With Gopher basketball mired in meaningless land with the late season collapse, it will take a miracle, the likes of which has never happened for any team in Minnesota, to make the NCAA tournament. Knowing that the season has spun hopelessly out of control shouldn’t take away from the great basketball that takes place during Championship Week. There should be plenty of excitement during the Big Ten Tournament, aside from whatever 80 combined points travesty the Gophers and Northwestern give us. Today we’ll take a look at the bottom six teams in the conference, who are playing for a shot at the big boys, and maybe, just maybe, an eventual appearance in the NCAA tournament. On Thursday we’ll be back to take a look at the top 5 teams in the conference as they get ready for the second round of the tournament.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Record: 17-13 (6-12)
Best Win: Purdue
Worst Loss: Indiana
Who to watch: Blake Hoffarber has a deadly three point shot and has the ability to put up big numbers. However, he has been playing out of position at point guard and hasn’t been his best. He has a history of heroics, and may have one desperation shot left in him.
What to watch: Despite the injuries and other departures, the Gophers should have had too much talent to end the season on a five game losing streak. If they can pick up the pieces of a shattered season and find a little confidence, they will be a tough out.
What’s on the line: The Gophers need to win one game to comfortably make the NIT. A trip to the Big Ten Tournament final, and the two quality wins that would bring, should put the Gophers in the NCAA tournament.
Prediction: The Gophers have been positively dreadful since Al Nolen broke his foot. The sum of their parts should have been able to scrape together more than six conference wins, and should be enough to beat Northwestern, but they haven’t given anyone reason to believe they’ll win another game this season. They came in to March like a lamb and they’ll leave just as quietly.
Record: 17-12 (7-11)
Best Win: Michigan
Worst Loss: Minnesota
Who to watch: Davide Curletti didn’t score a single point from February 17 through February 24th, but has scored in double figures in two straight games. If he can keep this up, he gives an already dangerous offense another viable weapon.
What to watch: Northwestern’s problem has always been defense. The conference’s worst defense has to find stops especially in late game situations. The 1-3-1 zone can cause headaches, but Bill Carmody has shied away from it recently. Don’t be surprised if it makes a come back, because man to man hasn’t worked any better than the gimmicky zone and can at least cause some turnovers.
What’s on the line: A win over Minnesota should secure an NIT bid. The only path to the NCAA tournament is to win the conference tournament.
Prediction: Ohio State’s starting line-up gets a much needed break as the Buckeyes blow out the Wildcats. Another year, another meaningless March in Evanston.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Records: 16-13 (9-9)
Best Win: Wisconsin
Worst Loss: Michigan
Who to watch: Talor Battle is an elite scorer unfortunately stuck on a historically not elite team. He is Penn State’s best player, even if he doesn’t particularly care about defense. He has scored in double digits in all but one game this season and has topped 3o points three times. Despite often being the smallest man on the floor, he has also averaged better than four rebounds per game.
What to watch: Despite being generally undersized, the Nittany Lions are the best two point shooting team in conference play. The combination of Jeff Brooks with smart shot selections and Talor Battle’s ability to get to the basket helps Penn State have a more efficient offense than most would expect.
What’s on the line: Penn State is teetering on the edge of the uber-weak bubble. One more quality win could push them into the NCAA tournament. A first round loss would be absolutely disastrous.
Prediction: Penn State gets their signature win, and Talor Battle finally gets to dance like he deserves.
Record: 11-19 (3-15)
Best Win: Iowa
Worst Loss: Northwestern
Who to watch: Jordan Hulls is starting to achieve cult-like status. He averages 11 points per game along with two rebounds and three assists, and has a flair for the dramatic. He has struggled with consistency scoring 15, 3, 15, and 4 points over his last four games. He is a dynamic player, and will be one to watch over his final two years.
What to watch: The Hoosiers will have a huge home court advantage, and play with increased energy and passion when they have the crowd behind them. All three of their Big Ten wins came at home. They wouldn’t have much of chance if the tournament was outside the state of Indiana, but isn’t.
What’s on the line: NCAA tournament or bust
Prediction: They won’t stop Talor Battle, or the doubts about the direction of the program.
Michigan State Spartans
Record: 17-13 (9-9)
Best Win: Wisconsin
Worst Loss: Iowa
Who to watch: Kalin Lucas is back to pre-injury form and has scored at least 17 points in five straight games.
What to watch: The Spartans have turned into the prototypical Big Ten team, scoring more than one point per possession only once since February 15, but they have won three out of five games during that stretch. They used to be known as one of the higher scoring, less boring teams in the conference. They’ve needed to muck it up this year to win.
What’s on the line: A first round win, and the Spartans should be in. If they lose, their long NCAA tournament streak may finally end.
Prediction: MSU gets by Iowa, and loses to Purdue in a classic.
Record: 11-19 (4-14)
Best Win: Purdue
Worst Loss: Indiana
Who to watch: Melsahn Basabe is the best freshman you’ve never heard of. He has scored in double figures in five straight, and shot better than 50% from the field in every game during that streak and pulled down at least seven rebounds in four of the last five games.
What to watch: Iowa averages the most possessions per game and they love to run. Their game against the Spartans could turn into a track meet.
What’s on the line: Iowa’s season ends with their next loss.
Prediction: They blew out Michigan State at home and were blown out on the road. On a neutral court it will be close, but they won’t overcome Michigan State’s post-season experience.