On paper it is simple: Win four games and you are in the NCAA Tournament. Everyone has the same goa. The four best regular season teams get rewarded by having to play one less game, but they are all NCAA locks anyway. All the teams that will not get an at large bid have an equal chance to reach the NCAA Tournament by taking Chicago by storm and winning the Big Ten Tournament.
In practice, it is a lot more difficult. Since the Big Ten Tournament stated in 1998 only one school, Iowa in 2001, has run the table and stolen a bid they probably were not getting. Only three times has a team seeded third or lower won the event with Michigan in 1998 as a four (which did NOT HAPPEN according to the NCAA), Iowa in 2001 as a 6, and Purdue in 2009 as the 3 seed. That favors Indiana or Ohio State winning this thing. Every team except Northwestern and Nebraska has appeared in the final, however.
So it is difficult, but not impossible. In the 15 previous Big Ten Tournaments a team that had to play on Thursday has made it to the championship seven times, so there is hope for our seventh seeded Boilers. In this year of crazy conference results throwing these 12 teams on a neutral floor for four days could produce the greatest tourney we've yet seen. Here is each instance of a Thursday team making it all the way to Sunday:
1999: In one of the most surprising runs in Big Ten history Illinois, who was 14-18 overall and went 3-13 in league play, made a run to Sunday despite finishing a full two games behind everyone else in the conference. The Fighting Illini got started by beating Minnesota 67-64 on Thursday in the 6/11 game. The Illini then stunned 3 Seed Indiana 82-66 on Friday before squeezing past No. 2 seed Ohio State 79-77 on Saturday. A loaded Michigan State team, ranked No. 2 at the time, ended their run 67-50 in the final.
2001: Luke Recker and Iowa got hot at the right time. Iowa entered the tournament as the No. 6 seed and 7-9 in the league, sitting on the bubble at best. They benefited from playing Northwestern on Thursday, beating them easily 72-55. The Hawkeyes then upset Ohio State 75-66 and caught a break with Penn State also upsetting Michigan State in the 7/2 game. Iowa easily got past Penn State in the semifinals 94-74, giving Recker a chance to screw over his old team. He did just that as Iowa beat the Hoosiers 63-61 in Indiana's only appearance in the championship game. Reggie Evans was your MVP, but it was Recker who took a lot of joy in screwing over the school that originally recruited him.
2002: With an even worse team Iowa came back for more. The Hawkeyes entered as the No. 9 seed and beat Purdue 87-72 to open the tourney. Wisconsin held the No. 1 seed, but Iowa did not care, beating the Badgers 58-56. That set up a rematch with Indiana, and the Hawkeyes were again victorious 62-60. I am betting it was somehow Mike Davis' fault despite the fact he made the National title game a few weeks later. Alas, a repeat was not pulled off. Iowa was sent to the NIT by Ohio State 81-64 in the final.
2003: For a third straight year a team would have a chance to steal the auto-bid. This time the tables were turned and it was Ohio State, entering the tourney at 15-13 overall and 7-9 in the league, that got hot for three days. The Buckeyes beat Iowa 66-64 to start the tournament before stunning Wisconsin 58-50. It was the second straight year the Badgers entered as the top seed, only to immediately lose. Another close game followed as the Buckeyes edged Michigan State 55-54, but Illinois came through with a 72-59 win in the final, sending the Buckeyes to the NIT.
2008: The tournament held mostly to seed from 2004-07, but Illinois returned to wreck things in 2008. Only twice has a double-digit seed reached the title game and it was the Illini both times. Entering at just 13-18 overall and 5-13 in the Big Ten they did not even have an NIT berth to play for. It was auto-bid or bust and the Illini nearly pulled it off. First, Illinois squeezed past Penn State 64-63 in the 7/10 game as the 10 seed. The baby Boilers were the next victim on one of the wildest night sessions in BTT history. Illinois beat Purdue 74-67 in overtime, mostly because Demetri McCamey went completely apeshit from three.
I remember attempting to buy tickets for a potential Indiana-Purdue semifinal on Stubhub, only to see them going for hundreds of dollars because the game was in Indianapolis and it was a chance to see a second IU-Purdue game after only one during the regular season. Well, a lot of people paid a lot of money to see Illinois continue its run with a 54-50 win over Minnesota after Blake Hoffarber stunned the Hoosiers in the quarterfinals after the Purdue-Illinois game. The Illini were in the final, but Wisconsin would end the foolishness 61-48. That Badger team lost just twice all year in Big Ten play, to the same Purdue team that Illinois knocked out for them.
2010: This was the first time I ever covered a Big Ten Tournament and I was treated to Minnesota earning itself an at large bid by running to Sunday from Thursday. The Golden Gophers were the 6 seed and easily handled Penn State 76-55 to start off. They then went overtime to beat Michigan State 72-67 in the final Friday night game. Next up was Purdue in the semifinals, where the Boilers played perhaps the worst half of basketball ever seen in losing 69-42. Once in the final Minnesota ran out of gas and got crushed by Ohio State 90-61. They did eliminate two of the three Big Ten champs in their run, however, and it gave them an at large bid to the NCAAs.
2011: The Nittany Lions, I mean Fightin;' Talor Battles, followed almost the exact same script to seal their own at large bid a year later. Entering on the bubble at 19-15 and 9-9 in a really tough Big Ten Penn State needed a run from the 6 seed spot. They got it. A 61-55 win over last place Indiana was a little too close for comfort, but Penn State benefited from a brutally ugly game with Wisconsin in the quarterfinals. Even Bo Ryan had to be disgusted with the 36-33 win by Penn State, setting up a 6/7 semifinal where Penn State beat the Spartans 61-48. Penn State's run ended 71-60 in the final against eventual No. 1 overall seed Ohio State, but minutes after the title game Penn State was rewarded with an at large bid, mostly because of their three days in Indy.
So there you have it. Getting to Sunday from Thursday can be done and is regularly done, but in every instance the team that got there has had to play a team that was resting on Thursday. Aside from Iowa's win in 2001, the underdog has lost by 17, 17, 13, 13, 29, and 11. That's what makes this so difficult. A team has to win four games in four days, three of them usually against NCAA locks, just to steal a bid. By the time they get to Sunday a team is completely out of gas. Even in Illinois' miracle run in 1999 they had to beat three straight teams that got at large bids before losing to a team that was No. 1 in the country for much of the 1998-99 season.
The best way to get to Sunday is to play a team on Saturday that also had to play on Thursday. It happened in 2011, 2008, and 2001. In Purdue's case that means beating Nebraska, upsetting Ohio State, and hoping Iowa or Northwestern stuns Michigan State.
If Purdue even reaches the final it would make history. No 7 seed has ever reached the final Big Ten Tournament, and only a handful of times have they reached Saturday. Like a golf tournament, however, the goal is to simply make the cut to the weekend. Once there, anything can happen even in the year of the Greatest Big Ten Champion In The History Of The Universe having to overcome the terrible adversity of
burning its own program to the ground horrible NCAA sanctions so their coach could finally remember to tell off an evil mastermind assistant to Kelvin Sampson in the 8th game he faced him.
Still, it should be an exciting tournament. I think Purdue wins a game before falling to Ohio State because the Buckeyes simply know what to do in this tournament with seven appearances in the championship game, six in the last seven years alone. I like the four top seeds to hold until Saturday when Wisconsin continues its ownership of Crean and gets a third shot against Michigan State in the final. If I had to pick a dark horse to make it to make it to Saturday from Thursday I am tempted to go with Penn State. Even at 2-16 the Lions have recently beaten Michigan, played them tough in Ann Arbor, and lost on a buzzer-beater to Wisconsin yesterday. They certainly have a favorable path for themselves.
Indiana should also be wary, as they will face Minnesota or Illinois in game one and both teams know they can beat the Hoosiers. If you're going to have a surprise finalist a bubbly Illinois-Minnesota winner vs. Penn State on Saturday could be where to look. Ohio State is dangerous because they have played their best basketball away from Columbus (trip to Illinois aside) and Michigan State would surely love a third chance at Indiana. Only one team, Northwestern with their whimper of a finish and injuries would surprise me completely by winning a game, let alone two.