Big Ten: Something for everyone
There is dominance at the top, drama in the middle and desperation at the bottom of the Big Ten. Which means there's a little something for everyone at the tournament this week in Indianapolis.
The league has the No. 1 team in the nation in Ohio State, coming off a tour de force annihilation of Wisconsin on Sunday in Columbus. After making an NCAA-record 14 of 15 3-point shots (93.3 percent), it's fair to wonder whether the Buckeyes will ignite the doors to Conseco Fieldhouse just by opening them.
The league has a sprawling middle class that includes a few bubble dwellers. Michigan State (17-13, RPI 48) is right on the fault line -- ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi says the Spartans are in as of Wednesday, but a first-round loss could be a deal-breaker. Michigan (19-12, RPI 55) is in slightly better position but might still need to beat Illinois in the quarterfinals to feel some security. Penn State (16-13, RPI 53) needs to win two games just to get into the discussion, and three to get into the serious discussion.
And at the bottom sits once-regal Indiana. Its next defeat will be its 20th, which would mark the third straight season the Hoosiers have lost at least 20 games. That 20th defeat is expected to come quickly in Indy, which is why the color scheme in the Conseco stands figures to be much more old gold and black for Purdue than cream and crimson for IU.
These are your three dominant storylines heading to one the best cities in America for hosting a basketball tournament:
Can Ohio State wrap up the NCAA tournament overall No. 1 seed? Right now it looks like a choice between Kansas and Ohio State, with an edge to the Buckeyes. They're No. 1 in both human polls, No. 1 with Jeff Sagarin and Ken Pomeroy and No. 2 in the RPI. Both the Jayhawks and Buckeyes have identical records, but the Big Ten is ranked higher than the Big 12 by both Sagarin and Pomeroy in terms of conference strength. There probably isn't a lot of difference between being the overall No. 1 or No. 2 team in the 68-team bracket, but every little bit helps. If Ohio State wins this tourney, I expect it to be named the top dog in the Dance on Sunday night.
What can Purdue and Wisconsin do to protect their NCAA seeding? The Boilermakers had their eyes on a No. 2 seed and the Badgers on a No. 3 until some ugly weekend stumbles. Purdue lost to lowly Iowa, and Wisconsin was blown off the court by Ohio State. Now they might each be a line lower -- but that doesn't mean they have to stay there. Both could make a case for moving back to where they appeared headed -- Purdue to a No. 2, Wisconsin to a No. 3 -- with a Big Ten tourney title. An early upset would sow doubts about their NCAA readiness.
Will Michigan State finally get it together? Waiting for the Spartan turnaround has become a long-running college basketball reality drama. This is Year 3, and the biggest cliff-hanger yet. In 2009, Michigan State won the Big Ten regular-season title but made an early exit in the conference tourney. It drew a No. 2 NCAA seed and created doubt that it could live up to it, but the Spartans regrouped and went all the way to the national title game. In 2010, Michigan State lost three straight in February and again made an early Big Ten tourney exit, drawing a No. 5 NCAA seed and looking like an early loser -- then the Spartans took advantage of Kansas' ouster and made the Final Four again. This year the circumstances are far more dire -- nobody is waiting for a Final Four run, just a win or two that will get the Spartans into the NCAAs. Only a fool bets against Tom Izzo in March, but this is his biggest challenge yet.
A few other facts you must know to be fully Big Ten-conversant when the games tip off Thursday afternoon:
Who loves this tournament? Ohio State. The Buckeyes have won a league-high three tourney titles (the Big Ten didn't have a tournament until 1998) and finished second three times. They've lost their first game only once in the past six years.
Who hates this tournament? Indiana. For a school with a long history of success, none of it has translated to the Big Ten tournament. Maybe it's a by-product of Bob Knight's disdain for the event. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers are 8-13 all time, have never won a title and have not won a single game since 2006. (Dishonorable mention to Northwestern, which is 5-13 and the only league rep never to even make the semifinals. The words "Northwestern" and "postseason" simply do not go well together.)
Vulnerable high seed: Wisconsin. The Badgers have had a great season, but their quarterfinal game could be dicey. They'll either face a Penn State team that managed a season split with them or an Indiana team with home-fan backing.
Dangerous low seed: Michigan. The Wolverines have won six of their past eight games, are highly motivated to keep winning to get off the NCAA bubble and don't have to play on the tourney's opening day for the first time since 2004. John Beilein has won one game in all three of his previous Big Ten tourneys as Michigan coach; if he keeps that streak alive the Wolverines beat Illinois in the quarterfinals and get a third shot at Ohio State. Give them at least a puncher's chance at pulling a major upset in that game. It took an Evan Turner 37-footer to beat Michigan last year in this event.
Best first-round matchup: Iowa-Michigan State. The Spartans are the only first-day team currently in realistic NCAA discussion, and this game will be a must-win. The Hawkeyes may be 11-19 on the year, but they've shown some moxie in their first season under Fran McCaffery. They took Wisconsin and Michigan into overtime, upset Purdue -- and blew out the Spartans by 20 in Iowa City.
Best potential quarterfinal matchup: Michigan-Illinois is a rematch of a two-point game won by the Illini in Champaign last month. It's a huge game for the Wolverines and not a small one for Illinois, which is probably in the tournament regardless but could improve its seeding with some victories in Indy.
Five players I am intrigued to see in person for the first time this season: JaJuan Johnson, Purdue; Talor Battle, Penn State; Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan; John Shurna, Northwestern; Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota.
Coaches on the hot seat: It's unclear whether the Penn State administration even knows it has a basketball program, because it doesn't seem to be in a rush to do something about the endless -- and endlessly mediocre -- Ed DeChellis era. He's finishing up his eighth year at Penn State and still searching for a first NCAA bid. Minnesota's Tubby Smith has rumors trailing him that he'd look to jump to another job if the right one opened, and a lot of Gophers fans wouldn't cry if he left after this disappointing season. Bruce Weber has a ton of critics at Illinois, but the athletic director isn't one of them. Same with Bill Carmody at Northwestern, which gave Carmody an extension in January that was stunning and disheartening to Wildcats fans interested in going to their first-ever NCAA tourney.
Athletic director under stress: How would you like to be Ohio State's Gene Smith? You're trying to navigate through your first year as head of the NCAA selection committee, while also dealing with a four-alarm Yahoo! report that could be very damaging to your star football coach and keeping an eye on your No. 1-ranked basketball team. Too many balls in the air for one juggler to handle.
Coach on the rise: Thad Matta is in the upper echelon of college basketball coaches -- but he's not quite in the elite yet. A national title certainly would change that. Failing that, a second Final Four in the past five seasons would also boost his standing.
Hottest team: Ohio State is the only team that has won more than two in a row, and the Buckeyes' winning streak stands at only four. Purdue had been rolling before the detour in Iowa City.
Hottest player: Easy one. Ohio State guard Jon Diebler. He's the hottest shooter in the country right now, having made 17 of his past 20 3-point shots. That's insane.
Coldest team: Indiana has lost eight in a row, but the more surprising tailspin has come from the Minnesota Golden Gophers. They've lost five straight and nine of their past 10, plummeting out of NCAA tourney consideration. Without injured point guard Al Nolen, the Gophers haven't scored 70 points in a game since Jan. 26.
Coldest player: Durrell Summers, Michigan State. The senior guard showed his first signs of life in weeks in the regular-season finale against Michigan with 13 points and 13 rebounds. But even in that one he made just 4 of 15 field goals, his 19th consecutive game of shooting worse than 50 percent from the field. In his past nine games, a guy who was one of the key contributors in the past to Final Four runs has averaged just 6.6 points and made just 20 of 73 shots (27 percent).
Winner: I'm going with Michigan to shock the world, or at least the Midwest.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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