The Big Ten is the nation's best college basketball conference, but there is only one conference title. The winner will be among the favorites to win a national championship, but it could very well be a surprise champ with so much quality stacked in the Big Ten. Here is a preview of three potential upsets and a few players who will raise their profile.
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
When: March 13-16
Watch: BTN, ESPN, ESPN2, CBS Sports, check tournament listing
The action kicks off on the Big Ten Network with Indiana against Illinois at noon ET on Thursday. The tourney runs at breakneck speed and concludes with the championship game on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET shown on CBS Sports.
Steve Helwagen from 247Sports kept it low-tech with his useful photo of a TV screen listing the initial tournament schedule. In just four days, the loaded conference will see a handful of top-notch teams knocked off.
Though the Golden Gophers went just 8-10 in conference play, they scratched out wins against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa. Michigan State also needed overtime to get past them on Jan. 11.
If Minnesota can get past Penn State in the first round after an 81-63 loss to the Nittany Lions on March 9, Wisconsin would be up next. The Gophers beat them 81-68 on Jan. 22 and fell at the Badgers 78-70 on Feb. 13. The neutral court will help Minnesota's chances, and Deandre Mathieu will try to duplicate his 18-point effort from the upset in January.
Though Andre Hollins is the team's leading scorer, Mathieu brings tenacity and efficiency to the backcourt. Standing at just 5'9", his low center of gravity makes him a pesky floor general (4.4 assists per game) and defender (1.6 steals per game). He averages 11.9 points per game, and his shooting is something to be admired: 50.8 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range.
Michigan steamrolled their opponents and went 15-3 in conference play. The Wolverines have won five straight, and they are clearly the team to beat. However, don't nap on Nebraska because its play in the Big Ten has been even more worthy of an award than the movie Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers went 11-7 in the conference. They have won three games in a row and eight of the last nine, putting them just a game back of Wisconsin and Michigan State for the best record in conference play. That streak of success also included wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin.
The Huskers got blown out at Michigan on Feb. 5, 79-50, but they fell by a single point at home back on Jan. 9. With their hot stretch of play lately, they could knock off the Wolverines in the semifinals on Saturday.
Terran Petteway leads Nebraska as a nightly threat to double-double, but fellow forward Walter Pitchford has come on strong lately and scored in double figures in 10 of the last 12 games. Their play will be crucial in neutralizing Michigan's Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson, and Nebraska is equipped to take down the favorites.
Iowa struggled in Big Ten play and finished at 9-9. The Hawkeyes have lost five of their last six games, but their potent offense makes them a threat to any opponent. Out of the conference, they were an impressive 11-2, and they could be set to make noise. Provided they can get past Northwestern, the Hawkeyes would face Michigan State, and that is a team with some weaknesses.
After losing to Ohio State on Sunday, Spartans coach Tom Izzo made some surprising comments to reporters and denigrated his own team, per Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com: "If any of you guys from Ohio think this is the old smash mouth Michigan State team, you're kidding yourself. We're not that team, we haven't been that team for a while...We're a little wimpier than we used to be."
Michigan State has struggled with injuries throughout the year, with Adreian Payne and Gary Harris each missing some time. When at full strength, the Spartans are one of the best teams in the nation, but they struggle to put it all together at times. They are just 5-7 since Jan. 25 as conference play was not kind to them.
Iowa ranks sixth in the nation in scoring at 82.6 points per game, and that is more than enough to knock off the Spartans. Junior forward Aaron White has a solid all-around game, and he's averaging 13.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.6 blocks per game. If he can stuff the stat sheet against MSU, it could make for a surprising Final Four in the Big Ten tourney.
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