Indiana's conference tournament hopes run through Cody Zeller.
How competitive is this year's Big Ten tournament going to be?
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo summed it up when he said to the Detroit Free Press referring to the number of ranked teams headed to Chicago, "This is way bigger than some Final Fours I've been in."
That might as well be the slogan for this upcoming week's conference tournament.
Five teams head to the United Center among the country's Top 25 and four others are within a game of .500 in Big Ten play. A few of the top seeds (Wisconsin, Michigan State) sputtered to the finish of the regular season while teams like Iowa and Purdue have a real shot at making the semifinals on Saturday.
As Izzo said: "I've got a lot of people I'd like to get a shot at, but at the same time, this thing is filled with landmines."
Which players will be able to navigate those "landmines" and whose play will have the biggest impact on the Big Ten tournament? Which point guards are the most invaluable, and which upperclassmen need to demonstrate leadership heading into the postseason?
Let's breakdown the 10 biggest X-factors heading into the most competitive conference tournament in the country.
Less than two weeks ago, the Nittany Lions were 0-14 in Big Ten play with just four games left.
But over that span, excluding a trip to Minnesota, Penn State has fought hard to prove its record isn’t indicative of its talent. The Nittany Lions shocked Michigan at the Bryce Jordan Center in a win that reverberated around the college hoops landscape, and then they handled an undermanned Northwestern team on the road.
In the regular-season finale, they were a buzzer-beating three-pointer away from taking No. 22 Wisconsin to overtime. This is a prideful pack, these Lions.
They’re going to be the No. 12 seed in Chicago and will play the Wolverines again on Thursday afternoon. Don’t write Michigan into the next round just yet.
In the Feb. 27 meeting, Penn State guards D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall combined for 42 points and eight three-pointers to earn its first conference win of the season. Pat Chambers hasn't let his team quit, as evidenced by its near upset over Wisconsin on Sunday. Don’t underestimate a team that has nothing to lose.
The Fighting Illini, similar to Northwestern, like to brand themselves as Chicago’s Big Ten team.
Conveniently for Illini Nation, the tournament will be right in their backyard this year.
Illinois heads to the United Center in Chicago as the No. 8 seed, set to face No. 9 Minnesota in the opening game of the tournament on Thursday at 11 am ET. Given Champaign’s proximity to Chicago, and the fact that few other fanbases will take up seating since it's the early game, the crowd should be clad in mostly orange.
Illinois has already played at the UC once this season, besting Auburn 81-79 in the late-December matchup. According to ESPN, more than 18,000 fans showed up for the nonconference matchup.
As streaky as the Illini are, it’s not inconceivable to see the crowd get behind a rash of three-pointers from seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Both rank in the top 10 of the conference in terms of made three-pointers.
Having lost three of its last four, the inconsistent Illini are firmly in the NCAA tournament, but a favorable seed is looking tenuous at best. Illinois should welcome any advantage it can get.
Whatever momentum Minnesota earned from its stunning 77-73 upset over Indiana on Feb. 26 is now gone after losing its last two games of the season to Nebraska and Purdue.
Who knows which Gopher team you’re going to get, the team that pounded Indiana 38-25 on the glass, or the team that got torched for 89 points on 54 percent shooting to Purdue on Saturday?
Much of its unsteadiness can be attributed to a lack of leadership. It’s been this way all season. Tubby Smith doesn’t trust senior Trevor Mbakwe’s defense. The forward got into foul trouble and sat the majority of the first half against the Boilers, leading to 24 free-throw attempts for Purdue.
Smith doesn’t trust leading scorer Andre Hollins (13.9 points), either, opting to take him off the bench against Nebraska. And he doesn’t know what he’ll get from senior forward Rodney Williams, who had zero points against the Huskers but 13 against the Boilermakers.
The X-factor is Minnesota’s seniors, Mbakwe and Williams. It’s their last go-round and it’s on them to say that a successful regular season won’t suffice, especially with so much potential on the Gopher roster.
No one expected much of the young Boilermakers this season, but they’ve very quietly ended the season on a strong note and have a chance to win two games in the conference tournament at the No. 7 seed.
Purdue took it to Wisconsin on the Badgers’ Senior Night at the Kohl Center, winning 69-56. Then it nearly caused all kinds of turmoil in the Big Ten race with a close loss to Michigan this past week. The Boilermakers were up 12 in the second half before blowing the lead to Trey Burke and company. Finally, Purdue stomped Minnesota 89-73 in its regular-season finale on Saturday.
The constant throughout Purdue’s late-season swoon? Senior D.J. Byrd, who’s drained 16 three-pointers in his last five games and averaged over 5.5 rebounds per contest.
Byrd embodies the hustle-type player that Matt Painter extols. His defense is relentless and he’s always looking for his shot. Couple his effort with the recent surge from Terone Johnson (16.4 over his last five games, including zero points against Iowa), and no team should be envious of playing the upstart Boilermakers.
It’s convenient that sophomore point guard Traevon Jackson hit the game winning three-pointer against Penn State on Sunday, but he’s been the Badgers’ X-factor all season. Injuries forced him to develop from a five-minute-per-game-freshman to the Badgers’ primary distributor.
Jackson is responsible for setting the table for all of Wisconsin’s jump shooters, but in its two recent losses, he’s combined for seven assists, seven turnovers and just six total points. More damning is that Wisconsin’s normally efficient offense had been completely off kilter, content to chuck three-pointers like a long-range shooting contest.
In the two losses, the Badgers shot 10-of-51 from beyond the arc, a glaring decline from their 34 percent clip on the year. Against Penn State, Jackson and guard Ben Brust had six three-pointers and eight assists, an indication that the Badgers realize they need to share the ball to be effective.
As hard as the Nittany Lions fought in Happy Valley, Jackson scored eight of Wisconsin’s last 10 points to ensure it didn’t carry a three-game losing streak into Chicago. Even though just a sophomore, it’s his responsibility to navigate the terrain of both upcoming tournaments.
As one of the lone upperclassmen in Michigan’s rotation, (Jordan Morgan being the other significant contributor), Tim Hardaway Jr. needs to do more for the Wolverines.
He’s astoundingly athletic, as good of a ball-handler as anyone not named Trey Burke, and can outleap most big men. That’s why a two-rebound performance against Indiana, which earned a plus-21 rebounding advantage in Sunday’s win, is unacceptable.
The Hoosiers had 19 offensive rebounds, seven from Victor Oladipo, who was Hardaway Jr.’s man. His energy on the offensive glass, whether it was effort-related or just that he was out of position, was abysmal.
As good as Burke is, Hardaway Jr. is the only other Wolverine who can score by himself, both from the perimeter and on driving layups. The latter is how he needs to score in the Big Ten tournament. His three-point shot hasn’t been falling, Michigan doesn’t have a consistent scorer on the low block and he’s a 70 percent foul shooter if he’d get to the line.
Not to mention that if he’s around the rim, he can at least grab some more of those rebounds. He's as good of a complementary scorer as there is in the league and could carry Michigan deep into the tournament.
As evidenced by the Spartans’ last five games, their Big Ten tournament hopes hinge on the play of junior Keith Appling.
Before dominating Wisconsin 58-43 on March 7, Michigan State had lost three in a row and Appling was the principal reason that the Spartans’ offense was struggling.
During the three-game streak, the Spartans averaged 14.3 turnovers and Appling shot just 5-of-23 from the field.
The Wisconsin win brought relief to the staggering Spartans, but more importantly, gave Appling some of his confidence back. “Seeing Keith smile, that made my day,” Izzo said to Mlive.com of his point guard’s 19-point, five-rebound performance. “I really mean that. He felt better about himself.”
The Spartans have the experience, size, grit and coaching to do immense damage in the conference tournament. But without their engine to initiate the offense, the Spartans aren’t nearly as imposing.
Ohio State is a different team when Craft poses an offensive threat, as he did in recent monumental wins over Michigan State and Indiana.
It's not an overstatement to say those two games saved Ohio State's season, and Craft was a combined 14-of-22 for 36 points, 10 assists and five steals.
In particular, the second half against the Hoosiers highlighted Craft’s ever-growing offensive arsenal. He scored on driving layups with his right hand and hit two buzzer-beating bank shots off difficult angles from both sides.
Guards tend to drop off of Craft, unafraid of his quirky jumper. But if Craft is scoring, that leaves one less defender who can help on Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes’ unquestioned first option on offense.
In those wins, Thomas shot just 10-of-33 from the field. That lack of efficiency would’ve doomed Ohio State earlier this season. But Craft has gotten Bucks’ role players Sam Thompson and Evan Ravenel involved, and Shannon Scott has shown that he’s nearly Craft’s equal on defense. With Ohio State’s offense humming, the Buckeyes are an extremely dangerous team, which is trending upwards.
With the Big Ten title on the line in Ann Arbor, you know whom the Hoosiers turned to? Big Handsome.
The sophomore scored Indiana’s last six points against Michigan as part of a season-high 25-point, 10-rebound effort.
The knock on Zeller has been that he lacks aggression, that he doesn’t want or demand the ball when his team needs points. On Sunday, every time Michigan banged in a deep three-pointer, the Hoosiers force-fed Zeller the ball immediately, and he responded with deft back-to-the-basket moves that either yielded points or got him to the line.
With Oladipo, no Big Ten player can touch his athleticism, but he’s not a great spot-up shooter. He thrives in the lane or on second-chance opportunities. But with Zeller, Indiana’s other Player of the Year candidate, he’s seven-feet tall and a giant in the post, at least when he plays there.
The book on Zeller is that he shies away from physical post play, but Sunday, Zeller showed anything but an aversion to contact. As heated and rugged as the Big Ten tournament figures to be, the Hoosiers’ path to the championship should roll through that big, handsome guy in the middle.
The conference tournament means more to Iowa than it does to any other team in the Big Ten.
Its NCAA tournament hopes hang directly in the balance when it faces off against 11th-seeded Northwestern on Thursday.
Every other team basically knows whether it's in or out, and the conference tournament is essentially a last-ditch effort to improve one's seed. Not so for Iowa.
The Hawkeyes (20-9, 9-9 Big Ten) are currently sitting on the wrong side of the bubble, but two wins in Chicago will give Iowa a solid chance on Selection Sunday. It’s won six of its last eight with losses to Indiana and Nebraska (perhaps the biggest albatross on its resume).
It will play Northwestern on Thursday, which the Hawks have already beaten twice this season. In order to have a legitimate case for the selection committee, it will need to beat the Wildcats, and then handle the Michigan State Spartans, who narrowly escaped Iowa City with a 62-59 win on Jan. 10.
Its RPI is currently 71, but according to HawkeyeNation, no team with an RPI lower than 67 has made the tournament since 2005. The question is how hungry are these Hawkeyes? Given what’s at stake, my guess is Friday night’s 8 p.m. tip (should the Hawkeyes make it) is going to be one hell of a game.