As the opening round of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament tips off this afternoon, six of the league’s eleven teams begin the most important weekend of their 2008-2009 season.
All of them have hopes of putting together a four-game winning streak to ensure an invitation to the Big Dance. Four of the six (Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn State) believe they can snag an at-large berth with one or two wins.
The sounds coming out of central Indiana this weekend might be shouts of celebration; maybe Northwestern will make the NCAA tournament for the first time…well…ever.
Or, maybe the sounds will be cries of anguish. If Minnesota or Michigan slip up in the first round, they probably shouldn’t bother watching the selection show Sunday night, because I doubt the news will be good.
The sounds from Conseco could be gasps of wonder. The tournament is ripe for a hero—someone like Minnesota's Blake Hoffarber to hit a game-winner that defies belief.
The worst sound for the Big Ten would be those tiny little popping noises. You know the kind of popping I’m referring to—the bursting of a bubble.
Cleveland State already cut the at-large spots available by one when they upset Horizon League favorite Butler, so any margin of error doesn’t exist in Big Ten country.
If Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, or Penn St. want to go dancing, a first-round exit won’t help anything. Depending on who you talk to, even Wisconsin and Ohio State might not be safe heading into their quarterfinal date tomorrow.
Nine conference teams think they deserve a shot. All eleven have the chance of a lifetime to play their way in.
Although most bracket projections include at least seven, maybe even eight Big Ten squads, only three (Michigan State, Illinois, and Purdue) have the luxury of feeling relatively safe for an at-large berth.
The next four days will tell the tale, and the tension is written on these coaches’ and players’ faces as they finish up their Thursday morning walk-throughs here in the heart of Hoosier country.
Nothing is certain, and a lifetime of memories hinge on the next 96 hours.
Sounds like drama, joy, anguish, and wonder all wrapped up together in one big weekend of nail-biting, hair-pulling Big Ten basketball.
Sounds like March.