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Big Ten Tournament Preview: Day 1

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As many of you know, I am a basketball freak. If it wasn't for work tomorrow and the fact I need to take what I can get at this point my butt would be a few blocks from my apartment at Conseco Fieldhouse. Since tickets for Friday's Purdue game are ungodly expensive I was hoping to take advantage of some really cheap tickets for Thursday's contests. I will have to work instead, which is bad because this could be the best opening day ever in the history of the Big Ten Tournament.


What if God built a basketball arena, then put absolute morons in charge of running it... 

Last year was just the opposite. There were almost no storylines on day one as Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State had little to no chance of getting an at large bid. Minnesota was probably the closest, but they came up short against Illinois in an unexpected semifinal. The Illini nearly ran the table and stole the automatic bid as a 10 seed, but didn't even have enough of a profile for the NIT. Of the six day 1 teams last year only Minnesota played in the NIT. The difference between the good and the bad in the conference last year was just that pronounced.

This year it is different. Penn State, Minnesota, and Michigan desperately need wins to help secure at large berths. Northwestern could make a deep tournament run to get right back into the picture. Iowa can play spoiler, and with 2 wins would claw their way into the NIT or CIB. Indiana is a wild card that can play only to piss on everyone else's parade. They won't go anywhere without four wins in four days, but they can sure hurt some other teams along the way.

#8 Minnesota (21-9) vs. #9 Northwestern (17-12) Noon - As far as competitiveness goes, this may be the closest game of the day. Minnesota has the conference's best out of conference win with a victory over Big East champ Louisville. I think the Gophers are in, but losing to Northwestern won't be a great way to finish the season. That would mean a loss to the Wildcats in 2 of 3 games. Minnesota won convincingly in Minneapolis.

I wouldn't give up on Northwestern's hopes just yet. They have proven they can beat anybody in this conference and they already have wins over the first two teams they would face in Indy. I think getting to the semifinals would possibly put them into the tournament for the first time ever, so they still have a lot to play for. Even one win would give them the most victories over top 50 opponents of anyone in the league. Depending on what happens elsewhere around the country they would at least be in the discussion.

The key to this game will be defense and tempo. If Northwestern can control the pace and force turnovers they will be right there. They have to prevent Al Nolen from running the Gopher offense and distributing the ball. When teams do that the Gophers grind to a halt and cannot get their size involved. Northwestern has to shoot better as well. They shot just 30% in a 72-45 loss in Minneapolis three weeks ago. Northwestern won three straight after that and has held each opponent since to less than 61 points. Minnesota has exactly been lighting the scoreboard up recently either.

If Northwestern can stop Nolen from distributing and make sure that Lawrence Westbrook doesn't get hot they have an excellent chance of moving on. They played determined basketball against Ohio State Sunday but just couldn't get the one break they needed in the final minutes. They still have a ton to play for and I think they will get this game. Northwestern 61, Minnesota 58

#7 Michigan (19-12) vs. #10 Iowa (15-16) 2:30pm - This is the first of two very straightforward games for Big Ten bubble teams. If the Wolverines win they are likely into the tournament. A loss means they are NIT bound. They simply cannot afford a second loss to the Hawkeyes in 3 weeks.

When Iowa won in Iowa City on February 22nd it was mostly because of a strange decision to bench Manny Harris in overtime. We never found out why, either. Michigan won the game in Ann Arbor by 15, but completely fell apart in overtime in Iowa City.

The biggest question heading into this game is how well the Hawkeyes will play away from home. In conference play they did very well at home, going 5-4. Three of the losses were by 3 points or less to Minnesota, Purdue, and Ohio State. On the road they were 0-9 and had the stigma of being the only team to lose to Indiana. Iowa currently has four players averaging in double figures while Michigan has only Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims.

It is no secret as to why the Wolverines are so up and down. Their fortunes absolutely hinge on the play of Harris and Sims. When those two are on they can play with anyone. If they are off Michigan looks real ugly. They have needed overtime to beat Indiana and Savannah State this season. Laval Lucas-Perry is a wild card too. He had 19 in the huge win at Minnesota last weekend. That was a season high, topping the 18 he had at Indiana, but it was only the second time in 16 games that he has been in double figures.

I just don't think Iowa has it in them to get a win away from Iowa City just yet. This is a rematch of last year's 8/9 game. I have some friends that are Iowa fans that worked with me at the NCAA. They took the day off to watch this game last year and the 55-47 result in favor of Michigan almost made their eyes bleed.  If Harris and Sims are on this day I think Michigan wins in a walk. If they are off Iowa can absolutely pull the upset and move on. Michigan 65, Iowa 55

#6 Penn State (21-10) vs. #11 Indiana (6-24) - Penn State has Iowa to thank for playing on Thursday. On paper it looks like they get a free win, but in reality they could have used the bye much more. Had the Nittany Lions not blown their chance in Iowa City they would be sitting as the #2 seed right now and they would feel a lot better about their NCAA chances. Instead, they are the #6 and if Indiana pulls the upset it may knock them out of the tournament.

Indiana is certainly playing better than many people have expected. For a team that has lost 21 of 22 I am sure Penn State isn't treating them like their record reflects. Part of that reason is because the Nittany Lions barely escaped with a home win over the Hoosiers a few weeks ago. This is also a virtual home game for Indiana, and the Hoosiers were much better at home. They play hard and absolutely have a chance in this one.

Indiana was able to stay close to Penn State a few weeks ago because Devan Dumes was shooting well and they limited their turnovers. Indiana essentially played with a six man rotation in that game and may have just run out of gas at the end. They actually led for a good portion of the game but couldn't close the deal.

Honestly, Penn State needs to let their big three of Cornley, Battle, and Pringle dominate. That is one of the best trios in the league. When the Nittany Lions won in Bloomington they combined for 48 of 65 points. As long as those numbers are similar we can expect to see Penn State facing us Friday night. Penn state 70, Indiana 61

Big Ten Hoops Day 5k

I am still looking for people who are interested in joining me for Sunday's Big Ten Hoops Day 5k. The weather on Sunday is supposed to be 54 degrees and rainy, but I am still planning on running if anyone is interested. Afterwards I wouldn't mind scalping some tickets to go see Purdue play in the championship. The run starts at 11am on Sunday morning.

Baseball update:

The baseball team plays its first game in the state of Indiana this season when it plays Butler in Indianapolis this afternoon. The Bulldogs are 1-8 on the year with their only win coming at Marian College in the season opener. I'm sure that cross-town rivalry is heated, but Bulldogs have been awful since. They dropped a game to Taylor University on March 3rd and got swept in four games at UNLV last weekend by a combined score of 66-19. If Purdue can't win this game it has no business going to the NCAA Tournament or even entering Big Ten play really.

Purdue is currently 2-7 after getting swept at Texas State and will play in the Dunn Hospitality Diamond Classic in Evansville this weekend against Mississippi Valley State (5-5), Evansville (3-8), and IPFW (2-6). It is clear that now is the time that Purdue needs to win some games against opponents it should beat and start building for the conference season. The home opener is March 24th against IPFW.

Saturday Distraction:


 Onward, Kokomo. Beat the Giants (and yes, the guy in the middle is our head coach and not a player since 1996) - Courtesy of my friends at the Kokomo Tribune

Should Purdue win Friday night against either Penn State or Indiana I will be slightly distracted for our Saturday quarterfinal. It is regional Saturday here in Indiana, making it the only real day of the year that it feels like we still have a good high school basketball tournament. My beloved Kokomo Wildkats (15-7) are taking on the evil Marion Giants in the Marion Regional, so I'll have a chance to see some solid talent among all four teams involved. Marion (20-3) and Ft. Wayne Snider (22-1) are solid teams while Anderson (20-4) could surprise. I saw the Kokomo-Anderson game earlier this year and Troy Taylor (a potential Ohio State recruit) dropped 30 in an overtime win for the Indians.

I'll be paying attention to what D.J. Byrd (North Montgomery vs. New Palestine at Shelbyville), Jeff Robinson (Lawrence North vs. Hamilton Southeastern at Hinkle), and Patrick Bade (Franklin Central vs. Pike also at Hinkle) do. Should Kokomo lose and Bade takes on Robinson in the championship at Hinkle that night I may drop in on that game. I don't want to be there though. 11 years ago Marion beat us to end my senior year on our floor in the regional 71-67 in overtime. I have waited since then to return the favor on their floor. This is a bitter rivalry that I know I am not rational about, but I don't care. I'd rather watch Indiana beat us a hundred times than watch the Giants succeed at anything basketball-related.

If Kokomo does win I will likely take the laptop with me and try to do a liveblog of our semifinal at Buffalo Wild Wings.