The Toughest Tournament Tips Off: The Engines Rev Up in Indy
The 2009 Big Ten Tournament might not be the prettiest four-day hoops festival in major college basketball, but the weekend party in Indianapolis will offer the most competitive high-stakes basketball of Championship Week.
The SEC Tournament will be a wide-open scramble. The Big East bash will present several sexy heavyweights, and the ACC event can always boast of its status as the first-ever conference tournament with the most tradition. Yet, the toughest conference tournament in Division I-A will take place in Conseco Fieldhouse, where nine postseason-bound teams, plus a very formidable tenth-place squad from Iowa and a hard-working group from Indiana, will fight for neutral-court bragging rights.
After two full months of banging heads at campus sites, the 11 teams in this deep and balanced league will meet in a tournament setting. With Northwestern actually having something to play for, and Penn State playing to ensure its spot in the NCAA Tournament, the 12th annual Big Ten Tournament will be the most significant one of all. This doesn't mean that fans will see 85-84 thrillers, or that these Midwest rivals will start playing racehorse basketball. What it does mean is that white-knucklers should be expected from Thursday morning through Sunday afternoon. Whether the Big Ten Network, ESPN, or CBS is broadcasting the action, sweaty palms and racing hearts should fill the home of the Indiana Pacers.
Without further ado, then, let's break down the brackets and the prospects for each team in this terrifically tough tournament:
In most conference tournaments--not just in the Big Ten, but anywhere in America--a first-round tilt between the 8 and 9 seeds is usually a matchup of NIT teams at best, and sometimes a pairing of teams without any kind of postseason future. It's a testament to the Big Ten's quality depth, then, that this year's 8-9 game has major NCAA Tournament implications for both teams. Minnesota is on the bubble, but probably the good side of the bubble. Tubby Smith's Golden Gophers might not become a lock with a win over No. 9 Northwestern, but they'll definitely solidify their standing relative to many other bubble teams who have faltered over the past few days. Minnesota's road-neutral record is poor, so the ability to register a neutral-court win against a solid opponent will clearly move the U of M up the ladder in the days before Selection Sunday. Northwestern missed its best chance to get into the NCAAs when the Wildcats lost by a narrow margin on Sunday at Ohio State. However, if Bill Carmody's club can win two games in this tournament--which would necessarily include a quarterfinal conquest against top-seeded Michigan State--the purple people would re-enter the NCAA discussion. With a trip to Sunday's final, the Cats would be a likely candidate for a bid. Winning the event will naturally eliminate all suspense, but in all candor, a two- or three-win performance in Indianapolis will earn Northwestern a fresh look from the selection committee.
In the bottom half of the bracket, day one offers two tricky first-round fistfights.
The first of the two bottom-bracket games on First-Round Thursday pits No. 7 Michigan against No. 10 Iowa. The Wolverines are likely in the NCAAs, due to massive non-conference wins over UCLA and Duke, plus their 9-9 Big Ten regular season finish. A loss to the Hawkeyes would make Selection Sunday a nerve-wracking experience for John Beilein's boys, but Iowa is competitive enough that a setback would probably not knock Michigan out of the Big Dance. Nevertheless, if the Maize and Blue want to be 100 percent comfortable on the afternoon of March 15, they'll want to topple Todd Lickliter's team.
In the second bottom-bracket first-rounder, Penn State--unlike Michigan--faces a situation in which a loss could lead to an NIT bid. This is the case for reasons beyond the Nittany Lions' control. Had Penn State drawn Northwestern (a team PSU has already defeated this season) in the first round, Coach Ed DeChellis's team would have been able to make the field of 65 even with a defeat. But against last-place Indiana, a team carrying just six victories into battle, it would appear that PSU must avoid an upset to feel completely confident about its NCAA chances. A loss to 17-12 Northwestern doesn't hurt the resume; a loss to Indiana, on the other hand, would really damage the body of work produced in Happy Valley. Penn State doesn't have to make a deep run to get into the NCAAs; merely holding off Indiana would be enough, but oh if the Hoosiers spring a surprise! Well, the Nittany Nation wouldn't want to go there... not now, not ever.
Looking beyond the first round, here's a brief overview of how the tournament could unfold:
The top half of the bracket suggests that fourth-seeded Wisconsin and No. 1 Michigan State should advance and meet in Saturday's first semifinal. The Badgers have made four of the past five championship games in this tournament, giving Bo Ryan an edge against fifth-seeded Ohio State in the only quarterfinal matching two teams who received a first-round bye. (The other three quarterfinals match one first-round winner against a team with a bye; the 4-5 game is the lone exception.) It's true that Michigan State hasn't made the finals of this event since the 2000 season--a staggering fact considering Tom Izzo's sustained excellence in East Lansing--but it seems hard to think that the conference champion by a four-game margin would not be able to make it to Sunday afternoon's ultimate showdown. Wisconsin or Ohio State--whoever emerges from Friday's second quarterfinal--will have a tall order against Sparty, but the Badgers and Buckeyes will be in the NCAA Tournament field regardless of what they do in Indianapolis.
In the bottom half of the bracket, Purdue--with the improved health of star wing player Robbie Hummel--figures to be around for Saturday's second semifinal, but the Boilermakers' opponent is a genuine question mark. If Michigan can get by Iowa, the Wolverines--who have performed admirably against big-time opponents--will give a talented but young Illinois team a lot of trouble. The Maize and Blue are led by a proven postseason coach in Beilein, who has worked magic at prior stops in Richmond and West Virginia. Considering how Michigan dramatically elevated its game in late-season wins against Purdue and Minnesota, Michigan is the low seed with the best chance of making a dark horse run to the title game, and maybe even the trophy.
In the end, Michigan State has to be the tournament favorite. Michigan is the sleeper, and Purdue received a particularly favorable bracket.
Championship Prediction: Michigan State over Purdue
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In conclusion, here's a brief summary of what each team is playing for in Indy:
(11) Indiana - Automatic NCAA bid with four wins
(10) Iowa - Automatic NCAA bid with four wins, possibly an NIT or CBI bid with three wins
(9) Northwestern - Automatic NCAA bid with four wins, possibly an NCAA bid with two or (likely) three wins
(8) Minnesota - At-large NCAA bid with (likely) one win, perhaps two wins
(7) Michigan - NCAA Tournament seeding, possibly the preservation of an at-large bid with one win
(6) Penn State - Gaining mortal-lock NCAA status and/or improving NCAA Tournament seeding with one win. Anything more than one win would be gravy.
(5) Ohio State - Improving NCAA Tournament seeding; already a lock for the field of 65
(4) Wisconsin - Same as Ohio State
(3) Purdue - NCAA Tournament seeding, as high as a No. 4 seed with a Big Ten Tournament championship
(2) Illinois - Same as Purdue
(1) Michigan State - NCAA Tournament seeding, as high as a No. 1 seed (the fourth No. 1 seed available) with a Big Ten Tournament championship and other favorable developments in other conference tournaments.