March Madness 2011: 10 Predictions for the Big Ten Tournament
The Big Ten regular season has ended with Ohio State crowned as champion.
However, as March Madness gears up, the work has only just begun for title contenders.
The Midwest's preeminent conference has been a three-horse race all year long, with Ohio State head and shoulders above the rival Wisconsin Badgers and Purdue Boilermakers.
Though only those three are locks for an NCAA tournament bid, bubble teams like Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State will provide plenty of drama this weekend as they play for their Big Dance fortunes.
Here are 10 predictions for what will be an exhilarating Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
10. Michigan State's Bubble Will Burst
This year has not gone according to script for the Spartans. Lauded as the preseason No. 2 team in the country, Michigan State never recovered from an early season slump that saw them start just 10-5.
Since that time, Tom Izzo has just tried to keep his team afloat in the conference, but the magic has not been there: His team finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten at 9-9.
The MSU decline is perplexing. Izzo returns virtually the same squad from last year's Final Four trip, including star point guard Kalin Lucas. Izzo is a master at peaking his team at the right time, which has resulted in some very surprising runs deep into the NCAAs, including last year's Final Four. It's happened enough that he's gained a reputation for it.
It's never a good idea to bet against Izzo's teams when the calendar flips to March, but this season has a different look to it that I can't get behind.
Michigan State will lose early at Conseco Fieldhouse and will leave Indy without the premier win that they desperately need to get off the bubble.
Prediction: Second round loss to Purdue on Friday
9. Minnesota Will Beat Northwestern
The Golden Gophers got off to a strong 5-3 start in spite of a ridiculously front loaded conference schedule that saw them face Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue in four of their first five games.
After weathering that storm, fatigue set in, and the Gophers tanked in the second half of conference.
Minnesota skidded to a 1-9 finish in conference after presenting themselves as a contender for the Big Ten title.
All hope is not lost, though.
The reason? Tubby Smith is the Minnesota coach.
Smith has tons of March experience stemming from his successful tenure at Kentucky, and knows how to get his team where it needs to be to compete.
Unfortunately, his team has no talent. Well, they have talent, but only enough to win one game in the Big Ten.
Prediction: First round "upset" over Northwestern, whom Minnesota split with in the regular season.
8. Wisconsin Will Get Caught in a Trap Game
The last quarterfinal game of the Big Ten tournament will pit Wisconsin against the winner of Penn State and Indiana.
Penn State will presumably prevail to rematch with the Badgers, who they upset in January. That loss preceded a Wisconsin matchup with Purdue, and was as bitter to them as the Purdue win was sweet. Wisconsin got caught looking ahead to Purdue and didn't handle the task in front of them at Penn State.
Well, guess who Wisconsin will play on Saturday if they beat Penn State on Friday? That's right, the winner of Purdue and Michigan State/Iowa. Penn State has nothing to lose, so they won't hold anything back against Wisconsin in what will be remembered as the hardest fought game in the tournament.
Prediction: Wisconsin wins narrowly instead of blowing Penn State out as they should.
7. Tom Crean's Days Are Few
Things have not gone well recently for the Indiana Hoosiers. The perennial Big Ten power has not finished better than ninth in the league in four years, and has finished dead last two of the last three.
Since being hired away from Marquette three years ago, Hoosier coach Tom Crean has led his team to an astounding 8-45 in conference and 28-64 overall. This year's 3-15 brings up the rear in the Big Ten, and should be cause for Crean's timely dismissal.
The Hoosiers boast a very young team, with only one senior and five juniors, but other teams find success with similar roster construction. Very simply, Crean has not gotten the job done for a high profile program that cannot afford the stench of losing for too long.
Prediction: After an opening round loss to Penn State, Crean will be fired before the end of the weekend.
6. Jared Sullinger Will Erupt Against Minnesota
Before his team is upset, freshman phenom Jared Sullinger will have a monster game that vaults him to the top of the Player of the Year race.
In two wins against Minnesota, Sullinger averaged 16.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. Clearly, like most other OSU opponents, Minnesota has a hard time slowing the big man down.
The intensity ratchets up in March as teams smell desperation on each other. Minnesota will be gunning for the Buckeyes, and though overmatched, will put up a strong fight. This means that Thad Matta will rely on his man, the golden goose, to bring his team out with a win.
Prediction: Sullinger will own the court with a 30 point, 20 rebound game against Minnesota.
5. E'Twaun Moore Will Flirt with History
Purdue's senior guard is second on the team in points, rebounds and assists. His three-stat versatility is rare in the college game, and as Matt Painter's second-best player, his ability to fill up the stat sheet is needed.
In one of the first two games, Moore will shine as he tries to bolster his draft stock. Against either Michigan State or Wisconsin, Moore will flirt with rarefied statistical air as he repeatedly finds the ball in his hands and his team looks to him for leadership.
Prediction: E'Twaun Moore nears or completes a triple-double in the Big Ten tournament.
4. Semifinal: Illinois Will Make Some Noise Against Ohio State
The Illini have not fared well in close games this year. Nine of the team's 12 losses have come by 10 points or less, and six of those have come by five points or less. It's safe to say that with a little luck and experience, this team could have finished 14-4 in conference.
As it is, Bruce Weber is sitting squarely on the bubble at 19-12, needing a win or two to secure a bid to the Big Dance. His team boasts only two signature wins, Wisconsin and Gonzaga. Against Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State, Illinois went just 2-6.
Because they need to help themselves, I see Illinois getting past fellow bubbler Michigan to set up a monumental matchup against Ohio State. Ohio State was on the ropes in its visit to Champaign in January, but the inexperience of the home team allowed the Buckeyes to escape with a win to stay undefeated.
It's very difficult to beat a team three times in a season, and that will prove to be the case for Ohio State when they meet Illinois in the semifinals. As added motivation, Illinois is looking for revenge for last season's semifinal ousting by Ohio State.
Prediction: Illinois finally wins a close game against a better team to advance to the championship game and secure a tournament bid.
3. Semifinal: Wisconsin and Purdue Have All-out War
Wisconsin and Purdue are very familiar foes.
They each beat other at home this season and finished one game apart in the Big Ten standings.
They're both right around No. 10 in the polls.
They're both headed for a two or a three-seed based on how the conference tournaments end up.
Both teams desperately want this tournament title because it will be greatly advantageous to their NCAA tournament draw as opposed to the alternative. As a result, this will be the most exciting game of the Big Ten tournament, and the winner here will likely go on to win in the final should Ohio State lose early.
Prediction: Bo Ryan and the Badgers are left standing in a dramatic semifinal brawl.
2. Demetri McCamey Stands out from the Pack
The Illinois senior point guard has become a household name during the 2010-2011 college basketball season.
He leads his team in scoring (15.0), assists (6.1) and steals (1.0), and is primed to lead his team in an impressive showing in Indy.
The opportunity is there to instill shock and awe in spectators, with the semifinal game against Ohio State in reach.
In that game and the final vs. Wisconsin, McCamey will shine.
Prediction: In a runner-up effort, McCamey will be awarded the Big Ten tournament Most Outstanding Player.
1. Final: Illinois Takes on Wisconsin
Before losing to Ohio State in last year's Big Ten tournament, Illinois had the pleasure of beating Wisconsin in the quarterfinals.
I can't imagine that Bo Ryan and the Badgers have forgotten who ended their run at the Big Ten title a year ago.
This time around, the Badgers, who will be firing on all cylinders as the week progresses, are going to avenge their loss. They will be crowned Big Ten Champion for the first time since 2008, when they beat Illinois in the final.