1. Illinois (15-1 Big Ten, 29-1 overall)
The Fighting Illini got the proverbial wake-up call last Sunday in Value City Arena versus the jacked-up Buckeyes. For the first time all season, Bruce Weber's troops seemed to get rattled down the stretch. The Illini's modus operandi is a simple one; they live and die by the play of their guards. Lucky for them, it's this time of the year when guard play will get you farther than anything else. Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head are as good as they get.
I expect Illinois to be more than ready this weekend and will find themselves in the Big Ten Championship Game Sunday afternoon.
2. Michigan State (13-3 Big Ten, 22-5 overall)
The Spartans, despite their record, national ranking, and stellar play over the last month, still inspire the doubters to question whether or not they have what it takes to make a splash come tournament time. If they are to win the Big Ten Tourney, they will need Alan Anderson and Paul Davis to lead the charge offensively. If Anderson and Davis can get hot, and stay hot, for the next five weeks, the skies the limit for the deep and defensive minded Spartan squad.
3. Wisconsin (11-5 Big Ten, 20-7 overall)
Bo Ryan's team is a lock for the NCAA's. It remains to be seen however if they can beat either the Illini or the Spartans away from the friendly confines of the Kohl Center. The Badgers' will go only as far as Mike Wilkinson and Alando Tucker can carry them. I expect another classic battle between the Spartans and the Badgers Saturday afternoon in the Big Ten Semis, with the winner facing the Illini for the title Sunday.
4. Minnesota (10-6 Big Ten, 20-9 overall)
If the Golden Gophers can win Friday against Indiana, they will have a real shot at getting into the NCAA tournament. Minnesota's woefully weak non-conference schedule and their 8-5 record since January 15 are the biggest obstacles from them already having a birth locked up. If they defeat the Hoosiers and play well in the semi-finals Saturday, the Golden Gophers should be allowed entry to the Big Dance.
5. Indiana (10-6 Big Ten, 15-12 overall)
Like Minnesota, the Hoosiers have their NCAA tournament lives riding on their Friday matchup. Mike Davis has done a great job of getting his young team to gel late in the year (6-3 in their last 9 games). The Hoosier's 5-6 non-conference record is a problem, but the selectors have a history of looking at a team's strength of schedule in a positive light. With impressive victories over Wisconsin and Michigan State and losses to North Carolina, Connecticut, Missouri, and Wisconsin all coming by seven points or less; the Hoosiers could squeak into the Dance if they beat Minnesota Friday and make a good showing in the semi-finals a day later.
6. Ohio State (8-8 Big Ten, 19-11 overall)
Due to their self-imposed post-season ban due to last season's Jim O'Brien scandal, the Buckeyes' season will end this weekend. With that, and their miracle win over Illinois last Sunday fresh in their minds, expect Thad Matta's squad to bring their A-game into the United Center. If they can beat Penn State Thursday night, it's not out of the realm of possibility that they could upset the Badgers in round two Friday. If that happens, the rest of the weekend would be icing on the cake for Ohio State.
7. Iowa (7-9 Big Ten, 19-10 overall)
You've got to feel for Steve Alford. He had to have known what was going to happen to his team when he booted his squads' leading scorer and defender Pierre Pierce back on February 2. At the time, the Hawkeyes were 15-5 – they have gone 4-5 since. If they are to squeak into the NCAA's, and possibly save Alford's job, the Hawkeyes are going to have to claw their way into the Big Ten finals at the very least. With possible games against Michigan State and Wisconsin on the docket before Sunday's championship, it will be a monumental task.
8. Northwestern (6-10 Big Ten, 14-15 overall)
The Wildcats open the Big Ten Tournament Thursday morning against Michigan. They must beat the Wolverines and then #1 Illinois Friday to get over the .500 mark and be eligible for the NIT tournament. A Michigan win is a 50/50 proposition – an Illinois win is as probable as the Wildcats suddenly letting Prop-48 kids into the classroom.
9. Michigan (4-12 Big Ten, 15-17 overall)
Beat the Wildcats and then it's full speed ahead into the an Illinois' buzzsaw looking to slice and dice the first team they will face since the Ohio State defeat. Yikes!
10. Purdue (3-13 Big Ten, 7-20 overall)
I can see it now. . . . Carl Landry suddenly becomes Charles Barkley and leads the Hickory Boilermakers to upsets over Michigan State, Wisconsin and Illinois to grab the Big Ten Title and an NCAA birth.
. . . Man, I've gotta' stop hanging out with Dennis Hopper.
11. Penn State (1-15 Big Ten, 7-22 overall)
You know, I feel bad even writing this . . . but honestly . . . what percentage of Penn State football season-ticket holders do you think even know who Aaron Johnson, Geary Claxton, and Ed DeChellis are?
And to think that Michigan basketball fans regularly complain (rightly so by the way) that their sport has to play second fiddle to the football program in Ann Arbor.