March Madness isn't coming. It's already begun.
Things are madder in the Big Ten than they are anywhere else. Michigan State looked like it had the regular season title all to itself, but then came back-to-back losses to finish the season, and suddenly we were looking at a three-way tie for the regular season title between the Spartans, Ohio State and Michigan.
The Big Ten tournament gets underway on Thursday, and all bets are off. There is no clear favorite to win the thing, and a handful of tourney spots are going to be up for grabs. It's going to be a wild tournament.
In fact, here are a few reasons why the Big Ten tournament will be the best of the bunch.
Indiana is Alive!
The Hoosiers made a triumphant and glorious return to the spotlight this season. They started off hot, and they officially declared themselves for real when they beat Kentucky in early December.
Indiana was humbled by a tough stretch in the middle of the season, but the Hoosiers finished strong, winning seven of eight to wrap up the regular season.
Indiana has never won the Big Ten tournament. Despite the fact this Hoosiers team is far from perfect, you have to like their chances simply because these Hoosiers have recaptured the flair for the dramatic that the program is known for. They may not be the favorites to win the Big Ten tournament, but you definitely can't count them out.
Northwestern the Sympathetic Favorite
Indiana has been a great story this season, and so has Northwestern. The Wildcats have not had a brilliant season by any stretch of the imagination. But by typical Northwestern standards, it's been pretty awesome.
The Wildcats have a chance to do something they've never done before, and that's go to the Big Dance. They are without a doubt the Cinderella team in the Big Ten tournament, and a lot of people are going to be rooting for them simply because they are indeed the Cinderella team.
Northwestern faces an uphill climb. The Wildcats are standing on solid ground now, but a loss to Minnesota in the opening round of the tournament could easily change that. However, if Northwestern advances and scores a big win or two in the latter stages of the tournament, it's a safe bet that the Wildcats will get to go dancing.
As of right now, Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com is projecting that as many as seven Big Ten teams could go to the NCAA tournament.
That's a testament to the Big Ten's depth. The conference features six teams that won as many as 20 games during the regular season and three more that won at least 17. Six teams won double-digit conference games.
So this really is anybody's tournament. The three regular season co-champions are obviously the big favorites, but they don't hold a significant advantage over any of the other teams in the field. As it goes along, this tournament is only going to get more hotly contested, and it will certainly get wackier.
Who Wants to Be the Best?
We really don't know who the best team in the Big Ten is. I mentioned above that the Spartans looked like it had the conference under their thumb, but that turned out to be a mere mirage.
Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State will all be looking to establish dominance over this year's Big Ten field once and for all. The three of them tied for the regular season title, but only one of them can be left standing at the end of the conference dance.
The beauty of it is that regular season records don't mean much as far as this tournament is concerned. Much like last year's Big East tournament, the Big Ten tourney is one that may not be won by any team with a first-round bye. This is a tournament that could be won by the hottest team, not the best team.
So long story short, the Big Ten tournament will be a mini version of the NCAA tournament itself. It's got parity, it's got Cinderellas, it's got big teams ready to fall (or succeed), and it's going to be a wild, wild ride.