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Balanced Big Ten tournament offers no sure things

Intrigue in Indy

Published: Monday, March 10, 2014 10:50 p.m. CST
Caption
(Charlie Neibergall)
Illinois center Maverick Morgan looks to drive between Iowa's Melsahn Basabe (left) and Aaron White during Saturday's game in Iowa City. The Fighting Illini and Hawkeyes enter the Big Ten Tournament in underdog roles.

Depending on perspective, the Big Ten is either enjoying a renaissance or is in the middle of a mess.

The Big Ten tournament, which begins Thursday in Indianapolis, might sort that out. Or it might just make the conference appear even more muddled if it plays out anything like the regular season.

If Nebraska's upset victory Sunday night against Wisconsin is any indication, the conference tournament should be a place where anything can happen. The Cornhuskers locked up the No. 4 seed, earning a first-round bye along with top seed Michigan, No. 2 Wisconsin and No. 3 Michigan State.

"I'm just telling you this is fun," Nebraska coach Tim Miles told his team afterward. "This is not it."

A tournament trophy is at stake, but teams are vying just as much for NCAA tournament seeds.

"The people on the committee are very, very aware of the Big Ten [and] how good this league is this year," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said, "in terms of how good the players are, the coaching is, the teams are. I think they have a very good understanding of what we have been through."

The conference is likely to send at least six teams to the NCAA tournament, but the highest seeds probably will be No. 2 slots for Michigan and Wisconsin. A Big Ten tournament title would bolster the hopes of landing a No. 1 seed should a team like Villanova slip up in the Big East tournament.

With a No. 1 seed and a bye in the Big Ten tournament, the Wolverines are on a five-game winning streak. Wisconsin's nine-game winning streak ended against the Cornhuskers, who helped their chances of earning an NCAA tournament berth with the upset.

But is there truly a dominant team in the Big Ten?

The conference as a whole is perplexing. The No. 2 seed just blew it against Nebraska. The No. 3 seed Michigan State has lost seven of 12. The middle-of-the-pack teams are tough to peg.

No. 6 seed Iowa, which was picked as a preseason dark horse, has collapsed. The Hawkeyes have lost five of their last six games as they head into Thursday's game against No. 11 Northwestern.

The No. 5-seeded Buckeyes, who will play No. 12 Purdue on Thursday, aren't sitting pretty either. Their regular-season close included losses at Penn State and Indiana before they bumped off the struggling Spartans.

Like Nebraska, Minnesota enters the conference tournament with something to prove. Another bubble team, the Golden Gophers helped themselves by beating Penn State on Sunday. As a No. 7 seed fighting for an NCAA tournament bid, they face the No. 10-seeded Nittany Lions again on Thursday.

"If you move forward with this league, we shouldn't assume we're going to beat anybody or assume any team is going to be easy," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said earlier in the week, speaking about the team's losses to Illinois and Northwestern. "It just shows it's a really balanced league."

No. 9 Illinois and No. 8 Indiana will kick off the tournament Thursday morning, with both teams hoping for a miraculous tournament run.

 

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