What teams are playing well ?
Ohio State may be hitting their stride at the right time, winning their last five games, including wins over Indiana and Michigan State, though they still struggle to score. Purdue began the season in transition, incorporating youth into their lineup and it took them until February to gel. They’ve played very inspired basketball of late and may be the one lower seeded team that no one wants to play. Iowa, winners of three of their last four games, including wins over Purdue and Illinois, are no longer pushovers, though they may have trouble advancing past the first round.
What teams aren’t playing well ?
Wisconsin got themselves into the bye round and for the season as a whole, has overachieved, but they have really struggled offensively over the past three weeks, and even proved to be mortal at the Kohl Center. Playing on a neutral court could expose them further. Minnesota has lost six of their last nine games and not in great fashion. A very talented team, but have not been able to get the job done in the second half. Northwestern has been beset by injuries and have really run out of gas, limping to the end of the regular season.
What players on the top-seeded teams are instrumental to their team’s success?
With four John Wooden Award nominees in the conference, it would seem obvious that those players would be the keys, but it really comes down to the success of the complementary players that will determine who wins the tournament. Christian Watford (F, Indiana) has as much physical talent as any player in the league, can stretch the floor, and has hit some clutch shots, but he tends to disappear in the midst of games and is a defensive liability. Aaron Craft (G, Ohio State) has arguably been the best player in the Big Ten over the past two weeks, averaging 13.3 ppg and 5.3 apg. His stellar defense and ability to distribute are always a constant. If he can be that #2 scorer that the Buckeyes so desperately need, they become as good as any team in the conference. Keith Appling (G, Michigan State) has been the Spartans’ leading scorer at just over 13 ppg and is their prime facilitator on offense. However, he got rendered useless by the conference’s top two point guards (Michigan’s Trey Burke and Ohio State’s Craft) and will have to step-up his game if Michigan State is going to get to the tournament final.
What semi-final game possesses the greatest chance of an upset?
Purdue (7), which mentioned before, has really been on a roll, and has probably improved as much as any team in the conference. They will get a semi-final matchup with Ohio State (2), who despite being on a hot streak themselves, continues to struggle in finding a consistent second/third player to score, to take the heat off of the conference’s leading scorer, Deshaun Thomas. Coach Matt Painter will figure-out a way to defend the Buckeyes, and if they can continue to get some offensive production out of their balanced attack, Ohio State could be in for a fight they don’t want.
The higher seeds should all prevail in the first round. Michigan (5) let the season-ending game get away and will want to erase a loss to Penn State (12) two weeks ago. The Nittany Lions are actually playing pretty good basketball and have two of the league’s top six scorers (DJ Newbill and Jermaine Marshall), but the Wolverines should have enough firepower to win. Iowa (6) takes-on a thin and struggling Northwestern (11) team that is running on fumes. Coach Bill Carmody’s club does a good job at controlling tempo and making you work on defense, but the Hawkeyes are playing too well to lose. Purdue (7), with their in-your-face defense and blossoming offensive output should easily dispose of Nebraska (10), though the Cornhuskers are always a three-point threat. Illinois (8) always has to be deemed a threat with their ability to knock-down the three-point shot (lead conference in three-point shots made) and Minnesota (9) has not played well defensively on the perimeter, making them a poor matchup against the Fighting Illini.
With each of the top three seeds spending time in the AP Top 10 during the season, pulling an upset could be difficult for the lower-seeded teams. Indiana (1), coming-off of a dramatic victory against Michigan to win the outright Big Ten Championship, wants to avenge a gut-wrenching loss to Illinois last month. Expect the Hoosiers to win big. The Ohio State/Purdue contest should be the most evenly-matched of this round. Both teams play aggressive defense and lack consistency in scoring the basketball, making this a virtual toss-up. Go with the Buckeyes in a barn-burner. Michigan State (3) matches-up pretty well with a surging Iowa team and no team in the conference is as battle-tested as the Spartans. Michigan has decidedly more talent than Wisconsin (4), who is not playing as well as they did in January. Bo Ryan tends to out-coach anybody he’s up against and will have four days to prepare, but the Wolverines are likely to pull-off the victory, being on a neutral court and being a bit more hungry.
Indiana and Michigan will get a quick rematch from their past weeks’ showdown, though the Wolverines do not have the home court advantage they enjoyed then. Expect a close game, but the Hoosiers seem to be on a mission and should get the W. Through the years, Ohio State and Michigan State have always matched-up pretty well. The Buckeyes have been able to handle the Spartan perimeter game, but look for Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne to wreak havoc on the interior and pull-out the victory.
Indiana was able to defeat Michigan State twice this season, both by less than five points. Tom Izzo is a master at coaching in the post-season and has a more experienced club. It is very tough to beat a team three times in a season, and because these two teams are so evenly matched to begin with, expect the Spartans to cut-down the nets in a close-knit victory.
Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Indiana 2. Ohio State 3. Michigan State 4. Michigan 5. Wisconsin 6. Iowa 7. Purdue 8. Illinois 9. Minnesota 10. Nebraska 11. Northwestern 12. Penn State
Deric McKamey is a Scout and Correspondent for NetScouts Basketball and covers the Big Ten.