Big Ten's best set a high standard
The Big Ten had every right to puff out its chest heading into this season.
The league had restored its national reputation in 2008-09, sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament and Michigan State to the national title game. Better yet, all five first-team all-conference selections returned to school. Not surprisingly, the Big Ten placed six teams in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, the most of any league.
Toss in several of the nation's elite coaches, and the Big Ten was billed by some as the nation's top conference.
The bar was raised, and rightfully so. And for the most part, the Big Ten's best met expectations. The rest of the league? Not so much.
A glance at the Big Ten tournament bracket reveals the obvious: It's a very top-heavy league. Four teams have locked up NCAA tournament berths and will be playing strictly for seeding this week at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Three of those teams -- Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State -- shared the regular-season conference title.
The Big Ten boasts only one true bubble team in Illinois, which has backslid after wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin in early February. Minnesota could make a tournament push in Indy but likely needs to cut down the nets Sunday afternoon to make the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten's bottom five teams have disappointed to varying degrees.
So is there a shortage of storylines this week in Indianapolis? Hardly.
Ohio State aims for a possible No. 1 seed, which could happen only if it wins the league tournament. Purdue hopes to put its best foot forward without its best player (injured forward Robbie Hummel). Illinois coach Bruce Weber and star guard Demetri McCamey attempt to put Sunday's sideline spat behind them. And a Cinderella story is way overdue in this event.
One of the top three seeds has won the Big Ten tournament in each of the past eight years. Perhaps the trend will end Sunday.
This might not be the megashowcase the Big Ten had hoped for in October, but there's plenty to hold your attention.
Teams to watch
Illinois: The Illini seemed destined for the NCAA tournament on Feb. 9, as they stunned Wisconsin at the Kohl Center to complete a five-game win streak. But things have since fallen apart, as Illinois dropped five of its final six games. The Weber-McCamey tension in Sunday's loss to Wisconsin doesn't help matters heading into an event in which Illinois must win at least two games to have a shot on Selection Sunday.
Purdue: After an ugly start without Hummel against Michigan State, Purdue bounced back nicely in the final week of the regular season. The Boilers must continue to impress the selection committee without Hummel, who underwent ACL surgery Monday. A Big Ten tournament victory would help Purdue's seeding as Matt Painter's team keeps its dream alive of returning to Indianapolis for the Final Four next month.
Ohio State: Three of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament appear set with Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse. But the fourth spot has been a revolving door, as both Duke and Kansas State have been unable to secure it. Could Ohio State slide into the top line? If the Buckeyes win the Big Ten tournament, they'll certainly deserve consideration.
Players to watch
Ohio State guard Evan Turner: Turner is the front-runner for national player of the year honors, and he can strengthen his case with a strong performance in Indianapolis. Turner helped Ohio State to the finals of last year's event, and he leads the league in scoring (19.5 points per game) and rebounding (9.4 rebounds per game).
Michigan State forward Draymond Green: The Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year provides a major jolt of energy and effort for the Jekyll-and-Hyde Spartans. Green has transformed himself into a team leader and one of the league's top post players, recording 10.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg and 3.1 apg.
Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer: Things appear to be coming together at the perfect time for both Wisconsin and Leuer, who missed nine games with a broken wrist. Leuer has provided a big boost since his return and won Big Ten Player of the Week honors last week after averaging 19 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3 assists. The Badgers are a different team with Leuer in the post.
Matchups to watch
Illinois and Wisconsin meet Friday (ESPN, approximately 2:30 p.m. ET) with plenty at stake. The Illini must beat the Badgers to have any shot at an at-large selection, while Wisconsin will try to build on a four-game win streak and improve its NCAA tournament seed. It will be interesting to see how McCamey responds from Sunday's scolding and whether he and Weber can coexist peacefully. Each team notched convincing victories on the other's home court, so this should be a good one.
There's not an obvious choice in a top-heavy league, but don't dismiss No. 11 seed Penn State. The Nittany Lions are playing their best ball right now and nearly beat Michigan State and Purdue last week. Guard Talor Battle remains one of the league's most dynamic offensive threats, and if he gets help from the supporting cast, Penn State could make some noise.
What's at stake
For Ohio State, a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Purdue and Michigan State both are in play for No. 2 seeds, while Wisconsin could sneak into the third line with a Big Ten tournament win. Illinois likely needs at least two wins in Indy to have a shot on Selection Sunday, while the bottom six teams must win the whole thing.
Adam Rittenberg covers the Big Ten for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jansport Men's Michigan State Spartans Grey Tournament Basketball T-shirt