The Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball team (15-5 Big Ten, 24-6 overall) hopes to capture the Big Ten's conference championship this weekend after letting the regular-season title slip from their grasp.
Wisconsin enters the tournament as the two seed after splitting the Big Ten crown with Illinois in the regular season and losing the tiebreaker to the Illini thanks to an 80-67 defeat in Champaign on Feb. 2. The Badgers had a chance to take the outright title on the last day of the regular season, but an upset loss to last-place Nebraska at home and an Illinois comeback win over Iowa declared Wisconsin and the Illini co-champions, giving Illinois the top seed in the tournament.
Still, as one of the top four seeds in the tournament, the Badgers earned a double-bye, meaning they won't play until Friday night as the rest of play unfolds around them on Wednesday and Thursday.
Play opened up on Wednesday with the four bottom feeders of the Big Ten facing off against each other with the Northwestern Wildcats coming from behind to beat the aforementioned Cornhuskers to kick off the tournament before the Minnesota Gophers took on Penn State to round out the night's events.
Thursday's games will start at 10:30 a.m. with Indiana taking on Michigan with head coach Juwan Howard being reinstated by the team following his five-game suspension for his involvement in the Feb. 20 fight following Wisconsin's defeat over the Wolverines. In Howard's absence, Michigan went 3-2, including wins over rivals Michigan State and Ohio State to earn the Wolverines the eighth seed in the Big Ten. Indiana enters tournament play trending down, having lost seven of their last nine games, including a home loss — and a wave goodbye from Johnny Davis — to the Badgers on Feb. 15. The winner here will get the chance to face the top-seeded Illini in the first of Friday's games. Unsurprisingly, the two teams went a combined 0-3 against Illinois.
Iowa and Northwestern will play each other in the second matchup on Thursday, tipping off approximately 30 minutes after the first game's conclusion. Iowa is public enemy no. 1 for Wisconsin fans after the Hawkeyes blew a lead that was 15 points at its highest to Illinois, giving the Illini the one seed and keeping the Badgers from getting the one seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa's Keegan Murray was recently named a Wooden Award finalist and will surely put on a show against one of the worst teams in the conference.
Maryland and Michigan State will get the afternoon session underway at 5:30 p.m., with the winner facing Wisconsin in the quarterfinals. Michigan State and Maryland played each other in the season finale on March 6, where the Spartans took down the Terrapins 77-67 at home. It was Sparty's second win of the season over Maryland, with Tom Izzo's squad taking down Maryland in College Park 65-63 thanks to a Malik Hall layup with four seconds left. The Badgers went 2-1 combined against the two teams this year, splitting two games against Michigan State — with each home team winning the respective matchup — and pulling out a narrow 70-69 win at Maryland back in January thanks to a career-high 21 points from Tyler Wahl.
The final second-round matchup will see Ohio State take on the winner of Minnesota and Penn State about 30 minutes after the Maryland-Michigan State game. The Buckeyes have struggled as of late, splitting their last six games, including the loss to rival Michigan on senior day and another loss to a much weaker (to put it nicely) Nebraska squad. The good news for Ohio State, though, is they have beaten both teams twice this year and should be good no matter which team pulls it out.
Talking about the semifinals and championship game matchups is tougher to do from this far out but assuming the better seeds win, we'll give the hypothetical wins to Illinois over Michigan/Indiana, Rutgers over Iowa/Northwestern, Wisconsin over Michigan State/Maryland and Purdue over Ohio State. Those results would give semifinal games between Illinois and Rutgers and Wisconsin and Purdue.
Illinois and Rutgers split their meetings this season, with the Illini dismantling the Scarlet Knights 86-51 back in early December and Rutgers getting their revenge in February with a 70-59 win at the RAC. The key difference between the two games was Rutgers starters, especially Ron Harper Jr. In the December loss, the starters combined for 32 total points between them and only five points on one made basket from Harper Jr. In the rematch, the Scarlet Knight had four starters in double figures, 62 total points and 16 from Harper Jr. The team from Piscataway will need those core five to play to that level if they hope to take down the best in the conference.
In the other semifinal game between *likely* Wisconsin and Purdue, we see one of the best mono e mono matchups in the Big Ten and even the country. In both games this season — with Wisconsin coming out as victors in each — the Boilermakers' Jaden Ivey and the Badgers' Davis guarded each other and put on a show we will probably see next year in the NBA. In the teams' last meeting, Ivey edged Davis in the scoring column 22-16, but a last-second three by Badger freshman guard Chucky Hepburn gave Wisconsin the win and a share of the Big Ten title.
Beating a team like Purdue three times in one season is a tall task for any team — especially in Purdue's home state — but if we assume yet again that the better-seeded teams will prevail, the championship matchup between Wisconsin and Illinois will be a juicy one.
With the winner likely getting at least a two seed, if not a one seed, in the national tournament, you can bet that an Illinois-Wisconsin battle for the Big Ten Tournament crown would be a must-see event. The Illini took down the Badgers in the team's only meeting at Illinois, so one can assume the Badgers would love a rematch for the official Big Ten champion.
No matter who comes out on top of the Big Ten, though, you can bet that it'll be a great tournament as the best conference in college basketball looks to crown a king before the big dance. You can catch all the games live and in color on the Big Ten Network.