WHERE: Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
WHEN: March 11-14
After a regular season that settled almost nothing, the Big Ten enters something like sudden death overtime to determine its automatic entrant for the NCAA Tournament. Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan State finished deadlocked atop the final Big 10 regular-season standing with matching 14-4 records, while Wisconsin was one game back. However, the Pomeroy rankings, which we like to think of as a fair indicator of the true talent level of the various teams, sees Wisconsin--KenPom's current No. 3 team--as the monsters of the Midwest. The disparity between standings and power rating results in some interesting log5 projections.
POMEROY'S LOG5 PROJECTIONS
SD TEAM QTRS SEMI FINL CHMP
4 Wisconsin 100 83.4 51.6 34.1
2 Purdue 100 87.6 57.0 26.1
1 Ohio St. 100 84.8 41.3 24.5
3 Michigan St. 100 62.8 27.3 9.5
6 Minnesota 73.7 31.7 11.8 3.4
5 Illinois 100 16.6 4.4 1.3
8 Michigan 82.2 14.4 2.7 0.7
7 Northwestern 77.5 11.4 2.8 0.4
11 Penn St. 26.3 5.5 1.0 0.1
10 Indiana 22.5 1.1 0.1 0.004
9 Iowa 17.8 0.8 0.04 0.003
If the Big Ten champ were decided by an electoral college, it's doubtful that Wisconsin would have the necessary votes to declare themselves as winners. However, KenPom's system thinks the fourth-seeded Badgers have the best chance of anyone to cut down the nets in Indianapolis. That's not surprising, really, but what is kind of a shocker is the relatively weak showing of Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans, which Pomeroy sees as closer to the middle of the pack than to top dog's status.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
Quite a lot, actually. The winner of the Big Ten Tournament may be able to stake claim as a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, depending on what happens in the other major conference tournaments. That may not quite be true for Michigan State, but the Spartans are trying to avoid a No. 4 seed, which would mean side-stepping a Sweet 16 matchup against one of what promises to be a strong group of No. 1 seeds. Further down the ladder, Illinois may have as much to gain or lose as any team playing in Championship Week. The Illini are currently slotted as a No. 13 seed by ESPN's Joe Lunardi--the very last team to make the bracket. That's tenuous. Illinois almost certainly needs to win its first game in Indianapolis, but the date with fourth-seeded Wisconsin is an awfully-tough opening draw for Bruce Weber's crew. Minnesota is another team designated with the ominous bubble-team label, but the Gophers probably need to win at least two in Indy to avoid the NIT. They'll have to get by improving Penn State and motivated Michigan State to get those two wins, which isn't going to be easy. Finally, Northwestern fans are hoping for a miracle weekend--four wins that put the Wildcats into the NCAAs for the first time. More realistically, Northwestern will be looking to solidify what already appears to be a surefire NIT bid.
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes feature the Big Ten's Player of the Year--and possible national POY--in Evan Turner. That's good enough reason to watch the Buckeyes. Turner led the conference in scoring and rebounding--he's a point guard, remember--and finished second in assists. The Buckeyes also have emerging sophomore guard William Buford and defensive stalwart Dallas Lauderdale, who ranked 17th in the nation in shot-block percentage. Lauderdale doesn't create offense at all but as a finisher of other people's passes, it's hard to be more efficient. Lauderdale shot 77 percent from the field in the regular season--not an insignificant reason why the Buckeyes finished fourth nationally eFG%. Thad Motta's team was second to Wisconsin in per-possession differential during conference play.
2. Purdue: College hoops observers far and wide closed the book on the Boilermakers once Robbie Hummel went down with a season-ending knee injury. Hummel's injury doesn't help the Boilermakers' cause, but the cupboard isn't exactly bare. E'Twaun Moore was first team All-Big Ten and led the Boilermakers in scoring. JaJuan Johnson anchors the inside and Chris Kramer was named the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. On top of all that, Matt Painter was named the conference's top coach. So if the 26-4 Boilermakers run the table in Indianapolis, why shouldn't they get the same consideration for the No. 1 seed as would apparently go to Ohio State and Wisconsin? That's all I'm saying.
3. Michigan State: Believe it or not, Tom Izzo's Spartans have not won a Big Ten Tournament title since 2000, despite all the postseason success Michigan State has enjoyed this decade. Michigan State's quest to win another was complicated by the suspension of junior guard Chris Allen because of what Izzo called "not being a good teammate." Allen will miss Friday's game and perhaps more. As always, Izzo will put a team on the floor that plays rugged defense, locks down the boards and plays inside-out on offense. The Spartans don't take many three-pointers as it is, and Allen was Izzo's most prolific three-point threat.
4. Wisconsin: Because they finished one game behind the Big Ten's tri-champs, some are overlooking the Badgers, but the exacting eyes of Ken Pomeroy's supercomputer have declared the Badgers as the nominal favorite to run the table. Wisconsin is back at full strength now that Jon Leuer is back healthy and productive, giving Bo Ryan the inside threat the Badgers lacked while Leuer was out wrist injury. The helpful offshoot of Leuer's injury was the emergence of senior guard Jason Bohannon. Bohannon was a low-usage, fifth option in Wisconsin's attack before Leuer was hurt, but took up the slack when needed and ended up as a bonafide perimeter complement to Trevon Hughes.
5. Illinois: A lackluster finish has the Illini teetering on the verge of a dreaded call from the NIT. Illinois lost five of its last six games, though its competition was fierce during that stretch. That's the only reason why Illinois is still in the conversation. Still, with a 6-6 finishing record and a 5-11 mark against the top 100 teams in RPI, at least one win in Indianapolis is a must. Illinois is led by All-Big Ten point guard Demetri McCamey, who had the second best assist rate of any player in the nation. Big Ten Freshman of the Year D.J. Richardson emerged as a home run threat out of the backcourt.
6. Minnesota: The Gophers are athletic, they share the ball, shoot the three-point shot as well as any team in the conference and play solid defense. They have a solid senior in Lawrence Westbrook to lead them out of the backcourt. They have a solid big man in Ralph Sampson III. They are long--the 13th-highest effective height figure in the land. There are holes to be sure. For one, the Gophers just aren't very physical, but play in a physical conference. But still ... how does this group lose 12 games overall and break even in the Big Ten? Need two wins to have any shot at the NCAAs.
7. Northwestern: Bad losses doomed the Wildcats' NCAA hopes and also my planned feature story. I had sketched the consummate "Wildcats finally lose the distinction of being the only major conference team without an NCAA Tournament appearance" piece. But the "team has always stunk and, well, now they're kind of mediocre and still not getting into the NCAA Tournament" piece just didn't seem worth completing. At least I got to see a couple of good Big Ten games before things went south. Things are looking up in Evanston, though. Sophomore John Shurna filled the void left by the injury to Kevin Coble before the season, finishing third in the conference in scoring and making second team All-Big Ten. Coble will be back next season, as presumably will be senior Jeff Ryan, also hurt in the preseason. Michael Thompson, freshman Drew Crawford and sophomore big man Luka Mirkovic all will be back in what shapes up as the most talented Wildcat hoops team in school history. Till then, an NIT bid will have to suffice.
8. Michigan: Michigan needs to win the tournament to get to the NIT and if they did that, they'd of course be NCAA-bound. So the NIT is not very likely, but it's possible UM could be the first losing team offered a bid since the tournament dropped its .500 or better requirement. The Wolverines have some talent but, let's face it, four wins in Indy is probably not going to happen. That means the Michigan season ends when the Wolverines lose because head coach John Belein has already said his team won't be accepting a bid to the CBI or CIT or any other 'C' tournament. Michigan has excellent core talent in DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris, but the dropoff after that is steep.
LET'S JUST RUN THE TABLE
9. Iowa: That the Hawkeyes won four Big Ten games was actually happy news for Iowa fans, a testament to the talent level on hand. The Hawkeyes lost to first-round opponent Michigan in overtime in their game in Iowa City, so Iowa isn't without hope of at least one win. Iowa isn't really good at anything, but it does take a ton of three-point shots./p>
10. Indiana: When will the Hoosiers get past the Kelvin Sampson debacle? It didn't happen this season, as Gasaway's per-possession margins suggest IU was lucky to get four Big Ten wins. The Hoosiers lost 11 straight before topping Northwestern at home in overtime to close the regular season. The Hoosiers get a return match with the Wildcats in Thursday's first round and will have the quasi-home fans behind them. Tom Crean's squad is way young--only 11 of 347 Division I teams were less experienced. With solid youngsters like Verdell Jones and Christian Watford on hand, better days lie ahead in Bloomington.
11. Penn State: The Nittany Lions won only three conference games, but split their last six games. Plus, two of those were "good" losses--two points at Michigan State and four points at home to Purdue. So Penn State is capable of pulling an upset, maybe even two. PSU also features a front-line talent in point guard Talor Battle, who was the conference's second-leading scorer and also leads the team in assists.
GAMES TO WATCH
Thursday's opening round actually has a couple of nice matchups. Northwestern vs. Indiana features the aesthetically-pleasing Wildcats against an Indiana team that will have the home crowd behind it. Meanwhile, Minnesota vs. Penn State pits the athletic Gophers in desperate need of a win against the stubborn Nittany Lions. On Friday, Wisconsin vs. Illinois is a matchup of quality teams that will be highly motivated. You could make the same statement about a potential Michigan State vs. Minnesota matchup. All this said, Big Ten purists are probably banking on a Saturday final four of Ohio State vs. Wisconsin and Purdue vs. Michigan State. That's the only proper way to determine the champion of this conference.
Here is the Big Ten portion of the prospect rankings I compiled about six weeks ago, with my national prospect ranking listed in parenthesis:
Ohio State: Evan Turner, PG (No. 3)
Michigan State: Kalin Lucas, PG (No. 28)
Purdue: JaJuan Johnson, PF (No. 34)
Michigan: Manny Harris, SG (No. 38)
Michigan State: Durrell Summers, SG (No. 54)
Minnesota: Rodney Williams, SF (No. 81)
Purdue: Robbie Hummel, SF (No. 85)
Ohio State: William Buford, SG (No. 86)
Purdue: E'twaun Moore, PG/SG (No. 93)
Illinois: Mike Davis, PF/C (No. 101)
Illinois: Brandon Paul, SG (No. 102)
Penn State: Talor Battle, G (No. 108)
Wisconsin: Trevon Hughes, G (No. 112)
Indiana: Maurice Creek, G (No. 150)
Michigan: DeShawn Sims, F (No. 157)
Minnesota: Damian Johnson, SF (No. 176)
Minnesota: Ralph Sampson III, PF/C (No. 176)
Wisconsin: Jon Leuer, F (No. 177)
Northwestern: no prospects
Iowa: no prospects
I want to re-emphasize that I compiled these rankings six weeks ago in order to supplement my own viewing of the conference season. If I were to update my data and generate fresh rankings, Ohio State's Evan Turner would be at least my No. 2 prospect, and perhaps No. 1. Subjectively speaking, from an NBA perspective, I still prefer Kentucky's John Wall. But the gap has closed considerably.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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