketologists or the Selection Committee as Purdue sits squarely on the bubble going into this weekend. If either Penn State or Nebraska knocks off Iowa in the second round game to face Purdue, it'd be a lose-lose situation. A win would do nothing for the Boilermakers' RPI and a loss would most certainly drive them to either Dayton or out of the field entirely. If the game goes according to seed and they face the Iowa Hawkeyes, things are still very interesting. A loss wouldn't be nearly as devastating as in the previous scenario and a win would most certainly erase any doubts in the minds of the committee. Regardless of the winner of the second round game, Painter's crew would be better off winning their first game in the quarterfinals in order to feel moderately comfortable on Selection Sunday.
#5 seed - Iowa Hawkeyes - Are the Hawkeyes the BTT darkhorse?
Many prognosticators have pegged the red hot Hawkeyes as a darkhorse to win the whole kit and caboodle. With a #7 seed seemingly secured for the Big Dance, the pressure appears to be low on Fran McCaffrey's team. A rematch with Purdue in the quarterfinals is looming, which would be interesting considering All-Conference player Aaron White missed a majority of the first match up between the two teams that was narrowly decided in favor of the Boilermakers. However, a daunting task looms in the semifinals as the Badgers wait atop the bracket, a team that has whooped the Hawkeyes on two occasions. If they can continue their hot streak, Iowa could be a team to improve their NCAA Tournament seed substantially with a run to the championship.
#6 seed - Ohio State Buckeyes - Will D'Angelo Russell pull an Evan Turner?
In 2010, Ohio State had a great all-around team. But it was Evan Turner who did things like this and led them to a BTT championship. While in 2010 they were a favored #1 seed, D'Angelo Russell will be given a slightly more daunting task as a #6 seed at the bottom of the bracket. However, he has the ability to put the team on his back and deliver. Ohio State always performs very well at the BTT and Russell may be looking to add to his collection of awards after picking up First Team All-Conference honors earlier this week. With Ohio State projected as a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it may behoove Russell to put on a show and advance beyond the quarterfinals to avoid playing a #1 seed in the third round of March Madness. His ability to score, distribute, and lead a talent Buckeye squad doesn't make a run to the championships beyond the realm of reasonable possibility.
#7 seed - Indiana Hoosiers - Will the Hoosier's go dancing? Bonus question: Will coach Tom Crean be fired?!?!
Indiana is slated to play Northwestern in the second round on Thursday. Northwestern has owned Tom Crean during his tenure at Indiana to the tune of an 8-4 record since 2008. Since Indiana currently stands as literally the last team in the Big Dance in the mind of Joe Lunardi, it's safe to say that if the Hoosiers lose this game, they won't be returning to the NCAA Tournament. If that were to occur, would it be possible that Tom Crean loses his job? The people of Bloomington appear to be just a TAD disgruntled after two seasons of perceived underachieving and being bounced early (for a #1 seed that is) in the Sweet Sixteen with his best squad in 2013. But the thing is, even if the Hoosiers beat Northwestern and lose to Maryland, they wouldn't be assured a spot in the field of 68. In order to feel completely "safe," they'd have to defeat the Terrapins, a team that they performed well against during the regular season but are by no stretch of the imagination an easy match up. Things are tenuous for a team that relies heavily on the three-point shot and are capable of losing to the likes of Eastern Washington.
#8 seed - Illinois Fighting Illini - (Repeat question alert!!!!!) Will the Illini go dancing?
Joey Brackets has the Illini as one of the last 8 teams out of the Big Dance. It would appear that as of now, thanks to finishing the regular season with a lackluster 2-4 record i ntheir last 6 games (with only wins at home against Northwestern and Nebraska), the Illini will be heading back to the NIT. That is, unless a traditionally BTT-overachieving Illinois squad shows up to create chaos. With some of the more historic lower seeded runs in the 1999 (#11 seed runners-up) and 2008 (#10 seed runners-up) BTTs, Illinois will have to channel the demons of Lon Kruger and Bruce Weber past and probably beat both Michigan and Wisconsin to have a shot at participating in the biggest tournament of the month of March. While I wouldn't necessarily say it's out of the realm of possibility, it certainly doesn't seem like something you'd want to bet the house on.
#9 seed - Michigan Wolverines - Any chance for Michigan without Caris LeVert?
Since January 17th, when do-it-all guard Caris LeVert went down with a season-ending injury, the Wolverines have found themselves as a bit of an after-thought in the Big Ten. Though they took Wisconsin to overtime a week later, they have lost 7 of their last 9 contests. Strangely enough, they did beat rival Ohio State at home on February 22nd. But the BTT presents a tricky proposition for John Beilein's crew. The Wolverines certainly have talent but matching up against a desperate Illinois squad and a possible rematch against the Badgers in the quarterfinals doesn't bode particularly well for the Maize and Blue. However, if they do make a run, perhaps they can change themselves from Big Ten after thought to tournament champions. Unlikely but nevertheless intriguing.
#10 seed - Northwestern Wildcats - Is Northwestern the tournament super (duper) darkhorse?!?!
Left for dead after a 1-10 start to the conference slate, the Wildcats sky-rocketed up the standings from tied for 13th to 10th winning 5 of their last 7 games. Chris Collins has resurrected a dead squad and the kind of reckless abandon the Wildcats are playing with right now can be a dangerous land mine for the likes of Indiana and Maryland, who have seemingly way more to play for. With the recent success against Indiana, as mentioned above, and the fact that they lost at Maryland by a single point in January before they hit their stride, you wouldn't be committed to the nearest insane asylum for suggested that the Wildcats could put a run together to get to the weekend rounds of the BTT. Tre Demps and Jershon Cobb provide enough athleticism and BTT experience that might cause problems for teams that take the surging Wildcats lightly.
#11 seed - Minnesota Golden Gophers - Will Minnesota make the NIT?
Yes, it has come to this for the Gophers this year. It would be safe to assume that a loss to Rutgers would eliminate them from contention to qualify for the "Little Dance." But if they win Wednesday and lose Thursday, will their success in last year's National Invitational Tournament be enough for selection? If you squint really hard, you could convince yourself Minnesota is capable of patching a few wins together to make things slightly more interesting for Gopher Nation. With Rutgers, Ohio State, and Michigan State on the guaranteed slate of games, it's possible. Rutgers is obviously not a strong squad. Minnesota lost in overtime to Ohio State, so they are by no means out-matched. And they even beat Michigan State in East Lansing. But the utter lack of consistency and poor momentum (losers of 5 of their last 6) make this a fool's proposition. They might need to focus on getting plane tickets to the nearest NIT one/two/three seed's home town/city.
#12-14 seeds - Penn State Nittany Lions, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Rutgers Scarlet Knights - Is there anything worth noting?
Penn State has a First Team All-Conference performer in DJ Newbill. And he could semi-conceivably go Kemba Walker (or, more applicable, Talor Battle) on the BTT field. But in all likelihood, even if the Nittany Lions beat the free-falling Huskers, they will probably lose to a more talented Iowa team before garnering any momentum. Possibly the most interesting question for this group is which team is less likely to win their first round game: Nebraska or Rutgers? Nebraska has devolved into some sort of grotesque experiment in human psychology while losing their last eight games. Meanwhile, Rutgers hasn't won a game since January 11th, ironically against the best team in the conference, who were without two of their starters. Although a Gopher fan through and through, I'd almost admit Rutgers appears to be the more likely candidate to claw their way to the second day of the tournament when compared to the sad state of affairs in Lincoln.
With the Big Ten being an absolute dog fight this year, the Big Ten Tournament is sure to provide plenty of close games and interesting developments. Personally, I wouldn't mind it if I found myself in Chicago to take in the spectacle. There are a lot of interesting story lines and plenty of business to be settled. Should be a good show for those able to make it to the United Center to take in some Big Ten basketball.