Well, the Gophers sure went out with a whimper. There won’t be any miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament, and there probably won’t be a trip to the NIT either. Post-season basketball is nice and all, but the Gopher season realistically ended when they lost at Indiana, and the team has acted like they were waiting for the season to be over since then. Hopefully some fresh blood and some hard work will lead to a better team next season. At the very least, it will have more than eight scholarship players.
The first three games of the Big Ten tournament went as expected with top seeds holding serve. There are sure to be a few upsets, and Friday’s games usually provide plenty of drama, like Evan Turner’s half court shot and Minnesota’s overtime win last year. Here’s a look at the top five teams in the conference as they tip off conference championship play:
Record: 23-7 (13-5)
Best Win: Ohio State
Worst Loss: Penn State
Who to watch: Lost among the battle of the bigs (Jajuan Johnson and Jared Sullinger) and even occasionally overshadowed by teammate John Leuer, Jordan Taylor had a historically good season, and deserved more consideration for Big Ten player of the year honors. Not only did he nearly double his scoring output, become a dangerous three point shooter, and collect an outstanding 4 rebounds per game, but he amassed an assist to turnover ratio of nearly 5 to 1, while barely getting a break on the bench. He isn’t particularly flashy, at least not enough to get all the headlines, but one more year like this and he could be a lottery pick in the NBA draft.
What to watch: If you think that Wisconsin is some sort of defensive juggernaut who plays boring basketball, you haven’t been paying attention. The Badgers, despite their occasional low scoring games, have the most efficient offense in the country at 1.25 points per possession. They play slow, but almost never turn the ball over and make all their free throws. Just remember that their defense is thoroughly mediocre, if you really want to mess with your friends’ minds.
What’s on the line: A tournament championship could be enough to boost the Badgers up to a 2 seed. If they play poorly in their first game of the tournament, they could drop as low as a 6 seed.
Prediction: All of Wisconsin’s losses came away from home, including a four point loss at Penn State, their opponent on Friday. The Nittany Lions have everything to play for, and Talor Battle desperately wants to finally play in the Big Dance. The crowd will hardly be neutral and will want an upset. They’ll go home happy, and Wisconsin will go home early.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Record: 19-12 (9-9)
Who to watch: Demetri McCamey could be an All-American if he wanted to be. He could have led his team to a Big Ten title if he cared. All too often, it seems like he either doesn’t like basketball enough, or likes himself way too much. The scoring is generally consistent, but his inability to get teammates involved and even attempt to play defensive does more harm than good. He closed out the conference season with five straight games of at least 15 points and 5 assists. With his career winding down, the effort might finally be picking up.
What to watch: Can Illinois finally put all the pieces together. In my mind, they are the most disappointing team in the country. Yes, even more disappointing than the Gophers and Michigan State. At least the Gophers and Spartans had departures that explain their relative demise. Illinois hasn’t lost anybody, but has lost plenty of games. If they can ever play as a cohesive unit, they would be nearly unbeatable.
What’s on the line: The Illini are likely in the NCAA tournament regardless of how this weekend turns out. Another poor outing could lead to a trip to the bottom half of the bracket, and a more challenging first round match-up than such a talented team should ever have.
Prediction: The Illini haven’t looked motivated all season, and a quarter-final conference tournament game won’t change that. Enjoy your 10 seed.
Record: 19-12 (9-9)
Best Win: Penn State
Worst Loss: Indiana
Who to watch:Tim Hardaway Jr. has shown that shooters just have to shoot, and the shots will eventually fall. He had a fairly brutal shooting percentage during the non-conference season, and some real clunkers (1-7, 3-8, and 1-8 from the field in consecutive games). Now, those shots are falling. He has scored in double figures in every game since January 22, and hit the 30 point mark at Iowa.
What to watch: Only thirteen teams in the country attempt more three pointers than the Wolverines, and their reliance on a skill that they just don’t have (making only 35% of their three point shots) is completely illogical. They are at their best when they go to the basket. Hardaway and Darius Morris are two of the better off the dribble scorers in the conference, and are just plain hard to guard. If they attack the basket, Michigan will be at its best.
What’s on the line: A win and they are in the NCAA tournament along with the title of most positively surprising team in the Big Ten. A loss should at least get the team a free trip to New York City for an NIT title.
Prediction: Michigan dances, and the rest of the Big Ten panics at the thought of playing Michigan next season.
Record: 25-6 (14-4)
Best Win: Ohio State
Worst Loss: Minnesota
Who to watch: Jajuan Johnson is a deserving conference player of the year. He didn’t get nearly as much hype as a rather rotund freshman from Ohio State, but he is the better player. He can score all over the floor, can put the ball on the floor, and sports a turn around jumper that isn’t fair if you happen to be shorter than 7’5”. He also plays excellent defense with more than two blocks per game. Perhaps most importantly, he demonstrated the value of staying in school for all four years. It is hard to believe he barely averaged 5 points per game three seasons ago.
What to watch: Purdue’s defense is scary. There isn’t one aspect of their defense that is particularly noteworthy. They aren’t even in the top 30 in any category, and there isn’t anything particularly fancy about what they do. They just stay between the man and the ball, and stay as close as they can to the opponent without fouling (well, they foul all the time but get away with it). Despite their “ordinary approach” they allow opponents to score only .87 points per possession, which ranks fifth in the country.
What’s on the line: Purdue should have a top four seed sewn up by now. A Big Ten Tournament Championship would probably move them up to a two seed, and with some help, a number one seed.
Prediction: The Boilermakers won’t bomb out like they have far too often in previous conference tournaments, but they also won’t beat the Buckeyes on a neutral court. No one will.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: 29-2 (16-2)
Best Win: Purdue
Worst Loss: Purdue (see what I did there?)
Who to watch: Aaron Craft is another under the radar guy that looks like he will follow the Jordan Taylor path to success, though he may already have a head start. His offensive statistics are a bit underwhelming with only 7 points per game, but on a team loaded with future NBA players, there aren’t enough shots to go around. Instead he has quietly put together an excellent season as the Buckeyes primary distributor and best defender.
What to watch: Ohio State’s ball movement is beautiful. Stasticially they are the second best shooting team in the country, but I’m not convinced that they are that great of a shooting team. Their statistics are great because their shots are wide open. The combination of a dominating inside presence, perfect spacing, and three players that can drive to the basket gives everyone plenty of room to knock down open shots in rhythm.
What’s on the line: The Buckeyes are a number one seed if they can get to the championship game. If they win it, they’ll be the top overall seed.
Prediction: This isn’t only the best team in the country, they are the best team in the country in the last few years. They’ll get a good fight from Purdue, but they aren’t losing again this season.