The Big Ten Tournament commences tonight. It’s been a good year for the Big Ten: it’s rated as the best conference in the country by Kenpom, it’s quite possible that over half the league will reach the NCAA Tournament, and there aren’t any truly bad teams (depending on how mean you want to be to Northwestern). I didn’t expect the Big Ten to be this strong. Michigan State, Purdue, and Michigan finished as the best teams in the conference a year ago, and despite significant personnel losses for each program, they’re in a tier of their own again. Wisconsin and Maryland could be Sweet 16 squads. Iowa and Minnesota have really improved.
That said, the Big Ten Tournament doesn’t start with those teams. It starts with the dregs. We begin with a Wednesday evening doubleheader: a game between post-implosion Nebraska and a surprisingly feisty Rutger team and a rubber match in the Illinois - Northwestern rivalry (the teams have a combined 24-38 record). That 9:30 PM tip-off in Chicago should be a depressing spectacle. Then it’s the Thursday afternoon game — a truly cursed matchup, even by the standards set by the 8/9 fixture in Big Ten Tournament over the years — with Ohio State and Indiana. Stream this game at work if you can: it should be a wonderful combination of the characteristically ugly basketball this conference can produce and open desperation from underwhelming major-conference teams on the bubble in March.
By the time we get to Saturday’s semifinals, there should be a great doubleheader: a combination of legitimately good teams cutting their teeth ahead of the Big Dance and upstarts that have won a few games in consecutive days. On Sunday, we get a delicious appetizer ahead of the Selection Show — a chance for Purdue or Michigan State to nudge ahead of the other for conference supremacy, a chance for Michigan to win its third Big Ten Tournament in a row, or maybe a chance for Wisconsin or Maryland to make a statement and move up a seed line or two. Maybe there could be a longshot winner and bid thief. There’s a pretty good chance that some of the best basketball the sport can offer at the college level will be played at some point this weekend.
[After THE JUMP: The story, the field]
Two years ago, Michigan famously appeared in Washington DC after surviving a plane crash, upset Purdue in overtime on Friday afternoon, and strode past Minnesota and Wisconsin to claim a Banner. Last year, they escaped Iowa on Thursday then rolled Nebraska, Michigan State, and Purdue en route to another Banner. For the first time in a while, Michigan received a double bye and would only need to win three games to get their third straight Big Ten Tournament title. They’ve won eight BTT games in a row.
There’s certainly an opportunity for the Wolverines, who have been confronted with the disappointment of falling a game short of a conference title and suffering a season sweep at the hands of Michigan State. Torvik gives Michigan about a 1-in-3 chance of winning it all; Kenpom’s at
1-in-5 [EDIT: 1-in-4]. There are decent odds that they could meet the Spartans for a third time in Chicago, hoping to replicate what happened in 2014 — State was swept by Nik Stauskas and the Wolverines before beating Michigan handily in the Sunday BTT championship game.
To get to that championship game, Michigan will have to beat one of Iowa / Illinois / Northwestern, then one of Purdue / Penn State / Minnesota. Based on Torvik’s projection of the likelihood of all BTT outcomes, I calculated Michigan’s chances of facing each Big Ten team:
Purdue — 65% (Semifinal)
Torvik’s rankings love Michigan (#4) and project that there are better odds of UM and Purdue (#9) holding serve in the quarterfinals than there are of Iowa (#40) beating Illinois or Northwestern to set up a quarterfinal matchup against Michigan.
The Boilermakers look like a completely different team than they were in the only regular season matchup with Michigan back in early December — which was a Wolverine rout. Purdue had their third-lowest offensive output in that game, Carsen Edwards had fewer points than shots, and Trevion Williams (who’s since emerged as an integral part of Purdue’s rotation) barely played. Michigan raced out to a fast start, hit half their threes, and coasted to an easy win. Jon Teske featured prominently — he was impressive on both ends and exploited Purdue’s switch-heavy ball screen coverage — and Jordan Poole made all five of his three-point attempts en route to 21 points.
That game might not have much bearing on a potential rematch. Purdue suffered some close losses in non-conference play, but their luck turned as the calendar flipped over to the new year: 4-1 in games decided by one possession or in overtime. The one loss came in The Barn against Minnesota a week ago, a loss that kept Purdue from earning the conference title outright. Michigan has to like the contours of this potential matchup: even though Zavier Simpson’s reputation of defensive indomitability took a hit with Cassius Winston’s success against Michigan, he’s still an elite defender to match Purdue’s star guard, and the Boilermakers are the most three-reliant team in the league — Michigan prevents threes as well as anyone.
A second Michigan-Purdue game in West Lafayette wasn’t on the schedule, but would have been a great fixture. At least there’s a good chance that these two teams will meet on Saturday afternoon.
Iowa — 61% (Quarterfinal)
Despite the Hawkeyes’ recent and fairly dramatic late-season swoon, they’ll probably be able to get past whoever wins between Illinois and Northwestern. In mid-February, Iowa had a 20-5 record, but they’ve lost five of their last six. Following an embarrassing road loss to Ohio State (they conceded 90 points to an anemic Buckeye offense), Fran McCaffery screamed some very nasty things to a ref and was suspended for two games. They lost those two games: Rutger ran them out of their own gym (86-72) and Wisconsin clubbed them to death (65-45). Fran returned to drop an overtime shootout in Lincoln to Nebraska. Over the last two weeks, they’ve played their worst basketball. They’re still an NCAA Tournament team.
I think that the sentiment that Iowa is a particularly bad matchup for Michigan is overblown. The Hawkeyes are a team with a deep frontcourt and a potent offense, and they did hand the Wolverines their most decisive loss of the season. Brandon Johns and Austin Davis played more minutes combined than Jon Teske did in that game. It’s a surprise that Nebraska inched past Iowa for the worst defense in Big Ten play — and in the loss in Iowa City, Michigan scored just 0.82 points per possession. Unless Teske barely plays again, the rematch will look much different than the first game. Michigan hasn’t seen a 2-3 zone in a while, but should have some success against such a bad defense.
Maybe Tyler Cook and friends will be able to rack up the fouls on Michigan’s big men again — the Wolverines’ frontcourt depth may be even thinner if Charles Matthews is still out and Isaiah Livers has to play all his minutes on the wing. Maybe Iowa’s defense will inexplicably shut down a pretty good offense again. It would be a game at a neutral site between a top ten team and a team that’s considered to be around 40th nationally by Kenpom, Torvik, and Sagarin.
Michigan State — 29% (Final)
Third time’s the charm, right?
Michigan and Michigan State both have injuries, so I think the odds of this actually happening are lower than the 29% chance forecasted by Torvik. An argument could be made that an early exit and additional rest would be beneficial for both teams in regards to the NCAA Tournament (losing is never better than winning, obviously, though there is a silver lining in this instance). A third matchup is definitely a possibility; I think these are the best two teams in the conference. State’s dominance in the second half of both games makes me leery of a potential UM-MSU BTT final, but a Michigan win would atone for how the season series played out. A third loss… don’t even want to think about it.
Illinois — 24% (Quarterfinal)
Northwestern — 15% (Quarterfinal)
If Iowa loses its first game, Michigan will face either of these two teams. Illinois did record a home win over Michigan State — the Spartans turned it over 24 times in that game — and fared better in conference play than expected (at 7-13), but the Illini still had a rough year. It was even worse for Northwestern, who won just one of their last 12 games. If either of these teams upsets Iowa, they’ll be playing their third game in three days against a well-rested Michigan squad.
Wisconsin — 15% (Final)
Penn State — 13% (Semifinal)
Minnesota — 7% (Semifinal)
Maryland — 6% (Final)
None of these matchups are likely, but Maryland and especially Wisconsin could very well advance to the championship game. Penn State’s been playing well lately and could theoretically upset Purdue if they get past Minnesota (they lost at home to the Boilermakers in overtime).
Ohio State — 2% (Final)
Indiana — 2% (Final)
I’m hoping Indiana — a team that won exactly one game over a six week span this season — doesn’t actually make it into the NCAA Tournament over a more deserving mid-major program, but it would be hilarious if they upset State again for a third time in the early Friday game to lock up a bid.
Nebraska — 1% (Final)
Rutger — 0.1% (Final)