It is hard to believe that it has been six years since we had a “normal” Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. Based on the media information I received there are some lingering COVID protocols, as all media members must be vaxxed and waxed, but aside from that it looks like we’re finally crawling out from this cloud that descended almost two years ago to this day. It is only March 737th, 2020 after all.
But yes, the last normal Big Ten Tournament in Indy was in 2016. The 2017 event was in Washington, DC and 2018 was in the World’s Most Overrated Sports Arena in New York. 2019 was back in Chicago, while 2020 lasted all of two games before its cancellation, leaving me with a relic of a credential on my wall. Last year was at Lucas Oil Stadium before managed crowds, but it is back at the Fieldhouse with full crowds this year.
I will be in attendance at most of the games this week, though not as many as usual since I was saving vacation time for the NCAAs next week if Purdue returns to the Fieldhouse. What we have is the usual fun event. Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan State are all solidly in the NCAA Tournament field. Rutgers and Michigan are likely on the happy side of the Bubble, while Indiana is right at the line depending on who you speak to. The remaining five teams are playing only for pride, while Maryland or Northwestern winning a couple games could get them an NIT berth since they are both sitting a game under .500.
If you’re looking to pick a team your safest bets are Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Rutgers. I say that because since the tournament started in 1998 only three teams have successfully won four games in four days to take the title: Iowa in 2001 as the 6 seed, Michigan in 2017 as the 8, and Michigan again a year later as the 5. Those three, combined with Michigan winning the inaugural event as a 4 seed, are the ONLY times a team seeded third or worse has won it. Only 2001 Iowa probably got in via the automatic bid as well, as Michigan was solidly in the field both times.
History says the winner will be Illinois, Wisconsin, or Purdue as the top 3 seeds, but we all know our history in this event. Only Indiana and Northwestern as teams that have been in every iteration of the Big Ten Tournament have a worse record than Purdue’s 14-22 mark with 9 of Purdue’s 14 wins coming in its four trips to the title game in 1998, 2009 (which it won), 2016 and 2018.
That’s not to say big runs can’t happen. Illinois made the final in 1999 as the 11 seed and again in 2008 as the 10 seed. Minnesota and Penn State in 2010 and 2011, respectively, made runs to the championship game that likely pushed them to the happy side of the Bubble. Since most of the teams that would need the automatic bid would have to win five games in five days a magical run seems very unlikely. So far no one who has had to play on Wednesday has even made it to Saturday’s semifinals, but Nebraska came close in 2019, losing to Wisconsin by 4 in the quarters.
With all that said, let’s preview this thing, and make some picks, starting with tomorrow.
Game 1: No. 12 Northwestern (14-15, 7-13) vs. No. 13 Nebraska (10-21, 4-16), 6 p.m., Big Ten Network
Two teams come into the Big Ten Tournament with a three-game winning streak. One is Illinois, who stumbled into a league title thanks to the red hot Nebraska Cornhuskers, who won their final three games, all away from home and two against ranked teams. Northwestern has the look of a Bill Carmody era team, as they have hovered around .500 and sport a resume littered with close calls that would have put them in the NCAAs. If you’re Purdue, you’d like to see them win a couple and get into the top 75 to boost our road win over them to tier 1. Northwestern did win both regular season games with the Cornhuskers, but Nebraska went crazy in the past week. Pick: Nebraska
Game 2: No. 11 Penn State (12-16, 7-13) vs. No. 14 Minnesota (13-16, 4-16), 8:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
This game does not need to happen. Minnesota peaked with an undefeated non-conference, but really struggled in league play. These two played twice in a five day span in mid-Febraury, splitting their games and each winning at home. Penn State won by 19 in State College while Minnesota won by 6 in Minneapolis. Pick: Penn State
Second round (Thursday)
Game 3: No. 8 Michigan (17-13, 11-9) vs. No. 9 Indiana (18-12, 9-11), 11:30 a.m., Big Ten Network
This one is the game of the tournament in my eyes. Michigan has strong computer numbers, and if they move up just one spot in the NET our home win over them moves to tier 1, helping our case for a 2 seed. They are probably in the tournament as of right now, but a win over the Hoosiers makes them much more secure. For Indiana, they almost certainly have to beat Michigan to get in. Indiana is a dismal 13-23 in this event, and one of those wins was in the 11/14 game that was played two years ago before the tournament was cancelled the next day. They have only made the semifinals once since 2006. Michigan won the only regular season meeting by 18 in Bloomington, but have alternated wins and losses in their last nine games, with the last being a win. Pick: Michigan
Game 4: No. 5 Iowa (22-9, 12-8) vs. No. 13 Nebraska (11-21, 4-16), 2 p.m., Big Ten Network
Iowa just missed getting the double bye, as their late three-point attempt Sunday in Champaign would have put them there and denied the Illini the Big Ten title. Their reward is a relatively easy opener. They won both games with Nebraska by double digits and beat Northwestern by 21. Pick: Iowa
Game 5: No. 7 Michigan State (20-11, 11-9) vs. No. 10 Maryland (15-16, 7-13), 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Michigan State won both games with the Terps this year, by 2 in College Park and by 10 in East Lansing on Sunday, so Maryland gets an immediate rematch. The Spartans have still lost five of their last seven, ruining our parade with a late three and getting that win over Maryland. That was still likely enough to get them safely into the field though. Pick: Michigan State
Game 6: No. 6 Ohio State (19-10, 12-8) vs. No. 11 Penn State (13-16, 7-13), 9 p.m., Big Ten Network
The Buckeye have not finished strong. They lost four of their last seven, including one to Nebraska, and they were very lucky to beat Indiana in overtime because the Hoosiers choked in regulation. They are coming off of a six point home loss to Michigan, but they did beat Penn State twice during the season. If it is Minnesota, they also beat the Gophers twice by a total of 36 points. Pick: Ohio State
Game 7: No. 1 Illinois (22-8, 15-5) vs. No. 8 Michigan (18-13, 11-9), 11:30 a.m., Big Ten Network
The winner of Indiana-Michigan will just be happy to be alive for this game. Illinois beat Michigan both times they faced them and won by 17 in Bloomington. They are also the hottest team in the league with their three game win streak, one of which was an 8 point win in Ann Arbor on February 27th. Pick: Illinois
Game 8: No. 4 Rutgers (18-12, 12-8) vs. No. 5 Iowa (23-9, 12-8), 2 p.m., Big Ten Network
Does Rutgers need this one to make the NCAAs? The computer numbers are not great, as they have a couple anchors of bad losses tied to their ankles, but they have been giant killers in league play. They also beat Iowa in the only meeting, but it was an ugly 48-46 win in Piscataway. This should be a fascinating game as Iowa’s No. 1 scoring offense faces Rutgers’ No. 1 scoring defense. I think Rutgers needs it to feel secure, but Iowa has a great offense. Pick: Iowa
Game 9: No. 2 Wisconsin (24-6, 15-5) vs. No. 7 Michigan State (21-11, 11-9), 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
What is the status of Johnny Davis? How is his knee? Does Wisconsin rest him for the NCAAs? How did they beat Purdue, then lose to Nebraska just days later? Wisconsin and Michigan State split the season series, each winning on the road. If this is Maryland the Badgers won by a point in College Park. Michigan State has not been good of late, and the win over Purdue was more a result of Purdue playing poorly than anything. Pick: Wisconsin
Game 10: No. 3 Purdue (25-6, 14-6) vs. No. 6 Ohio State (20-10, 12-8), 9 p.m., Big Ten Network
I am going to be blunt: I do not trust Purdue at all right now. The bench has dried up. The offense that was dropping 80 with regularity has only even gotten to 70 twice in the last seven games (84 vs. Rutgers, 70 vs. Northwestern). The defensive issues are still large and that same defense collapsed against Ohio State in the regular season only to be saved by Jaden Ivey. Purdue is 1-4 against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament and lost last year in overtime. You can’t even say, “Purdue needs to play pissed off” right now because it hasn’t done that for a month now, and it cost them the title. The Boilers are trending the wrong way. The Big Ten has figured us out and we had better hope the lack of familiarity helps us in the NCAAs against non-conference opponents. Pick: Ohio State
Game 11: No. 1 Illinois (23-8, 15-5) vs. No. 5 Iowa (24-9, 12-8), 1 p.m., CBS
This was a great game on Sunday, so why not have a rematch? Illinois won both games in the regular season, but by six points total. That means Iowa is due, and they just missed spoiling the part in Champaign on Sunday. Pick: Iowa
Game 12: No. 2 Wisconsin (25-6, 15-5) vs. No. 6 Ohio State (21-10, 12-8), 3:30 p.m., CBS
Way back in December Wisconsin went to Columbus and lost by 18. They didn’t look at all like a conference title contender, especially after they needed a furious comeback to beat Indiana at home in the previous game. They later beat the Buckeyes by 10 in Madison. The Davis question still looms large here, making this a very tough pick. Pick: Ohio State
Game 13: No. 5 Iowa (25-9, 12-8) vs. No. 6 Ohio State (21-10, 12-8), 3:30 p.m., CBS
So I am bucking history and putting the 5 and the 6 seed together in the final. Ohio State got the path it wanted with a floundering Purdue team and a possibly depleted Wisconsin. Iowa was the hottest team in the conference before the Illinois loss, having won five straight, including a 75-62 win in Columbus. I have really like what I have seen of the Hawkeyes of late, and Keegan Murray leads them to the title. Pick: Iowa