Considering the conference title hung in the balance until a pair of last-second tip-in attempts on the final day of the regular season, the Big Ten race probably lived up to the hype.
With the postseason ahead, it’s time for Big Ten teams to do the same.
Indiana got its first conference title in 20 years and has reason to believe it can get back to the Final Four for the first time in 11 years. The Hoosiers still have hurdles to clear, though, as they’ll open the Big Ten Tournament Friday against either Illinois or Minnesota, both of which beat Indiana during the regular season.
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The conference tournament is a new season of sorts, but the real new season begins later this month with the NCAA Tournament. At least a few Big Ten teams figure to have both a legitimate chance to play deep into March and a new life of sorts just from seeing different opponents after two-plus months trying to stay afloat in the rugged Big Ten.
Which ones should be most excited for what’s ahead? The Big Ten teams still realistically playing for something (plus Purdue) are listed below by their seeding for the Big Ten Tournament. A note on the way each team’s stock is trending is also included.
The Hoosiers somehow found a way to beat Michigan on Sunday to avoid having to share the Big Ten crown. Probably the league’s most complete team, the pieces are in place for a deep run through the NCAA Tournament. Indiana can score in a variety of ways and can use Victor Oladipo to defend just about anyone. It’s been a strange few weeks for the Hoosiers, though, including a head-scratching cold spell in a loss at Minnesota and a home loss to Ohio State after which they still cut down the nets.
STOCK: Buy. The Big Ten Tournament this weekend might determine if Indiana gets the No. 1 seed in the Midwest and play its regional-level games in Indianapolis, but that won’t make or break this team’s NCAA Tournament chances. The high-scoring Hoosiers figure to benefit from getting out of conference and away from teams who know them so well in the NCAA Tournament; if the outside shots drop, they’ll be a very tough out.
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes are clearly playing their best basketball right now, having won five straight after a 22-point loss at Wisconsin that exposed all of their warts. And though Ohio State is both far from perfect and far from having the horses it had in the last two seasons, it still has Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and a supporting cast that’s come miles from where it was early in the conference season.
STOCK: Buy. Maybe there’s a ceiling on this team, but maybe the Buckeyes have the right formula, the right coach and the right momentum for another March run. Thad Matta knows his team’s success starts with defense and he’s been playing the right combinations and pressing the right buttons of late. Just in time? It’s time we find out.
3. Michigan State
The Spartans had a February and early-March slump as Keith Appling struggled and Michigan State lost close games to Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan. A blowout of Wisconsin last week showed how good this team’s A-game really is, though, and if Appling can bounce back and Adreian Payne keeps playing like he has for most of 2013, the pieces are in place for a deep run. Michigan State is always battle-tested and has enough scoring to win the really big games; it’s a matter of staying healthy and doing it.
STOCK: Buy. The combination of Tom Izzo on the sideline in March plus an experienced roster probably equals the Spartans being a very tough out.
Just about everybody dismissed the Badgers when Josh Gasser was lost to a preseason knee injury, but Bo Ryan’s teams have both a style and a certain stubbornness, and sure enough here’s Wisconsin, again, as the No. 4 seed and the type of team nobody wants to play at this time of year. The Badgers don’t enter the postseason with a bunch of momentum having lost two of three, but they get time to heal this week and get to wait on the Michigan-Penn State winner.
STOCK: Sell, but with caution. Picking against Ryan in a tournament environment has not historically been a winning proposition, but it is fair to wonder if this group has already maximized the talent on hand.
The Wolverines did everything but close the door on Indiana in the regular-season finale, and it came back to bite them — and cost them a share of the Big Ten title. That loss brought on the worst-case scenario, too, as now Michigan must play Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament against a Penn State team that beat Michigan in one of the biggest upsets, anywhere, of the season on Feb 27.
STOCK: Buy, to an extent. The Wolverines aren’t playing their best basketball and will continue to struggle against opponents with a strong inside presence, but Trey Burke is good enough to carry Michigan at least a few lines up the NCAA bracket. The way Michigan finished, the No. 8 national ranking is a tad high for right now. The potential, however, is there.
Probably the only Big Ten team truly on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the young Hawkeyes can score and have come close to winning a lot of big games — they just haven’t actually won many of them. Topping Illinois and Minnesota over the last three weeks of the season allowed Iowa to finish sixth in what’s probably the nation’s deepest conference; problem is, that and long-ago wins over Iowa State and Wisconsin are the highlights of Iowa’s tournament resume.
STOCK: Sell. The computer numbers don’t appear to be in the Hawkeyes’ favor, meaning they probably need to beat Northwestern Thursday to set up a must-win Friday vs. Michigan State. Iowa can win that game, but until it does it’s hard to really make a case for the Hawkeyes as an NCAA Tournament team.
The Boilermakers have dominated Minnesota and Wisconsin (on the road) over the last eight days, and they avoided terrible losses throughout the Big Ten season to end up finishing seventh. They have a promising young center in A.J. Hammons and a roster that should be more competitive next season, but they’ve lost five of seven overall heading into a game Thursday with Nebraska, with the winner playing Ohio State on Friday.
STOCK: Sell. It would take four wins in four days for Purdue to make the NCAA Tournament, and the chances of that happening are very, very slim.
Not much was expected from the Illini after last year spiraled out of control — Bruce Weber got fired and so many other Big Ten teams returned marquee talent. But new coach John Groce had this team rolling early, winning the Maui Invitational, winning at current No. 1 Gonzaga in December and beating Ohio State in early January before reality set in during a stretch that saw Illinois lose six of its following seven. With a win over Indiana also on the resume, this is a team to be respected.
STOCK: Buy, but mostly because the price is right. With Brandon Paul firing from 3-point range and a nothing-to-lose attitude from the team as a whole, the Illini are a dangerous darkhorse both this coming weekend and the following one in the NCAA Tournament.
The Gophers got hot against a relatively soft early-season schedule, then really took a leap in the rankings when they beat Michigan State in the Big Ten opener. Minnesota has talent in Andre Hollins, Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe and played its best game in upsetting Indiana a little over two weeks ago, but the Gophers have lost six of nine and two straight. They simply haven’t handled prosperity or played consistently winning basketball
STOCK: Sell. The Gophers have talented pieces and experience, but their inconsistencies can’t be overlooked. There are enough wins (Memphis, Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin) to think this is an NCAA Tournament team, but there’s not a lot of reason to suggest it’s a team that will be around for very long.