Previewing the Big Ten Tournament

March 8, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS — Looking at the matchups, storylines
and key players in the Big Ten Tournament, which tips off Thursday morning at
Bankers Life Fieldhouse.


No. 8 Iowa vs. No. 9 Illinois, Thursday, 11:30 a.m. (winner plays No. 1
Michigan State on Friday).

No. 5 Indiana vs. No. 12 Penn State, Thursday, 2 p.m. (winner plays No. 4
Wisconsin on Friday).

No. 7 Northwestern vs. No. 10 Minnesota, Thursday, 5:30 p.m. (winner plays No. 2
Michigan on Friday).

No. 6 Purdue vs. No. 11 Nebraska, Thursday, 8 p.m. (winner plays No. 3 Ohio
State on Friday).


With Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State having shared the regular-season
Big Ten crown, there is a school of thought that says a true champion will be
crowned this weekend. More pressing is positioning for the NCAA tournament,
with the Spartans and Buckeyes looking to wrap up No. 2 seeds and stay in line
for the fourth No. 1 seed should others (North Carolina, Kansas, Missouri)
falter in their respective conference tournaments. The tri-champions,
Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue are in the NCAA tournament; Northwestern is
probably just on the wrong side of the bubble; and Illinois needs a miracle.
Northwestern comes in sporting a 1-10 record against RPI top-50 opponents, a
key indicator utilized by the NCAA tournament selection committee, and will
likely need to win two games


By measure of the RPI and Sagarin ratings, the Big Ten was the nation's best
conference during the regular season. Early-season schedules and victories backed
that up — the Big Ten is the only conference that has five teams with 23 wins
or more — before conference play started and everybody started beating
everybody else. Illinois totally fell off the map, Ohio State rallied and
regrouped late for a share of the crown and Michigan State now goes forward
having lost Brandon Dawson to a torn ACL in the regular-season finale. This
tournament brings a different level of competitiveness and excitement than in
recent years even with just one team fighting for its NCAA tournament life.
Last year, Wisconsin and Purdue limped in to the conference tournament and
quickly limped out. Penn State played its way to the conference tournament
title game and into the NCAA tournament, but it could have had 20 tries to beat
Ohio State in the conference tournament title game and couldn't have done it.
Barring any upsets Thursday, Friday's quarterfinals and Saturday's semifinals
this year could be really, really good.


Indiana is back to basketball respectability, and the Hoosiers figure to bring
excited fans and a bunch of 3-point shots to the conference tournament. Buckle
up, potential opponents? Indiana comes in riding a four-game winning streak and
has won eight of 10. The Hoosiers have proven they can beat just about anybody
but also can lose to anybody. It would, however, be shocking if they lost to
Penn State Thursday afternoon, and a win there would set up a very big game
Friday afternoon vs. Wisconsin. The winner might be in line for a 3 seed in the
NCAA tournament, and for the Hoosiers that could mean another favorable
geographic setup playing in either Louisville or Columbus.


The Big Ten tournament in recent years has been the Thad Matta Invitational and
this weekend Ohio State is trying to become the first team to win three
straight Big Ten tournament titles. The Buckeyes have a tournament bye for the
seventh consecutive year and have played in the tournament championship game in
five of the last six years, winning three times. Jared Sullinger was the
tournament's most outstanding player last year and will look to become the
first-ever repeat winner of the award.


Part of Wisconsin's strong finish to the regular season was a stunning win at
Ohio State on the Buckeyes' senior day. Ohio State then went and returned the
favor at Northwestern and Michigan State, winning on those teams' respective
senior days. Wisconsin again has one of the nation's best defenses and can go
as far as senior point guard Jordan Taylor takes it. Indiana was 18-1 on its
home floor this season but was just 3-6 on the road in conference play. It needs
to show the NCAA tournament committee it can beat good teams away from Assembly
Hall. Michigan blitzed Illinois then pushed Ohio State to the brink in this
tournament last year; the Wolverines come in this year as a known commodity and
need to show they can handle prosperity — and, possibly, a desperate Northwestern
team at the start of Friday's evening session.


Ohio State won by two points at Northwestern and by two at Michigan State in
the regular season's final week. Michigan and Northwestern have already played
two overtime games this year, with the Wolverines winning both. Wisconsin lost
to Michigan State in overtime in January and in February won at Minnesota in
overtime and lost at Iowa by one point. Close games and surprising results have
been the norm, and more of both are expected this weekend.


John Shurna, Northwestern

The Big Ten's leading scorer at nearly 20 points per game, he'd really love to
leave Northwestern as the guy who led his school to its first-ever NCAA tournament.
It's going to take a big weekend to get there, and Shurna will have to come out
firing. He comes in to the weekend 30 points shy of 2,000 for his career.

Draymond Green, Michigan State

Given the quality of play in the conference, it says a lot about Green that he
was the slam-dunk pick as the conference Player of the Year. The Spartans don't
need to win this tournament but would like to build some momentum heading into
the NCAA tournament, and Green's leadership has been crucial in both their good
and bad times this season. Look for more of the same.

Aaron Craft, Ohio State

The league's Defensive Player of the Year is Ohio State's glue guy. Craft would
never say it, but he knows a potential third matchup with co-Freshman of the
Year Trey Burke of Michigan looms on Saturday, and Craft knows he'll have to
score this weekend and in the weekends to come for the Buckeyes to reach their
lofty goals.