Anyone who tells you that they are 100 percent convinced that one particular team is the hands down favorite to win the Big Ten Tournament this season did not pay close attention to the regular season race.
Sure, Michigan won the conference by three full games but even the Wolverines had their share of close calls. The reality is that the 2014 Big Ten Tournament arrives with more anticipation than ever before and more teams heading to Indianapolis believing they have a shot at the conference's automatic berth.
Here's a look at the Big Ten Tournament Field and which team, in my opinion, will be cutting down the nets on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
MICHIGAN (23-7, 15-3)
The Wolverines have won five games in a row and are 7-3 over the last 10 games. Michigan clearly has all the ingredients to win three games in as many days and take home the title. If Indiana gets past Illinois on Thursday, the Hoosiers could be exactly the team that Michigan doesn't want to play in the Big Ten Tournament. The Hoosiers and Wolverines split the regular season and IU seems to match up favorably with Michigan, especially inside if Noah Vonleh is back to full strength. If Michigan gets past that quarterfinal game, look for the Wolverines to play in the title game.
Wisconsin (25-6, 12-6)
The Badgers have been the Big Ten's hottest team for a while, winners of eight of their last 10 games before losing to Nebraska in the Big Ten finale on Sunday. If there's one thing I've learned in close to 20 years covering the Big Ten, that would be never bet against Bo Ryan come tournament time. My expectation is for Wisconsin to be in Sunday's Big Ten final and very likely win the whole thing. If I was asked to pick one team that I thought would be the favorite this week, I'd go with the Badgers.
Michigan State (23-8, 12-6)
The Spartans are the favorite in Las Vegas to win the Big Ten title but I just don't see it. Michigan State is 4-6 in its last 10 games and 3-2 in the last five. If Michigan State was ready for a prime run in postseason play I would have thought it would have defeated Ohio State in the season finale in Columbus. When healthy and on the same page, I think Michigan State has the best talent and cohesiveness in the conference. But even though the Spartans are now closer to full strength they just don't seem to be playing that well together.
NEBRASKA (19-11, 11-7)
Nebraska is going to be everyone's sexy choice as a dark horse candidate this weekend but I'll be surprised if the Huskers get past the semifinals. I could see Nebraska winning a game which would just solidify its resume that much more. But despite how well the Huskers played at home this season in particular I'm not sure this is a team that will have great tournament success. After all, Nebraska ranks 273rd in the nation in scoring, 254th in rebounds and 244th in shooting percentage. Hard to believe those numbers would equate to becoming the Big Ten Tournament champion.
Ohio STATE (23-8, 10-8)
The Buckeyes had a good win at home against Michigan State on Sunday but the team that played in Bloomington the weekend before certainly didn't impress me as a team that could win the Big Ten Tournament. Ohio State did rally to go 7-3 in its last 10 games and the Buckeyes do seem to be beginning to play better together but I don't see this as a Big Ten Tournament title team.
Iowa (20-11, 9-9)
If the Hawkeyes continue their end of the regular season downward spiral their season will be over in a few games. Iowa lost five of its last six games including the Senior Night loss to Illinois. Iowa is 4-6 in the last 10 and limped to the finish in the conference with a 9-9 record. The Hawkeyes should beat Northwestern but I don't see them getting past Michigan State.
Minnesota (19-12, 8-10)
The Golden Gophers still have some work to do and many think they may need to win at least two games in Indianapolis to get to postseason play. Minnesota is 4-6 in the last 10, though, and I could see Penn State knocking the Gophers off in the first game.
INDIANA (17-14, 7-11)
I've seen this team play 31 times and I still am not completely sure what to expect this week in the Big Ten Tournament. I think Indiana could beat Illinois and then beat Michigan, too. After that, it would depend a lot on the opponent. But having said that, Indiana could just as easily go out and lose to Illinois by double digits. IU's M.O. this year has been to play really well against teams that have numbers before their names (in other words ranked teams) and play not so well against teams they should beat or at least be very competitive with. Does that way of thinking mean IU will have an early exit against the Illini? That's the question that remains to be seen.
ILLINOIS (18-13, 7-11)
Rayvonte Rice's eyes get big when he sees Indiana. He's averaging 24 points per game against the Hoosiers in two games this season. But in the last six games, Rice is averaging right at 11 points per game – and Illinois is winning. The Illini are 4-2 in those last six games and have four of five overall. So does Indiana have a better chance if Rice is getting the lion's share of the Illini's points? Hard to say. This Illinois team is similar in many ways to IU beyond just similar records. If Illinois can get past Indiana though, I don't see the Illini having the same kind of strong chance against Michigan in the quarters.
PENN STATE (15-16, 6-12)
The Nittany Lions won six Big Ten games and won in some difficult venues such as Assembly Hall and Value City Arena in Columbus. So their ability to play well away from home should not be questioned. If they do get by Minnesota, and I think that's a strong chance, I think Wisconsin will be too much for them in the quarterfinals.
NORTHWESTERN (13-18, 6-12)
The Wildcats have a great opportunity ahead of them on Thursday against an Iowa team that is limping to the finish. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Northwestern advanced to play Michigan State. But there lies the problem. I think whichever team makes it to the quarterfinals, Michigan State will have too much firepower for. One of these years Northwestern will be back in the NCAA Tournament hunt and Chris Collins is the right guy for the job. But it won't be this year.
Purdue (15-16, 5-13)
This has been tough Purdue team to figure. The Boilers looked like world beaters when they knocked off Indiana in Mackey Arena. But since then, Purdue has been very ordinary. The gave Iowa its only win in the last six games and closed the regular season with a thud on Senior Day against Northwestern. If Purdue was able to put a run together it would have to do so potentially against four quality opponents. Don't think it's in the cards for Purdue this season.