Over the season, the Big Ten became a conference filled with a few heavyweights, middleweights who easily could win the tournament, and some forgettable lightweights. The lightweights are filled by Penn State, Northwestern, and Minnesota, all who have horrible conference records. They should pose no problems for any of the other teams, and would truly make a Cinderella story if they win.
The middleweights all have ability but haven't shown enough promise and consistency to raise a lot of hope. Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue and Illinois all have a .500 record or better in conference play.
Indiana is particularly dangerous as this season they already beat Wisconsin by 15 points in a huge upset. The Hoosiers got a third seed for the tournament and have won 20 games overall, including ten against the conference. The Hoosiers can match up with anyone's size, except for the Buckeyes.
Michigan State could easily pull off an upset, as they too have already beaten then No. 2 ranked Wisconsin. At Ohio State they only lost by two points and they beat No. 18 Texas in a tough win. It seems impossible, but the bracket designers might have underrated the Spartans and their star coach, Tom Izzo, and star player, Drew Neitzel. All signs point to them being the underdog to look out for in this year's tournament.
The upset would have to come against Wisconsin, who was limping heavily before rebounding against the Spartans. Starting center Brian Butch missed that game plus he will miss the tournament with an elbow injury. The Badger's win at home against Michigan State only came from a last second 3 pointer by Kammron Taylor. That followed their losses against Michigan State and Ohio State.
The Badgers have many upsides to work with. Losing those two games became their worst stretch of the year, but for much of the year they have been conference favorites. They have a great leader in 2007 Big Ten Player of the Year Alando Tucker. He delivers when he needs to most, and that will be what's expected for the tournament.
Because of the design of the brackets the Badgers will have a tough time making it the finals. They couldn't possibly have asked for a more difficult road to win the tournament. If every higher seeded team wins their games, Wisconsin will have to beat three teams consecutively to whom they have lost to. In possibly playing Michigan State, Indiana and then Ohio State the Badgers have to gear up for the tournament. Those three teams will be playing with greater confidence knowing they can win again against a depleted Wisconsin team.
Ohio State's road will be much easier because they've already beaten every team they could possibly face. They also get the lower seeded teams because they won the regular season. Before the possible final, their toughest competition should come from the winner of Iowa or Purdue. In either case it would take some heroics by either team to beat the country's No. 1 ranked team. The nation's only three-loss team comes in streaking hot after winning 14 straight games against the conference.
The Buckeyes' fabulous freshmen, and their star Greg Oden, have done much growing up in the last few months. They have four players scoring in double figures and eight players who average over 15 minutes a game. Oden simply can dominate a game defensively, which he more than likely will do against the Hawkeyes or Boilermakers. In their three games against those teams they won by an average of 15 points.
The Buckeyes beating the Badgers shouldn't be that much of a forgone conclusion. At home Ohio State beat Wisconsin by one point in college basketball's biggest game of the year. That was with Butch sitting on the sidelines for the second half. During their winning streak, five times the Buckeyes have won by less than five points. That can be taken either as they finish close games or they don't dominate enough to take big leads.
So the Buckeyes really aren't leaps and bounds better than the Badgers. Inexperience is not in their favor as they use a rotation that consists of four freshmen. Couple that with the fact that last year the Buckeyes were seeded first in the tournament, but lost to Iowa. In fact, the top seed has an 11-7 record in the tournament. Nothing is ever for sure in the unpredictable Big Ten.
What will play out is much more difficult road for both teams to prove that one is the best. Everyone must agree about who should be in the finals, its just a matter of Wisconsin and Ohio State getting there. The bracket has been set up perfectly for the Buckeyes to return to the finals, but Wisconsin should have more trouble getting that rematch they desire.
Fans of Big Ten basketball should be happy that the tournament is here. Ask the Michigan Wolverines football team what they thought of last year's season. They had to settle for only dreaming of rematch against the Buckeyes in a neutral setting. Wisconsin might get the chance for that rubber match this weekend.