Can we call this week in Chicago the Big Ten Conclave? After all, it is one of the few times the entire conference and several hundred fans from each school are in the same place at the same time. There are ridiculous pushes to move the event to Chicago full-time, but it belongs in Indianapolis. I say this not because I like attending the event two miles from my home (I do), but because the state of Indiana is basketball crazy, the downtown is compact with a bar/restaurant for each team, and Bankers Life Fieldhouse is an actual venue built for basketball instead of the stale atmosphere of the United Center.
The Big Ten Conclave is an annual event, convened to determine the league's best team over a four day period and maybe send a surprise winner into the NCAA Tournament. Like the current papal conclave on the other side of the world there is no favorite to emerge once the smoke clears in Chicago. Fortunately, I am here to clear things up.
For those have asked, yes, Hammer & Rails will be at the Tourney. I won't be there personally, as five weeks short of Mrs. T-Mill's due date made me a little leery of running up to Chicago for four days. Instead, Joe Kutsunis, formerly of Hail to the Orange, has offered to fill in as guest conductor of this symphony and will be representing me in Chicago.
What follows is a prediction of this year's Big Ten Tournament and how things will play out. I guarantee this or your money back:
Game 1: No. 8 Seed Illinois (21-11, 8-10) vs. No. 9 Seed Minnesota (20-11, 8-10) - Unfortunately for the Golden Gophers, this game is not in the friendly confines of the Barn. They have behaved like groundhogs this year, scurrying back to the safety of Minneapolis once they see their shadow outside their home court. Some say Minnesota will make the NCAA Tournament win or lose. They had better hope so. They've won exactly once this calendar year away from home and closed on a 5-10 stretch after a 15-1 start pulled them into the top 10.
What makes this game hard to figure out is that the regular season results between the two went the exact opposite of Minnesota's tendencies during the year. Goldy was 1-8 on the road in Big Ten play, but won at Illinois. The Gophers were 7-2 at home, but lost to Illinois.
Since Illinois holds a true road win at Gonzaga, they beat Indiana, and they thumped Ohio State at home I think they have a little more play. They were also 3-6 on the road in the Big Ten and have looked better of late, while Minnesota last week was pretty ugly. Illinois 61, Minnesota 53
No. 5 Seed Michigan (25-6, 12-6) vs. No. 12 Seed Penn State (10-20, 2-16) - The Wolverines deserve this. Because Glenn Robinson III, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Trey Burke decided to shoot free throws with both hands clinched firmly around their necks they absolutely deserve to get relegated to the 5/12 game. For many it would be easy, but Penn State has played some pretty solid basketball since February 14, including a win over Michigan.
Even though Michigan is 26-6 they still seem... off. Their best win was at home in a game against Michigan State where the Spartans screwed up more than the Wolverines seized it. At the time beating NC State was considered good, but they were incredibly overrated. The win at Minnesota looked good until the Gophers fell in the tank. That leaves their best win as at home, in overtime, against Ohio State.
Michigan has played way too close for comfort compared to their talent level. They finished 12-6 in the league but easily could have dropped games to Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, and the first Penn State game. This should be an easy game, but expect the Nittany Lions to keep it too close thanks to Jermaine Marshall and D.J. Newbill. Another Penn State upset would not surprise me, which says all you need to know about a very good Michigan team playing a 2-16 Penn State team. Michigan 75, Penn State 69
No. 7 Seed Purdue (15-16, 8-10) vs. No. 10 Seed Nebraska (14-17, 5-13) - Purdue has struggled the last two years, but not against Nebraska. Last year the Boilers won 83-65 in West Lafayette and 79-61 in Indianapolis. Both games were rather dull where Purdue was clearly the better team on the floor. This year was Purdue's turn to visit the Cornhuskers and it was closer, but Purdue won 65-56 while leading by at least 7 for the entire second half and by as much as 20. Terone Johnson had 18 and A.J. Hammons had 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 blocks.
The player that came from nowhere for the Cornhuskers was Jordan Tyrance, who had 10 points, which were his first 10 points of the season. Nebraska has since played better, beating Iowa and Minnesota on its home floor, but they are still overmatched most nights. Purdue contained Dylan Talley and Ray Gallegos the last time and are playing better basketball than they were on January 16. Purdue 67, Nebraska 60
No. 6 Seed Iowa (20-11, 9-9) vs. No. 11 Seed Northwestern (13-18, 4-14) - Even Nebraska and Penn State are playing better basketball of late. Northwestern is a broken team, but did show some fight on Sunday in East Lansing. Our friends at Sippin On Purple have already gone delusional in saying that it is a fact that the Wildcats will win the Big Ten Tournament.
I want some of their drugs. Northwestern has lost 8 in a row and 10 of 11, only beating a Purdue team that looked as disinterested possible on February 2. The Hawkeyes won both regular season games here by a combined 34 points. Sorry Cats, but the Never Made The Tourney Club will continue for another year. Iowa 74, Northwestern 57
No. 1 Seed Indiana (26-5, 14-4) vs. No. 8 Illinois (22-11, 8-10) - If Illinois is on the Bubble a good way to get off of it is a second win over Indiana, who even at 26-5 is a bit of an enigma. The Hoosiers should be better than their record. When the offense is humming, Kevin Ferrell is working the drive and kick game, and Cody Zeller is playing big they are virtually unstoppable. They can defend extremely well too. Unfortunately, too often Zeller plays like he fears contact and Ferrell makes freshman point guard mistakes. Also, Crean is a lousy in-game coach that refuses to make adjustments. More often he wins close games by the other team dick-tripping (say, Michigan missing 3 of 4 free throws, including the front end of two 1-and-1's, making it feel like missing 5 of 6, with 52 seconds remaining and a four-point lead) than by coaching prowess.
Indiana can be undone by a disciplined team that plays patient and slows the game down on offense, gets back on defense, denies Ferrell penetration, and get physical on the boards (Butler, Minnesota, and Wisconsin did this). It also helps greatly when Zeller does not get the fragile Baby Jesus treatment from the officials like he has often gotten. If you try to run with IU, you're dead.
Illinois already did this once this year, but it took the Hoosiers choking away a nine-point lead with 3:35 to get there. Indiana missed four shots and turned it over twice in a game they fully controlled for 36 minutes. I don't think that happens again. Indiana 84, Illinois 71
No. 4 Seed Wisconsin (21-10, 12-6) vs. No. 5 Seed Michigan (26-6, 12-6) - Bo Ryan is a wizard. Even losing to Purdue, Michigan State and almost to Penn State in the final week during the toughest big Ten in decades he still found a way to avoid playing on Thursday at the Big Ten Tournament. As a reward they get the team that gifted them the four seed by clanking so many important free throws on Sunday.
The Badgers won the only meeting with Michigan 65-62 in overtime thanks to Ben Brust nailing a near half-court shot at the end of regulation. That was in Madison though. Wisconsin is a tough matchup for almost anyone except strangely Purdue because they want to slow it down and drag you into a rock fight. The ultimate example was the 36-33 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tourney two years ago. They give exactly two shits about scoring only 45 points as long as they give up 44 or less. Sometimes it backfires, but it makes teams like Michigan uncomfortable. Wisconsin 55, Michigan 50
No. 2 Seed Ohio State (23-7, 13-5) vs. No. 7 Seed Purdue (16-16, 8-10) - This would be the third Friday matchup where the teams only played once. The Buckeyes beat Purdue 74-64 in West Lafayette behind 22 points from Deshaun Thomas and a fortuitous play where A.J. Hammons somehow fouled Aaron Craft when Craft tripped over his own shoes. Ohio State also easily beat Purdue in last year's tourney 88-71.
Purdue could not get a key stop when it needed it in the second half, but Hammons had a solid 13 and 8. Terone Johnson had 18 for Purdue, but the Boilers got out-rebounded 35-27 and shot only 38% while OSU shot 55%. It's safe to say that any upset happens only if the recent Purdue team shows up.
Unfortunately, even then, the Buckeyes are the hottest team in the league at the moment. They closed with five straight wins including over Michigan State and at Indiana. Craft converts more shit-turned-to-gold shots than anyone in the league too. They've played in four straight BTT finals as well. Ohio State ends Purdue's run. Ohio State 72, Purdue 62
No. 3 Seed Michigan State (24-7, 13-5) vs. No. 6 Seed Iowa (21-11, 9-9) - Weird things happen in the Friday night session of the Big Ten Tournament. Last Minnesota had no business playing with Michigan but took the Wolverines to overtime. Two years ago the eye-bleeding Penn State-Wisconsin game. Three years ago Minnesota stunned Michigan State in overtime. The ultimate was 2008, when Purdue lost in overtime to an awful Illinois team and Minnesota beat Indiana on a last second shot.
Michigan State officially is the last team to take the court for the first time in the tourney, therefore it has the longest wait. They get an Iowa team that has a chance to redeem itself for all the close losses it suffered this season. Sparty only won 62-59 in the one regular season meeting in Iowa City, coming back late to win in the final minute on three free throws from Gary Harris, a Branden Dawson dunk, and two free throws from Keith Appling. Roy Devyn Marble also did not play. He'll play on Friday, and Iowa will get a much-needed big win for its NCAA profile. Iowa 64, Michigan State 62
No. 1 Seed Indiana (27-5, 14-4) vs. No. 4 Seed Wisconsin (22-10, 12-6) - Bo Ryan owns Tom Crean. It's that simple. It not only owns Tom Crean, he gets all the money from his Subway commercials and forces him to buy ill-fitting pants at the Men's Warehouse in Castleton. These are indisputable facts.
Wisconsin is the worst matchup for Indiana (again, as long as Zeller is not getting the Baby Jesus treatment) because they play so physical it disrupts the Hoosiers' rhythm. Indiana only scored 59 points at home in the regular season game. They shot 37% and were just 25% from three. Zeller even had 23 and 10, but Jordan Hulls only had four points and Will Sheehey, the IU fan poster child, did virtually nothing but run around for 17 minutes. Indiana had been over 83 points in every home game to that point and was above 70 in every other home game except the 67-58 loss to Ohio State.
Wisconsin was patient (12 assists on 23 field goals) while Indiana was not (only 7 assists). Since Crean refuses to adjust even at halftime Wisconsin continues its dominance of Indiana. Wisconsin 65, Indiana 60
No. 2 Seed Ohio State (24-7, 13-5) vs. No. 6 Seed Iowa (22-11, 9-9) - As mentioned earlier this week, Iowa is the only team to run from Thursday to Sunday and steal the auto-bid. They did it as a No. 6 seed in 2001 and nearly as a No. 9 the next year. Can they do it again? They played Ohio State just once, a 72-63 win in Columbus. The Buckeyes led by as much as 24 in that one, Iowa scored 41 in the second half.
Iowa got that done by playing team basketball. Seven different played had at least six points with Aaron White scoring 13 to lead them. Ohio State also had balance with Linzelle Smith Jr. and Evan Ravenel each reaching double figures to help Craft and Thomas. Once again, Ohio State is playing extremely well. Iowa probably moves into at large lock territory if it wins this game, but just getting here might be enough. Ohio State 72, Iowa 62
No. 4 Seed Wisconsin (23-10, 12-6) vs. No. 2 Seed Ohio State (25-7, 13-5) - These teams split in the regular season with each winning on their own home floor, so a rubber match would be exciting. The badgers won in Madison because they played Wisconsin-style basketball and dragged it into a 58-49 game. In Columbus Ohio State was more efficient offensively while Wisconsin struggled, leading to a 71-49 Ohio State win.
Neither team will have an advantage of rest of the other, but thanks to Iowa's upset over Michigan State the Buckeyes have a slightly easier path. Wisconsin was the only team in the league to beat Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio State this year, but I don't think they can do it three days in a row. Ohio State 61, Wisconsin 54