With three teams virtual locks to make the 65-team tournament field, the four-day Big Ten tournament promises to be one of the more intriguing in recent memory. After last year's fiasco that saw the Hawkeyes claim the conference title over the Buckeyes, the Big Ten moves their annual tournament to the Windy City of Chicago in what promises to get only crazier as the days wear on.
To get you prepared for the conference tournament, Benjamin Worgull looks at each team's resumes to see what they need to do in Chicago to punch their dance ticket.
1. Ohio State (27-3, 15-1 Big Ten)
Strength of Schedule (SOS): 22
Picked to repeat as Big Ten champions with four freshmen in their starting lineup, Thad Matta and the Buckeyes backed up their high expectations with a 15-win conference season. Led by freshmen phenoms Mike Conley Jr. and Greg Oden, Ohio State has rattled off 14 straight victories since falling in Madison. In fact, Ohio State's three losses this year have been at Wisconsin, at Florida and at North Carolina. Not too bad for a youth-dominated basketball team.
Oden leads the way offensively and defensively for Ohio State, averaging 15.3 points per game and blocking 80 shots, far and away the best total in conference. Conley and fellow freshman Daequan Cook engineer a stellar backcourt that makes few mistakes. Combine that with the senior leadership of Ron Lewis and the Buckeyes are a tough group.
By winning the regular season title, the Buckeyes silenced a lot of critics complaining about their lacking resume and no big non-conference win. The critics do have a point, as Ohio State has yet to beat a ranked opponent on the road. The Big Ten tournament will be another chance for Ohio State to prove they belong among the nation's elite, as one win will all but wrap up a number one seed in the dance.
2. Wisconsin (27-4, 13-3 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI Top 25): Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Michigan State, at Marquette
Leading the Big Ten for seven weeks, Wisconsin let the title slip between their fingers with road bumps in East Lansing and Columbus. To make matters worse, the Badgers lost McDonalds All-American Brian Butch for most of, if not all, the post season. How good the Badgers will be without Butch will depend on the two-headed offensive attack of Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor.
Fresh off being named conference player of the year, Tucker finished second in the Big Ten with 20.1 points per game, scoring in double figures in the every game this season and recording 17 20-point games to date. Combine Tucker and a nationally televised game, he nearly can't be stopped. In 10 nationally televised games (including three against ranked opponents), Tucker has averaged 21.8 points while shooting .482 from the floor.
At times, the same could be said about Kammron Taylor. Starting all 31 games, Taylor is second on the team in scoring and assists. Scoring in double figures in 21 of his last 26 games, Taylor scored a season-high 25 points against Ohio State in Madison and nailed the winning three pointer in a win against Michigan State. However, part of Taylor's M.O. is to struggle at the end of the season. In his last three games, Taylor has shot 6-for-27 and scored only 20 points. If Wisconsin is going to overcome the loss of Butch, Taylor needs to be the senior leader he's expected to be.
Wisconsin, by far, has the best profile in the conference and one of the best in the country, registering a 7-4 record against the RPI top 50. Wisconsin can earn itself a number one seed if they can make the finals, as the Badgers are certainly capable of doing that … if the Wisconsin team that was ranked No.1 shows up. If they don't, the Badgers will be no lower than a number two if they stumble early.
3. Indiana (20-9, 10-6 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI Top 25): Southern Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin
Riddle me this, Riddle me that, who's the team wearing those funny pants? Seriously, the 2006-07 edition of Indiana Hoosier basketball is one of the oddest in conference this season, as you never know which Kelvin Sampson squad is going to show up.
Quality conference wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin were a warning sign to the rest of the conference that the Hoosiers should be thrown into the mix for the regular season crown. The Hoosiers backed up their Wisconsin victory by dropping four of their next six. After escaping Northwestern with a four-point victory, Indiana stomped the Nittany Lions in a 31-point clobbering at University Park.
Led by second-team selection D.J. White's 13.7 points per game and Roderick Wilmont's 12.8 points, Indiana third place conference finish was a surprise for most – although they only played the Buckeyes and Badgers once. Indiana is in the dance, but where? An eight of nine seed is guaranteed, but a solid tournament showing should get the Hoosiers up to a seven or a six if they make the finals.
4. Iowa (17-13, 9-7 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI Top 25): Michigan State, Indiana
Nobody has been hit harder by graduation than the Iowa Hawkeyes, as the Horner-Brunner duo has left Iowa as a shell of last year's championship team. Without Haluska, Iowa would be a wreck this season and not the fourth seed in the conference tournament.
Leading the Big Ten in scoring with 20.8 points per game, Haluska was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and the glue that held Iowa together. He wasn't alone, however, as freshman Tyler Smith 14.8 point per contest was a welcomed addition to a team badly needing offense.
The bad losses for this team are staggering – at Arizona State, at Drake, at Penn State, Northern Iowa – as is their non-conference record of 8-6. If the Hawkeyes want to make the NIT even, they are going to have to beat the Boilermakers on Friday. Unless they win the conference tournament, Iowa will not be in the field of 65, much to the dismay of Northwestern State and mid-majors everywhere.
5. Purdue (20-10, 9-7 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI 1-50): Michigan State, Indiana, Virginia, Illinois
If I had a vote for Big Ten Coach of the Year, with all respects to Thad Matta, my vote would go to Matt Painter, who turned Purdue from the worst team in the conference last season to one of the most dangerous this season. Of course, when you get over 18 points from senior Carl Landry a game, you are going to win some basketball games.
Next to Landry, senior David Teague has turned in a solid year and produced some big games – 28 points against Illinois and 32 against Indiana.
Purdue has looked extremely impressive at times this season – holding Michigan State to 12 second-half points and nearly winning in Columbus and Madison – and looked equally bad – a loss to Minnesota and a double-digit loss at Iowa. Their non-conference slate is impressive, including a win at Oklahoma.
Even so, Purdue can ill-afford a loss against Iowa in the quarterfinals while a win would put the Boilermakers at 21 wins and a probable match up with Ohio State. Two strong showings for Purdue should guaranteed Painter's crew a 10 or 11 seed come Sunday.
6. Illinois (21-10, 9-7 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI 1-50): Bradley, Indiana, Michigan State
Illinois head coach Bruce Weber has got to be sweating in his orange blazer when he looks at the chances his team had this season to stamp their ticket to the dance. Playing top dogs Ohio State and Wisconsin in Champaign only and finishing the season with a humbling loss in Iowa City, Illinois could have jumped up to the four seed, earned an extra days rest and virtually sealed its fate.
Regardless, Weber should feel confident when he looks at the leadership on his Illinois team, led by seniors Warren Carter and Rich McBride and junior Shaun Pruitt. All three big men are averaging over 10 points per game and have logged solid minutes for Weber. With all the distractions the team has faced with the drunken driving incident involving McBride and teammate Jamar Smith plus the mascot issue, a 9-7 record in conference is nothing to hang their heads about.
Illinois could be the sleeper of the tournament this year, as a second round match up against Indiana would be the rubber match of the season series, in which both games were decided by a combined 12 points. With the Fighting Illini faithful just down the road, Illinois should have a solid tournament, which would earn them a 10 or 11 seed in the field of 65.
7. Michigan State (21-10, 8-8 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI 1-50): Texas, Bradley, BYU, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana
So close. That should be the motto for Tom Izzo's Michigan State squad this season, as the Spartans were a Drew Neitzel three point bucket from sweeping Wisconsin and beating Ohio State in Columbus. Still, Neitzel made his presence felt, as his 28 points gave State its much-needed signature win and brought Coach Izzo to tears after beating the Badgers.
Well deserving of first-team Big Ten honors, Neitzel not only scored (18.3 ppg) but also notched 4.1 assists per game. While Neitzel was running the backcourt, freshman Raymar Morgan anchored the frontcourt, posting 11 points and five boards a game.
Michigan State is an interesting case. Playing a brutal schedule and having good computer numbers is a plus, but going 1-8 in the road – the only win at Penn State – is not a good thing to show the committee. State would be wise to take care of business against Northwestern on Thursday afternoon. Win that and the Spartans should find themselves as an eight or nine seed on Sunday and have a chance to win the season series against Wisconsin.
8. Michigan (20-11, 8-8 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI 1-50): Davidson, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State
Every year, the Michigan Wolverines start fast (16-4 this season) only to come crashing down in flames. This season after they beat Michigan State, the Wolverines had the Buckeyes on the ropes - up six with time winding down - and couldn't add that signature win to their profile.
With a senior class of Dion Harris, Courtney Sims, Lester Abram and Brent Petway leading the charge for four years, it's amazing that a group with that much skill have not made a tournament in their four years. However, Michigan has their destiny in their hands during the first two rounds in Chicago.
If the Wolverines beat Minnesota, Michigan gets its rematch with the Buckeyes in a game they need to win to feel comfortable on Sunday. If Michigan can make the semifinals, the Wolverines will be dancing with a 10 seed.
9. Minnesota (9-21, 3-13 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI 1-50): Purdue
A disastrous season for interim head coach Jim Molinari is thankfully coming to close. Minnesota has lost head coach Dan Monson, junior guard Limar Wilson and eight straight games. Regardless, Minnesota can make a huge step for next season if they can knock Michigan out of the Big Ten Tournament; something the Gophers successfully did in Indianapolis the season before.
Minnesota is lead by a trio of talented juniors – guard Lawrence McKenzie, forward Dan Coleman and center Spencer Tollackson. All three juniors, while averaging above 11 points, each bring something different to the court. McKenzie is the team leader in assists, Coleman is the team leader in rebounds and Tollackson is the emotional leader on the floor.
One loss and Minnesota is done for the season, so you can bet that the Gophers are looking to cause as much damage as possible in Chicago before heading back to the north.
10. Northwestern (13-17, 2-14 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI 1-50): None
Another Big Ten season, another bottom of the conference finish for the Wildcats. Northwestern's computer numbers are awful and their best wins are against DePaul and Miami, which aren't exactly stellar wins for the purple posse from Evanston.
It hasn't all been doom and gloom from the Wildcats, as two players produced solid seasons for Northwestern. Freshman Kevin Coble led the team with 13.3 points per game and earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team. Senior Tim Doyle was close behind Coble, scoring over 11 points a game.
Northwestern has a chance to play spoiler with their Princeton offense and their challenging zone, but the Wildcats only chance to make the post season will be to win the conference tournament.
11. Penn State (11-18, 2-14 Big Ten)
Quality Wins (RPI 1-50): None
This was supposed to be Penn State's year to rise to the top. Returning a solid group of players in Geary Claxton, Jamelle Cornley and Danny Morissey, a top five finish in conference was all but assured.
Fourteen losses in fifteen games to close the conference season and a dead last finish in conference later, head coach Ed Dechellis is still scratching his head.
Junior Geary Claxton is still putting up big numbers for the Nittany Lions, scoring over 16 points and grabbing nearly eight rebounds per game. Cornley has been a nice asset for Claxton, scoring 13.7 points and 6.8 boards per game. Combined, the two are one of the most formidable duos in the Big Ten, which makes the Nittany Lion collapse even weirder.
Penn State has got the tools and pieces in place to be a good team next year – much like they were expected to this year. With a win against Illinois on the home court, while unlikely, would do a lot to boost the confidence in Happy Valley.