Tom Izzo has seen just about everything the Big Ten can offer in his 18 seasons as Michigan State’s basketball coach. Through it all, he has won seven conference regular-season titles, three tournament championships, reached six Final Fours and captured a national championship.
What he hasn’t seen is a Big Ten tournament field as deep and as talented as the one that will grace the court at the United Center this week.
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“We’re looking forward to maybe one of the great conference tournaments of all time if you ask me,” Izzo said Monday. “It should be a heck of a Big Ten tournament in Chicago.”
Hyperbole? Not in the least.
With five top 25 teams, eight 20-win teams and three candidates for national player of the year involved, the conference that produced the best regular season is about to do it all over again during a four-day tournament for the ages.
In other words, if you pay attention to one conference tournament in college basketball, this is it.
For some perspective on how insanely good the Big Ten has been this season, consider that Michigan enters the conference tournament as a No. 5 seed without the benefit of a first-round bye. Now consider that Michigan is ranked No. 6 in the entire country.
One more rotation of the ball on the rim during Sunday’s game against Indiana, and Michigan would have secured a monumental last-second victory to create a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten. As it stands, Indiana (26-5, 14-4) won its first outright regular-season conference title since 1992-93 to claim the No. 1 seed.
“It just tells you what this league is all about,” said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers, whose team has the misfortune of playing Michigan in the Big Ten tournament’s first round. “Michigan is playing for a share of the title (Sunday), and unfortunately now they slide out and have to play on the first day. It just shows you how deep this league is, how good this league is.”
Want more evidence? Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the country at 31-2, lost at home to Illinois — the No. 8 seed in the Big Ten tournament. Minnesota — which has beaten Memphis, Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana — is the No. 9 seed.
Illinois and Minnesota will meet early Thursday — and that’s only the first game of the Big Ten tournament.
According to college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, the five teams that rank at the top of the strength-of-schedule list come from the Big Ten: Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois and Penn State. Nine of the top 15 most difficult schedules belong to Big Ten teams.
Certainly, the teams that survive longest this weekend won’t have any excuse for performing poorly in the NCAA tournament.
“I’m looking at us playing Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Izzo said. “Then the fact we played Miami and Kansas. I can say to my players, ‘Who haven’t you played that’s been ranked?’ I think there’s a comfort level knowing you can play with anybody.”
Michigan point guard Trey Burke will have an opportunity to cement his status as the leading national player of the year candidate, beginning with Thursday’s game against Penn State. Burke is averaging 19.2 points and 6.8 assists and is one of the most entertaining, explosive players in the country.
Indiana boasts two national player of the year candidates in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. Zeller leads the team in scoring (16.8 points per game) and rebounding (8.1) while shooting 57.0 percent from the field. Oladipo is second in scoring (13.7 points), averages 6.2 rebounds and leads the Big Ten in steals per game (2.27). He is also shooting 61.4 percent from the field.
The Hoosiers haven’t won a Big Ten tournament championship in the first 15 years of the event’s existence. Indiana will take on the Illinois-Minnesota winner at 11 a.m. CT Friday in the quarterfinals.
“When you start putting that in people’s heads, then you start giving them pressure that they don’t need,” Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said. “And trust me, there’s enough pressure in games. There’s enough tension. We don’t need to be focused on what hasn’t happened. They need to be focused on how they go into each game.”
If Indiana is considered the favorite to take the conference tournament title, it’s only by a slight margin. No. 2 seed Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan State, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 5 Michigan are all on the Hoosiers’ heels.
Ohio State closed the regular season with five consecutive victories, including wins against Minnesota, Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois. And Wisconsin finished in the top four of the Big Ten for the 12th straight season under coach Bo Ryan. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in scoring defense, surrendering 57.4 points per game.
For the few Big Ten teams on the outside of the NCAA tournament, it hasn’t been an easy ride.
“You just kind of embrace the challenge,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles, whose team earned a No. 10 seed and plays No. 7 Purdue on Thursday. “Now at the end you realize what a grind it was. I’ve got a whole bunch of new gray hair to thank the Big Ten for.”
This much is clear: Whichever team emerges with the Big Ten tournament championship on Sunday certainly will have earned it.