Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Previewing the Big Ten tournament — Does MSU care?

(My preview originally appeared on Just Cover Blog

I am against the idea of conference tournaments. 

I think they devalue the role of the regular season, especially for mid-majors, where, in many cases, a team can win its regular season crown (by any margin), but has to win its conference tournament or else an NCAA tournament berth won't happen. For bigger conferences, the top teams have no incentive to play well, plus it always brings the chance of injury (Edit: I know it's about money, which is important for mid-major conferences).

That being said, I'm extremely excited for the Big Ten tournament to get underway on Thursday (bracket here). As a fan of basketball, and specifically Big Ten basketball, it's an incredibly fun event to attend. I recommend it for any Big Ten fan. (I'll be heading down Thursday night and covering MSU and Michigan for The Oakland Press)

This year, the conference was as good as ever. It was expected to be Ohio State head and shoulders above everyone else, but ended up with a three-way tie at the top with solid teams behind them. There really were four tiers of teams: The first being the three champions (Ohio State, Michigan State Michigan), the teams solidly in the tournament (Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue), the teams that are or were close to the bubble at one point (Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa) and the bottom-feeders (Nebraska, Penn State). But everyone was vulnerable. Penn State beat Purdue, Nebraska beat Indiana and Iowa beat Michigan and Indiana, to name a few upsets.

This has shaped up to be perhaps the best Big Ten tournament since it began in 1998. Ohio State has the most titles (4), including the last two. Interestingly, only three seeds have an all-time record above .500: 1, 2 and 6. The No. 6 seed is 25-12 all-time in this tournament and go through some picks.

(1) Michigan State (24-7, 13-5) — The Spartans were picked third in the preseason media poll, but that was more a vote of confidence in Tom Izzo than the players. MSU lost three starters from last season's disappointing squad. But led by Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green (16.2 pts, 10.3 rebs 3.5 asts), the Spartans were one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the country. Freshman Branden Dawson, who was the team's No. 3 scorer and No. 2 rebounder, tore his ACL in the final regular season game against OSU, ending his season. Despite often being a high seed, MSU hasn't reached the Big Ten tournament final since 2000, when they won it for the second straight year.

(2) Michigan (23-8, 13-5) —The Wolverines were a top-20 team in the preseason polls, but had to replace point guard Darius Morris, who left for the NBA. Returning everyone else, Michigan slid freshman Trey Burke (14.6 points, 4.6 asts) into the role, and he led the Wolverines to their first Big Ten championship since 1986, along with being named Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Michigan was actually outrebounded on the season, but used three-point shooting and tough defense to earn a championship. The Wolverines won the tournament in 1998, but it was vacated. They have been knocked out of the tournament by Ohio State the last two seasons, including last year's semifinals. 

(3) Ohio State (25-6, 13-5) — The Buckeyes exploded out of the gate with wins over Duke and Florida, but lost two of their first five Big Ten games at Indiana and Illinois. It didn't look like they would have a chance at a Big Ten title, but MSU lost its last two games and OSU won its last two in the final seconds — the last one coming at MSU. Jared Sullinger (16.9 points, 9.3 rebs) was the popular preseason pick for conference player of the year, but still turned in a solid All-Big Ten season. Guard Aaron Craft was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and William Buford averages 15.1 points, although he's usually hot or cold. The Buckeyes have won four tournament championships (2002, 2007, 2010, 2011) and been runner-up in two (2003, 2006).

(4) Wisconsin (23-8, 12-6) — The Badgers have earned a first-round bye for 12 straight seasons now. Wisconsin started off 1-3 in Big Ten play, but won its next six games. They then lost three of five, but go to Indy on a three-game winning streak. So the Badgers have been hot and cold. They're led by All-Big Ten point guard Jordan Taylor (14.6 pts, 4.1 asts), who is surrounded by a case of role players, like Wisconsin normally is. Wisconsin had the top scoring defense in the conference by a wide margin. The Badgers have won the Big Ten tournament twice, the latest being in 2008.

(5) Indiana (24-7, 11-7) — Indiana basketball is back! Although apparently “back” is losing seven conference games. After an undefeated nonconference slate that included giving Kentucky its only blemish, the Hoosiers lost their first five Big Ten road games, starting off with a 5-6 conference record. But Indiana has figured things out and go to Indianapolis having won seven of their last eight games. Indiana is led by Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year Cody Zeller (15.4 pts, 6.4 rebs). The Hoosiers won just three games outside the state of Indiana, so the fact that the tournament is in Indianapolis would appear to be an advantage, although the Hoosiers have never won it. (The tournament has split time in Chicago and Indianapolis). They were runner-up in 2001.

(6) Purdue (20-11, 10-8) — You have to feel for a guy like Robbie Hummel. The Boilermakers had two Final Four-quality teams the last two seasons, but Hummel was absent from any postseason runs due to knee injuries. He came back for his senior season as the only major scoring threat on the team. A three-point loss at Ohio State put Purdue at 5-6 in the Big Ten, but since then, the Boilermakers have won five of seven and are playing with a lot of confidence. Hummel leads the team with 16.8 points and seven rebounds per game. The Boilermakers are in an interesting spot, as a loss might keep them out of the dreaded 8/9 game of the NCAA tournament. But they’re in the No. 6 spot in the Big Ten, which, as mentioned earlier, has been magic. The No. 6 seed has reached the final the last two seasons.

(7) Northwestern (18-12, 8-10) — Ohhhhhhh, Northwestern, you never make it easy. The only big-six conference team to never make an NCAA tournament, the Wildcats are right on the bubble. They definitely will need at least one win in the Big Ten tournament to keep their NCAA hopes alive. The world will be rooting for them. In Big Ten play, the Wildcats lost five games by two points or less or in overtime. John Shurna (19.8 pts, 5.3 rebs, 2.7 asts) was the conference’s leading scorer. Northwestern is one of the worst rebounding teams in the country and plays a Princeton-style offense. The Wildcats will have to hit their shots if they want to go dancing after this weekend. Northwestern has never reached the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. They’ll have to if they want to guarantee themselves an NCAA bid.

(8) Iowa (16-15, 8-10) — The Hawkeyes got themselves in the bubble conversation when they beat Indiana and Wisconsin in back-to-back games in February, but then lost two of their next three games. Matt Gatens (15.7 pts) is one of the best shooters in the conference. The problem is the defense, which was the worst in the Big Ten. Iowa won the tournament in 2001 and 2006 and lost in the final in 2002.

(9) Illinois (17-14, 6-12) — Simply put, the Illini have been a trainwreck. After beating Ohio State on Jan. 10, they temporarily were atop the conference. Since then, they’ve lost 11 of 13 games, and all signs point to this being Bruce Weber’s last season as head coach in Champaign. Brandon Paul (15 pts, 4.7 rebs) is one of the better scorers in the league, while Meyers Leonard (13.4 pts, 8.3 rebs) is considered by some to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft. But Illinois’ problem has never been talent, it has been living up to that talent. The Illini won the tournament in 2003 and 2005 and lost in the final in 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2008. The six appearances in the final are tied for the most all-time (Ohio State).

(10) Minnesota (18-13, 6-12) — The Gophers were dealt a tough break early in the year when they lost their star, Trevor Mbakwe, who tore his ACL in Minnesota’s seventh game of the season. But the Gophers won their next six games and entered Big Ten play with a 12-1 record. However, they opened the Big Ten season losing their first four games. They rebounded to win five of their next seven, but come to Indianapolis having lost six of seven. High-flying Rodney Williams (10.9 pts, 5.5 rebs) is their top player. The Gophers were the runner-up in the Big Ten tournament in 2010 as that magical No. 6 seed.

(11) Nebraska (12-17, 4-14) — In their first season in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers lost their first four conference games and their last four. In between, they went 4-6, but only beat one of the top-five seeds — Indiana. Head coach Doc Sadler’s calling card has always been his defense, and Nebraska finished a respectable seventh in the conference in scoring defense. But they were last in scoring offense at just 60.9 points per game. Bo Spencer (15.1 pts, 3.3 asts) is their go-to guy on offense.

(12) Penn State (12-19, 4-14) — Last year, the Nittany Lions used a run to the Big Ten tournament final to secure a bid in the NCAA tournament. This year, they’ll have to win the whole thing. Tim Frazier (18.6 pts, 4.8 rebs, 6.3 asts) did everything for Penn State, resulting in first-team All-Big Ten honors. But outside of Frazier, there isn’t much else. The bottom seed has only won three Big Ten tournament games all-time, but those were all No. 11 seeds (and all came in 1999). Penn State will be the first No. 12 seed in the history of the tournament.


Thursday: (8) Iowa over (9) Illinois, (5) Indiana over (12) Penn State, (7) Northwestern over (10) Minnesota, (6) Purdue over (11) Nebraska)
Friday: (1) Michigan State over (8) Iowa, (5) Indiana over (4) Wisconsin, (2) Michigan over (7) Northwestern (sadface), (3) Ohio State over (6) Purdue).
Saturday: (1) Michigan State over (5) Indiana, (2) Michigan over (3) Ohio State
Sunday: (1) Michigan State over (2) Michigan

Despite a history of being upset (and not caring), I'm picking the Spartans to win. MSU rarely enters this tournament with a chip on its shoulder, as the Spartans are now — the result of failing to win the title outright. The loss of Dawson also means MSU needs to play hard and get used to life without the starting small forward. It's the first time in a long time that I think MSU really wants to win this tournament. I think Michigan is playing its best basketball of the season down the stretch and will reach the title game. 

For fun (watch the whole thing):

1 comment:

  1. You picked no upsets. IU over Wisconsin can't really be considered an upset. There will definitely be at least a couple surprises