Big Ten Basketball Tournament Preview

By Brad Peterson on March 10, 2021 at 9:00 am
Mar 7, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan Wolverines center Hunter Dickinson (1) shoots as Michigan State Spartans center Mady Sissoko (22) defends during the first half at Jack Breslin Student Events Center.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
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This year’s B1G tournament could be a classic. From top to bottom there is talent galore. Can someone make a run from the bottom to sneak into the Big Dance, or will the seeds hold true to form? Regardless of how the games play out, it should be entertaining, high-quality hoops in Indy for five days, and a perfect lead-in to Selection Sunday.


The Contenders

Michigan (19-3, 14-3) #3 NET

The Wolverines carry the top seed into Indy and have aspirations of a deep run in March. Until their COVID shutdown, Michigan had only one inexplicable loss to Minnesota and looked like a juggernaut. Since then, they have won six of eight, but have lost two of three heading into the conference tourney. Still, the Wolverines, led by B1G Coach of the Year Juwan Howard, are the favorites to not only cut down the nets in Indy but also carry the banner to the NCAA Final Four. Michigan has tremendous balance with B1G Newcomer of the Year Hunter Dickinson inside and Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers on the wings. That trio, all B1G second-team choices, along with Columbia transfer Mike Smith lead an attack that is #6 in AdjO and #4 in AdjD per Ken Pomeroy. If Michigan doesn’t make it to Sunday’s finals on CBS it will be a surprising development.

Illinois (20-6, 16-4) #4 NET

Second-seeded Illinois are streaking into the conference tourney, winners of four straight and 11 of their last 12, including a lopsided victory over Michigan. The Fighting Illini have perhaps the best inside-outside combo in the country in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. Both are first-team All-B1G and Dosunmu is a potential first-team All-American and NBA lottery pick. The two account for 38 PPG, but the supporting cast has learned its role and contributes more than enough to supplement its two stars. As an aside, if you haven’t seen Dosunmu play yet, be sure to do so. He is clutch when the game is on the line and might be the best player in the country in the open court. He is also the first player since Magic Johnson to record two triple-doubles in one B1G season. An Illinois-Michigan match-up on Sunday would be a possible Final Four preview as ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has both as 1-seeds in his bracketology.

Iowa (20-7, 14-6) #6 NET

The Hawkeyes are the #3 seed heading into the tourney. They, too, are on a bit of a roll, winning three straight and seven of the last eight. Iowa is led by two-time B1G POY Luka Garza, who will be a two-time All-American and is the favorite for the Wooden Award. Garza, who averages 24 PPG this year, broke Roy Marble’s Iowa scoring record earlier this year and had his jersey retired after their last game. As much as Garza dominates the scoring column, Iowa is not a one-man show. The Hawkeyes have the second-ranked offense in all of D-I per Ken Pomeroy, with five players averaging at least 7 PPG, although the status of second-leading scorer Joe Wieskamp is unknown after suffering a sprained ankle Sunday. The Hawkeyes already lost key backup Jack Nunge so their depth will be tested. The double-bye will help.

Purdue (18-8, 13-6) #20 NET

The last team to receive a double-bye in Indy is the Boilermakers. Matt Painter’s young team (zero seniors) has overachieved this year and is the hottest team coming into the tourney, winning five straight. Trevion Williams is the leader for Painter’s squad at 15.2 PPG and 8.8 rebounds per game. Freshman Jaden Ivey is a dynamic playmaker and the only other player to average double-figure scoring. Purdue plays tough D and rebounds ferociously, as usual, and will be a tough test for Michigan assuming they both advance to the semifinals in Indy.

Ohio State (18-8, 12-8) #9 NET

The fifth-seeded Buckeyes enter the tournament on a four-game losing streak, but as horrible as that sounds, consider that the losses were to Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois. The Buckeyes boast a potent offense, #4 ranked by Ken Pomeroy, with three players averaging double-digit scoring – all-B1G first-team selection E.J. Liddell (16), Duane Washington, Jr. (15.3), and Justice Sueing (10.5). All three can hurt you inside or outside, and Washington is clutch when the lights are brightest, much like his Syracuse-legend father, Duane “Pearl” Washington. Chris Holtmann’s club has the talent to go toe-to-toe with anyone and not back down.

A Fighter’s Chance

Michigan State (15-11, 9-11) #67 NET

Surprised to see the Spartans here and not among the elite? Me too. It’s been a tough year for Tom Izzo’s bunch, but they have started rounding into form over the past few weeks. The #9 seed Spartans knocked off rival Michigan in their season finale and will hope that will be a springboard to bigger things in March where Izzo’s teams typically shine. The Spartans’ rejuvenation has coincided with elevated play by Aaron Henry and Rocket Watts. Henry is the only player to average double figures, 15.5 per game, and he also leads the team in assists and steals. He is a true stat-sheet stuffer. Watts was expected to take the baton from Cassius Winston and lead the team this year. It has been a rocky transition, but Watts’ play has steadied, and the team has responded. Joey Hauser and lone Senior Joshua Langford will be key for the Spartans to build on the momentum of their W over the Wolverines. Lunardi has the Spartans as an 11-seed now, so a win over co-bubble-sitter Maryland may be needed to solidify their hold on a 23rd straight NCAA berth.

Wisconsin (16-11, 10-10) #26 NET

This is another team most prognosticators expected to be at, or near, the top of the league standings, but a late-season swoon has the Badgers coming into the tourney losers of three straight games as well as seven of their last 10. Given that Greg Gard’s team features seven(!) seniors and an experienced guard in D’Mitrick Trice, most expected the Badgers to challenge for the league crown. For Wisconsin to make good on those predictions now, the pieces will need to start fitting together because so far, the sum of the parts hasn’t equaled the talent on the floor. Trice, Micah Potter, Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, and Nate Reuvers need to find the formula that worked earlier this year when they were ranked as high as #9 in the AP poll.

Rutgers (14-10, 10-10) #37 NET

The Scarlet Knights also were a firm lock for their ticket being punched to their first Big Dance since 1991 (Rutgers more than likely would have qualified last year), but they’ve sputtered of late, losing four of their last seven. Steve Pikiell’s team relies on tough defense and balanced scoring and will need his stars, Ron Harper, Jr., Geno Baker, and Jacob Young, to carry the load if they are to advance. They face a tough match-up with an Indiana team that is struggling as well but may need a win to hold onto their projected 10-seed in Lunardi’s bracket.

Maryland (14-12, 9-11) #34 NET

All was rosy for the Terps on Feb. 28. They had won their fifth straight game, hammering Michigan State 73-55, and looked like they would cruise to an at-large invitation. Then they lost at Northwestern and at home to Penn State and their tournament chances were put on life support. They will once again face Michigan State in an 8-9 match-up which may be a pseudo-NCAA Tournament play-in game, and one in which I’m sure the Spartans will want revenge. Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala lead the Terps in scoring. Playing small has worked better for Mark Turgeon’s club the latter half of the year, but rebounding has been a challenge. Under-sized Maryland better be prepared to rebound because you know Izzo’s Spartans will crash the boards relentlessly.

Indiana (12-14, 7-12) #61 NET

The Hoosiers need to get off the deck NOW if they have any shot at playing beyond the B1G Tournament, not to mention any shot of playing another game under Archie Miller. #10-seed Indiana has lost five straight and six of the last seven. They have first-team All-B1G performer Trayce Jackson-Davis, who averages 19 PPG and 9 rebounds per game, guards Armaan Franklin and Al Durham who both score 11 PPG, and a host of other talented players, but the production has not matched the talent. Indiana probably needs at least three wins to even get into the discussion for March Madness and they haven’t won three straight all season.

Penn State (10-13, 7-12) #40 NET

I waffled back and forth between giving PSU a fighter’s chance or listing them among the also-rans, but this team has the talent to make a run, ala the 2001 Joe Crispin-led Penn State team that made the conference finals and then the Sweet 16. This team has shown it is capable of playing with anyone, it is just finishing, and winning, that has been the issue. The Nittany Lions have won their last two and three of the last four, so they have some momentum. If they continue with their formula of pushing the pace, playing tough D, forcing turnovers, and making 3s, they can make a run. Beating Nebraska on Wednesday is the first step, which is possible, then let the chips fall where they may.

The Pretenders

Minnesota (13-14, 6-14) #79 NET

The Golden Gophers are on life support after losing their last seven. Richard Pitino’s squad has looked rudderless and is going nowhere fast. Losing both Liam Robbins and Gabe Kalscheur with injuries has hurt, but this team is missing something. Both Robbins and Kalscheur won’t play in the tournament opener against Northwestern. Robbins may be able to return from his sprained ankle later in the week, but Kalscheur is probably out for the duration. That means All-B1G first-team selection Marcus Carr will be forced to carry the team on his own, as he has been doing most of the year. Carr is a dynamic player who can score at all three levels and is capable of carrying the team, as he has four games of 30+ points this season. He may carry them to a win, maybe even an upset of Ohio State in round two, although that would be surprising. I can’t see the Gophers winning against Purdue on Friday should they manage to get that far.

Northwestern (8-14, 6-13) #88 NET

The Wildcats’ only chance to advance to March Madness is to win in Indy, which will be a tall task. 12-seed Northwestern has won three straight, but those wins come on the heels of a 13-game losing streak. Chris Collins’ squad boasts four players averaging in double figures – Chase Audige (12.6), Miller Kopp (11.3), Pete Nance (11.3), and Boo Buie (10.5). Audige and Buie have led the Wildcats’ resurgence of late and both are capable of putting up big numbers. That may get them past Minnesota but beating Ohio State Thursday may be too much to ask of the young Wildcats.

Nebraska (6-19, 3-16) #128 NET

Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers have been in disarray all year. Nebraska started league play by losing nine in a row, then they beat Penn State 62-61 and proceeded to lose five more. Hoiberg has talent but has yet to mold that talent into a cohesive unit. Adding to the mess, Teddy Allen, who scored 41 against the Nittany Lions in the loss in Lincoln, abruptly quit the team on March 1. Kobe Webster has helped fill the void left by Allen, scoring 40 points the last two games. This is still a dangerous team, and a team Penn State struggled with twice this year. If the Nittany Lions are looking beyond the Huskers they may get ambushed. Even if Hoiberg’s squad can end PSU’s season, I don’t see them moving past Wisconsin in round two.


Prediction

I see Indiana as the only double-figure seed to advance to Friday, with Michigan State beating Maryland to move on as well. I believe the seeding will hold true with the top four advancing to the semifinals, with maybe Wisconsin sneaking in if Joe Wieskamp can’t go for Iowa, and then a heavyweight slugfest between Michigan and Illinois in the finals. It will go to the final buzzer, with Michigan cutting down the nets.

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