Big Ten contributors Joey Nowak (@joeynowak), Ryan Terpstra (@terphimself), and Deepak Jayanti (@10thyearseniors) put their heads together and discussed some key questions heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Here are their thoughts:
1.) What school playing on Thursday has the best shot to win the Big Ten Tournament?
Joey: I really think any team besides Nebraska and Penn State (though if Tim Frazier heats up, Penn State could have a repeat of last year) has a chance to do damage. Minnesota and Illinois both have talent and nothing to lose. Purdue is playing better, with the experienced Robbie Hummel at the helm, and has a bit of a chip on its shoulder. Iowa has a guy in Matt Gatens they can ride to a win or two. And Northwestern should come in as focused as any team in the tournament, given what’s at stake for the Wildcats.
But the team I would least like to play this weekend is Indiana. The Hoosiers have won four in a row (the last three against quality Big Ten opponents) and seven of their last eight. They should handle Penn State before taking a great shot at Wisconsin on Friday. They are better on defense than they were early in the Big Ten schedule, and can still score with the best of them, thanks to a solid inside-out game. But the intangible of playing in front of a friendly Indianapolis crowd could be a huge boost. It won’t give them the same advantage they’ve held at Assembly Hall this season, but if the last few years are any indication (when they were terrible), the Hoosier faithful will be out in full force. Don’t be surprised to see them playing Sunday.
Ryan: I’m going to have to side with Joey on this one. Indiana certainly has the most talent of any team playing in the first round, I think their path is easier that Northwestern’s or Purdue’s. I say this because no one know how Michigan State is going to respond to losing Branden Dawson, and backup point guard Travis Trice is also still battling ankle problems. Plus if Tom Izzo has any flaw in his March resume, it’s the fact that Michigan State hasn’t won the Big Ten Tournament since 2000. I think Ohio State can take care of Purdue or Northwestern, so to me, if Indiana can upset the Spartans for the second time this season, they can win it all.
Deepak: To paraphrase the famous words of Vince Vaughn’s character from the movie Wedding Crashers, Bill Carmody and the Northwestern Wildcats need to “lock it up.” They have had close calls, they have had second chances, but this is their time to lock up an NCAA at-large bid and finally make it to the Tournament. John Shurna recognizes this fact and is the most dangerous team in the Big Ten tournament. They are clearly on the Bubble right now and will need to beat Minnesota in the first round but the draw is fairly nice to them on Friday. Carmody’s crew took Michigan to overtime twice this season – but lost both times. They snuck up on them in Ann Arbor but fell short 66-64 and couldn’t close the deal at home a few weeks ago when they lost 67-55 in Evanston. Shurna and Drew Crawford cause some matchup problems to Michigan and ought to be able to beat them in the second round with some sense of urgency. But first, they need to handle their business against the Minnesota Gophers on Thursday. Complacency is not a luxury that Northwestern can afford over the next few days.
2.) Following the three-way tie for the conference championship, who is the best team in the B1G right now?
Ryan: I’m going to say Ohio State just because I think they have the most talent in the conference. Michigan State had the best “team” going into the final weekend, but faltering in Bloomington and at home against the Buckeyes have moved the Spartans down in my eyes. Ohio State has a wealth of talent, good balance, and if they have mentally put themselves together after a rough stretch of conference play (losing at home to Michigan State, at Michigan, and home to Wisconsin), I think they are the class of the conference right now. William Buford is their biggest key. His outside shooting makes life so much easier for Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas. If he can be a senior leader down the stretch, the Buckeyes are very dangerous.
Deepak: Michigan State’s identity might be shaken a little bit after Branden Dawson’s sudden injury. Michigan still has trouble rebounding consistently to be reliable. Ohio State proved their mental toughness on Sunday in East Lansing. Each one of the B1G champions has some kind of an issue heading into postseason action. Even though Michigan State had a rough week, they are still the most consistent team in the conference. Tom Izzo’s rotations and accountability will come in handy after Dawson’s injury. Look for Seniors Austin Thornton and Brandon Wood to step up in the place of Dawson. Even though his defense may be irreplaceable in the short term, the Spartans shouldn’t have too much trouble scoring. Travis Trice averaged 17.6 minutes per game, so he is not a novice to the rotation by any means. Without Dawson, they might lose the slashing abilities in the half-court sets but they will try to pound it more in the post with Draymond Green and Adreian Payne.
Joey: What a difference a torn ACL makes. If Branden Dawson hadn’t gone down in the first half of Sunday’s Michigan State-Ohio State game, this scenario might take on an entirely different feel. The Spartans would have likely looked different in the second half, and many would say they would have won. There’d be no three-way tie and they’d be at full strength on Friday. But, of course, that’s not the case.
With that in mind, I think it has to be Ohio State. The Buckeyes aren’t as rock-solid as we thought they were entering Big Ten play, but they have plenty of options (and more emerging down the depth chart). William Buford is experienced, Jared Sullinger is tough and Aaron Craft is as heady a point guard as there is in the country. If they’re clicking, they can be devastating. But fatigue is always an issue in a scenario like this for the Buckeyes. But we don’t know what Michigan State has right now, and it’s not a certainty that Michigan has what it takes to rattle off three straight wins against quality opponents on a neutral floor.
3.) Who is your favorite to take home the title in Indy this weekend?
Deepak: If William Buford continues to play with the swagger he showed on Sunday in East Lansing, it will be tough to stop the Buckeyes in Indianapolis. Tom Izzo may try to use the weekend to figure out his rotations before heading into the first couple rounds of the NCAA tournament, which is a fairly smart strategy. But if you take away Buford’s great second half against Draymond Green’s crew, the Buckeyes might still be entering the B1G tournament with losses to the top teams of the conference over the last month – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. There could be a re-match between the Buckeyes and Spartans in the final but I will stick with the more consistent squad – Michigan State Spartans. Tom Izzo and Draymond Green will try their best not to let this season slip away that quickly and this weekend might be their statement trying to prove that point.
Joey: This depends on how Michigan State responds to the loss of Dawson. If Brandon Wood can string together three double-digit scoring performances and Travis Trice is healthy, those two — in addition to Brandan Kearney — can help pick up the slack. Players in the frontcourt and backcourt will be asked to step up and carry the scoring and rebounding load. Tom Izzo teams are great with adjustments, particularly on a short turnaround, but they still may need some time to sort things out.
That said, I think it’s going to be Ohio State cutting down the nets this weekend. We have seen the Buckeyes teetering on the brink of implosion for the last few weeks, struggling to find their identity at times and lacking that killer instinct. But they showed it Sunday in East Lansing, and Thad Matta‘s group may have regained its swagger just in time to do some damage.
Ryan: I would love to go with an upset-style pick like Michigan or Indiana, but I think it’s going to be Ohio State. Too much talent, too tough of match-ups, an easier road to the finals, and I think the Buckeyes have found their swagger. Plus, the school has the Tournament’s best history. Ohio State has won the Big Ten Tournament four times since it’s inception in 1998 (won the last two in a row), and has finished runner-up three times! 50% of the time Ohio State makes the final. I’ll take those odds.