CHICAGO — Ten points to get you primed for four days of Big Ten tournament basketball, tipping off Thursday at the United Center.
1. It’s the Big Ten Tournament, the one with 12 teams and a bunch of reasons to watch many of those 12, but not a lot of teams really playing for a lot besides the chance to cut down the nets Sunday and earn bragging rights. Regular-season champion Indiana would like to cut down the nets after an actual victory and is chasing the No. 1 overall seed. Michigan and Michigan State would like to ensure opening the NCAA Tournament in Detroit next weekend. Minnesota and Illinois are probably getting to the NCAAs, but would like to win a game or two here to sleep easier on Saturday night. Iowa probably needs at least two wins to get at-large consideration.
2. For storylines, there’s Tubby Smith and Minnesota trying to build a little momentum at the end of the season for once. There’s newly crowned Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke trying to lead Michigan to momentum, unexpected revenge over Penn State and possibly as high as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Last year’s late fizzle should motivate Michigan. The National Player of the Year race is still on, with Burke and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo as top candidates, and a Saturday rematch of last year’s Indiana-Michigan game would be a dandy.
3. The best game Thursday should be the first one, with Illinois and Minnesota playing for the right to advance to play Indiana. The first two Friday should be great, too, with the Hoosiers playing that winner and Michigan playing Wisconsin if the Wolverines advance. The Badgers limped to the finish, but Bo Ryan’s teams always defend and tend to excel in tournament settings. If the seeds hold, Ohio State and Michigan State can settle their season series in Saturday’s second semifinal. See why this has been such a hot ticket?
4. The tournament is totally sold out, probably for several reasons: It’s been a banner year for Big Ten basketball, just 11 games remain and it’s being played on St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Chicago, giving fan bases from all 12 participants extra reason to party. Wisconsin always travels well, Chicago is a relatively easy drive from the Madison area, and Indiana’s fans are ecstatic about their team winning the Big Ten for the first time in 20 years. The Hoosiers have never won a Big Ten tournament title and haven’t played in a championship game since 2001. Hoosiers coach Tom Crean is 1-4 at the Big Ten tournament.
5. The Big Ten tournament has been the Thad Matta Invitational; the Ohio State coach is 16-5 all-time in this tournament. Ohio State has played in four straight Big Ten tournament championship games and six of the last seven. Matta won’t have Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger on his side this time, but his team is playing its best basketball. They are being led, as Matta likes, by the most experienced players in Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas. They’d like a chance to avenge last year’s loss to Michigan State in the title game.
6. Ohio State and Michigan State finished tied for second in the Big Ten; the Buckeyes were awarded the No. 2 seed in this tournament based on their victory at Indiana on March 5. That’s a big deal, too, because Ohio State comes in not only having won five straight, but with the easiest draw (on paper) of any team in this bracket. The Buckeyes get the winner of 7-seed Purdue and 10-seed Nebraska on Friday evening, with the winner of that game advancing to the semifinals to play the winner of a likely Michigan State-Iowa game.
7. The Big Ten tournament started in Chicago in 1998 and returns after being held the last five years in Indianapolis. One of the storylines for the tournament is the quest to get back to Indianapolis in two weeks as Lucas Oil Stadium is hosting the Midwest regional. Indiana could be playing for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament this weekend and the honor of having Indianapolis as its destination two lines up the bracket. Louisville could also end up with a strong case as the Midwest’s No. 1, and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State would also like to play through the Midwest regional when that time comes. A potential scenario of Indiana as a No. 1 seed in a regional and another Big Ten team as a No. 3 or No. 4 is possible, but not likely.
8. This weekend’s team of most intrigue wears maize and blue. Michigan played in many of the best games during conference season — last weekend vs. Indiana, 58-57 vs. Michigan State on March 3, a February overtime win over Ohio State and an overtime loss at Wisconsin in the following game come to mind. But the Wolverines didn’t finish especially strong, and a team ranked No. 8 nationally ended up finishing fifth in the Big Ten. So the Wolverines must play Thursday vs. Penn State, which delivered its first win of conference season and the Big Ten upset of the year when it beat Michigan on Feb. 27. Here’s a stat to watch if Burke can get hot this weekend: Luke Recker holds the tournament record with 91 points in a weekend in 2002.
9. There has to be an upset or two coming this weekend, right? Right? Last year, the top four seeds played in the semifinals for the first time in tournament history, but past Big Ten tournament title games have featured eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th seeds. Illinois looms as a dangerous No. 8 seed, and Michigan is certainly a dangerous No. 5 seed. Eight teams come in with 20 wins, and Indiana has lost this year to both teams that will play Thursday for the right to play the Hoosiers Friday.
10. There have been unlikely heroes in Big Ten tournaments past; recent examples include Talor Battle pushing Penn State all the way to the title game two seasons ago and Wisconsin reserve Rob Wilson shooting Indiana out of the quarterfinals last year. For a look at this weekend’s most likely heroes, start with Thomas, whose 13 games of 20-plus points were most in the conference, two ahead of Burke and three ahead of Illinois’ Brandon Paul. Wisconsin’s Ben Brust is also on the list of players who want that last, important shot. Indiana has the top two 3-point shooters in the conference by percentage in Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford; Watford is the Big Ten’s active leader in points and rebounds. Can this weekend be his memorable curtain call? Will Crean be on his best public behavior? Is Michigan State’s Keith Appling up to the task of pushing his team to a memorable March run? Where is that aforementioned surprise going to start?
So many questions. Starting Thursday (but especially Friday), we’ll get some answers.