After a beautifully anarchic regular season, it’s time to dive into the always-entertaining Big Ten tournament.
While a single elimination tournament means really anyone could win it, here are the six teams that stand out as the true contenders.
Iowa (9-9 Big Ten, 20-11 overall)
The Hawkeyes: They’re big, they’re fast, they’re deep and they’ve lost five of their last six. Any confidence in this team translates to a belief that momentum doesn’t matter going into a sudden-death tournament. Last year’s Wisconsin team made the finals despite losing two of their last three and escaping late against Penn State.
The Hawkeyes have a tremendous go-to guard in senior Roy Devyn Marble and a deep frontcourt that can run the floor, which is key in head coach Fran McCaffery’s system.
With Iowa, it almost doesn’t matter how well the offense is clicking. In their last five losses, they’ve broken 70 points four times on offense. Instead, the problem lies in their inability to generate stops on defense.
Iowa is 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense and allowed 80.2 points per game in their losing stretch. But when you consider their first round opponent is Northwestern, who ranks dead last in the Big Ten in offense, one could easily see Iowa taking the win and going on a run, especially if the next contender on our list isn’t back to 100 percent.
Michigan State (12-6, 23-8)
It’s become a total cliche to say the following, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Michigan State is a top-five team when they are healthy. They are never healthy. They finally have all of their contributors back on the floor, but everyone looks out of sync (as if they haven’t all played together since December).
That said, the Spartans could very well put things back together at precisely the right time. Talent is talent, and the Spartans have as much as anyone in the conference. If senior guard Keith Appling can properly lead the offense, senior center Adreian Payne can be his bullying self down low, and sophomore guard Gary Harris can play like a lottery pick, the Spartans can be unstoppable. But that’s a lot of ifs.
That’s really it. We could see the Spartans carve a path of destruction through the bracket and look like an NCAA No. 1 seed, or they could lose themselves on offense and continue to hobble, desperately trying to save a season that held so much promise.
Ohio State (10-8, 23-8)
The middle of the Big Ten can feel like the Island of Misfit Toys, featuring Iowa (no defense), Michigan State (no health) and now, Ohio State (no offense).
Ohio State is basically what Wisconsin was last year. Both teams are/were top-three in the Ken Pomeroy rankings on defense and outside the top-100 on offense. When you consider those Badgers went to the finals, that means Ohio State is easily a contender, provided they can lock down a sneaky good Purdue offense and win a defensive battle against Nebraska.
Even accounting against the relentless praises of a certain former-Indiana-coach-turned-announcer, senior guard Aaron Craft remains one of the best on-ball defenders in the country and an efficient player on offense. The rest of the team is athletic, but lacks the ability to create, which can be a big problem in a situation where a single loss ends your run.
There are a lot of comparisons between Ohio State and the current Wisconsin squad, as teams that went undefeated in nonconference play and then were humbled by the chaotic Big Ten.
But that isn’t fair to the Badgers, as the nonconference teams they beat are vastly more impressive than those the Buckeyes played.
Nebraska (11-7, 19-11)
As the Badgers painfully learned last Sunday, Nebraska is for real.
The Huskers are for real, and it feels like head coach Tim Miles is doing what was previously considered impossible: Getting Nebraskans to care about a sport other than football.
Sophomore forward Terran Petteway led the Big Ten in points per game and should be a great player for years to come. The Huskers’ strength lies in defense, where they are top-30 in KenPom.
Nebraska has won eight of their last 10, highlighted by wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin. They lost one home game in conference play—a one-point loss to Michigan.
However, that accomplishment is a double-edged sword.
Can Nebraska win away from the electric crowd we all saw in Lincoln last Sunday? That should be the major worry as the Huskers prepare to play their likely opponent Ohio State in Indianapolis, less than three hours away from Columbus.
Michigan (15-3, 23-7)
Here, we have the Big Ten’s regular season champion and the tournament’s No. 1 seed.
Sophomore guard and Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas and the media’s Big Ten Coach of the Year John Beilein have pulled out a vastly successful season, a proposition that looked hopeless when sophomore center Mitch McGary was sidelined for the season by back surgery.
Sophomore guard Caris LeVert is one of the conference’s most improved players and provides another deadly wing for what could be the conference’s best offense. Their semifinal matchup could be interesting, as Nebraska and Ohio State both provide strong defenses and have played Michigan close before.
Wisconsin (12-6, 25-6)
The Badgers and the Wolverines seem like the clear top two teams in the conference, and a head-to-head matchup in the championship game at a neutral site seems to favor the Badgers.
Wisconsin seems more balanced and matches up very well with the Wolverines, thanks to the Frank Kaminsky-Jordan Morgan matchup in the post.
In case you’ve forgotten how well that matchup can work, go watch the carnage that was the final minutes of the Ann Arbor game. Feeding Wisconsin’s junior center on the block worked perfectly, and would take major adjustments to stop in Indianapolis.
That’s really it, both Wisconsin and Michigan face threats, but should be the clear favorites to reach the finals, where the Badgers could have the edge.
The Badgers will have redshirt junior guard Josh Gasser’s defense to counter possible matchups with Marble, Harris and Stauskas.
Kaminsky, sophomore forward Sam Dekker and freshman forward Nigel Hayes form quite possibly the conference’s best frontcourt. The backcourt isn’t too shabby either, with every guard capable of shooting, rebounding and defending like a pest. Maybe depth is an issue, but the Badgers will be playing on five days rest. They simply feel like the most complete team and that’s why they are picked to win it all.