Major conference tournaments are an interesting breed. They don’t have the crazy intensity of the mid- or low-major tournaments where the teams are fighting tooth and nail for that single bid that will get them to the postseason. Instead, they’re more of a ground for seeding purposes and for teams to show one final time that they deserve to be seeded higher in the upcoming tournament. Sure, there are teams on the bubble who really need things to go their way, but the for the most part it’s a bunchthat pretty much know where they’ll be a week from now.
However, there are still fun elements to the conference tournament. In fact, the Big Ten Tournament has plenty to look for this year. It’s the best conference in the land and there are definitely some things to take note of:
1. What are the Gophers going to look like?
An NCAA bid for Minnesota is all but assured. In fact, the majority view is that no matter what they do on Thursday against Illinois they can end up no worse than an 11-seed. It would be a disappointment, sure, but it’s a decent consolation to know that, for the first time in a long time, the Gophers are going to the Big Dance no matter what. We can at least rest assured in that regard. The question now remains: How high of a seed can they attain? That adventure begins against Illinois.
Illinois is a team they’ve beaten on the road, which is a rare occurrence for the Gophers in any season. However, they also dropped a game to the Illini in their own backyard. But now we go to a neutral court (albeit, in Chicago) where the Gophers have actually played decent. All season I’ve wondered just how the Gophers would perform against certain teams in a neutral court situation, and it should tell us some things about what we might expect in the NCAA Tournament, which is on a neutral court as well. Minnesota has done very well this season at home and on neutral courts, but they have performed pretty poorly on the road. If they come out decent against Illinois on Thursday there might be some hope for these guys yet since they don’t have to play any more true road games.
2. Can Iowa lock down an 8th bid for the conference?
In case you haven’t noticed, Iowa has been on a roll to the point where they are now a legitimate bubble team. In fact, if they can win two games in the Big Ten Tournament it’s fairly likely that they’ll end up on the right side of the bubble. Getting eight teams into the dance would be a crazy accomplishment for the Big Ten, and that would mean 75% of the teams would be in. Illinois is looking more and more like a lock to be in, even if they lose to Minnesota, and getting Iowa in would truly show that the Big Ten is a force to be reckoned with this year. Winning over Michigan State won’t be easy, but the Hawkeyes aren’t a team that roll over easily either.
3. Will Michigan rebound to make a case for a #1 seed?
Only a few days ago the Wolverines were playing for the chance to claim a spot in the national conversation for potential #1 seeds. But a late tip-in went awry against Indiana and the Wolverines fell to fifth in the Big Ten, playing on the first day of the tournament. What’s strange is that they’re ranked #6 in the nation, which is a testament to how tough the conference is this year. But don’t let their low seed in the Big Ten Tournament fool you; this is one of the better teams in the nation. In fact, they might not only win the conference tournament, but the national championship as well. At the very least, a run to the conference championship through Indiana would give the Wolverines a chance at a #1 seed and redemption against the Hoosiers just weeks after things fell apart for them. That is, if the Gophers don’t meet them first.
4. Can a sleeper team emerge in the Big Ten Tournament?
If this conference season reminded us of anything it’s that any team can win on any given night. Penn State can beat Michigan, Nebraska can beat Minnesota, Minnesota can beat Indiana. It’s always a crap shoot. And with four of the conference’s lower-tier teams lodged at the bottom of the bracket, I’m curious to see who emerges among Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue. Two of those teams will find themselves playing on the second day of the tournament and, as we’ve seen, is capable of knocking off either Michigan State or Ohio State. Can Purdue wreak some havoc and knock off Ohio State on the second day? It’s not out of the question. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing if the Hawkeyes or Boilermakers can find themselves in the semifinals of the tournament.