When I read Chicago Sun-Times reporter Herb Gould's ‘survivor-esc' story about the similarities between the television show and the brutal conference tournament, it eluded to the fact that on the island, nobody, no matter how safe they think they are, is safe. Since the Big Ten implemented a conference tournament in 1998, the number one seed has lost its first game four times, the number two seed is 5-1 in championship games and even a number six seed – Iowa – has won the four-day free for all.
This season, the Big Ten has the potential to get seven teams into the Big Dance, but at the same time, could get as few as four. Michigan, Illinois and Purdue all need help to get into the dance, Michigan State and Indiana look set and everyone needs to watch out for Ohio State and Wisconsin, who would love to get its hands on each other for a third time this season.
After last year's tournament picking debacle, I have a feeling my averages are about to improve. So get out your bracket, grab a malt cup and ease into your chair, as the automatic bid for the Big Ten is about to be decided.
Game One: No.8 Michigan (20-11, 8-8) vs. No.9 Minnesota (9-21, 3-13)
Michigan has revenge on their minds, as the Gophers will try to end the Wolverines post-season hopes just like they did in last year's tournament. Unlike last year when the Gophers had Vincent Grier, Minnesota doesn't have the offensive firepower like the year before, although juniors Spencer Tollackson, Dan Coleman and Lawrence McKenzie have given decent offensive output this season.
With seniors Lester Abram, Dion Harris, Brent Petway and Courtney Sims leading the charge in their last chance to make the NCAA tournament, Michigan knows that a first round lost would seal their NIT fate. Michigan has beaten the Gophers twice already this season and they should do it again Thursday morning.
Game Two: No.7 Michigan State (21-10, 8-8) vs. No.10 Northwestern (13-17, 2-14)
Michigan State has quality wins over Texas, Bradley, Wisconsin, Indiana and BYU and was just a made three-point basket from beating Ohio State and Wisconsin again. Although led by Drew Neitzel's 18.3 points per game, Michigan State lack of leadership – no seniors on the roster – has hurt the Spartans away from the Breslin Center. Other then beating Penn State, State hasn't won a road game this season, which could present a problem to the selection committee.
Good thing for State that this doesn't count as a road game. State had no problem beating Northwestern by 21 in their only meeting this year and should do so again.
Game Three: No.6 Illinois (21-20, 9-7) vs. No.11 Penn State (11-18, 2-14)
As I have said before, this was supposed to be the year that Penn State – with Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley – were going to make some noise in the conference. The Nittany Lions did, but the noise was more of a groan and a thud.
After winning their conference opener, Penn State dropped its next 13 games and made a very loud thud when they hit the bottom. On the other hand, Illinois had to overcome plenty of adversity of its own – drunk driving charges and the elimination of its beloved mascot. With all the off the court issues, Illinois is primed to earn a bid in the field of 65. All they have to do is get by Nittany Lions and they should be in. With the United Center filled with orange, Illinois should cruise.
Game Four: Michigan vs. No.1 Ohio State (27-3, 15-1)
Michigan faltered down the stretch against Ohio State in Ann Arbor on Senior Day, which was another case of the Wolverines shooting themselves in the foot. In the first game on Friday, Michigan will have its chance to make up for its mistakes less than a week ago.
Ohio State's M.O. is either the perimeter shot or dump the ball to Greg Oden in the post and the system has worked. Ranked number one in the nation and winners of 14 straight, the Buckeyes have survived a number of close calls this season at home in conference, but have been solid on the road. Michigan is going to play them tough, but Ohio State should squeak this one out by a couple.
Ohio State 64-56
Game Five: No.4 Iowa (17-13, 9-7) vs. No.5 Purdue (20-10, 9-7)
Leading the Big Ten in scoring with 20.8 points per game, Haluska was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and dominated the Big Ten's competition, scoring over 30 points five times this season. While he's been criticized for shooting too much, Haluska, other than freshman Tyler Smith, had the entire Iowa offense on his shoulders.
Purdue head coach Matt Painter, my Big Ten Coach of the Year, turned the Boilermakers from the worst team in conference to one of the more dangerous. Part of the reason Purdue became so dangerous was having a healthy Carl Landry, who scored over 18 points a game in his senior season.
Much like Smith does for Haluska, David Teague provides a scoring boost to Landry, as he's produced over 14 points per game in addition to Landry's production.
This game is going to be a battle, as Purdue needs to beat Iowa to feel better about their position come Selection Sunday. If Purdue can stop Haluska like they did in Iowa City, they can pull out a big victory in Chicago.
Game Six: Michigan State vs. No.2 Wisconsin (27-4, 13-3)
Three times in 18 days is unheard of for two high-powered teams to battle it out. If Michigan State can survive NU, that's just how Friday's nightcap will begin.
National player of the year candidate Alando Tucker and his 20.1 points per game lead Wisconsin. Tucker has scored in double figures in every contest this season for the Badgers and has eclipsed the 20-point barrier 17 times this season.
Tucker's running buddy, however, has had little luck against the Spartans. Senior Kammron Taylor has had some of his worst career games against Michigan State, including two dreadful games this year – 0-for-6 in East Lansing and 2-for-9 in Madison. Without his game-winning three-point bucket, Taylor would have nightmares about Neitzel's perimeter jump shot.
Whoever wins this game is my pick to win the tournament title. No, I am not making a homer pick, but Neitzel is bound to have a bad shooting game sometime this month. If Wisconsin can figure out how to win without Brian Butch, Wisconsin should make the Badger faithful in attendance very pleased.
Game Seven: Illinois vs. No.3 Indiana (20-9, 10-6)
Led by Big Ten 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 was red hot at the beginning of the conference season, only to taper off down the stretch, losing of five of its last 11 games.
Illinois and Indiana have played two tight games this season and its rubber match should be no different, as a combined 12 points decided both games. Illinois will need big games from McBride and Carter, who played well both times against the Hoosiers. With the Big Ten tournament moving to Indianapolis permanently, Illinois will go out in Chicago with a bang by beating the Hoosiers.
Game Eight: Ohio State vs. Purdue
The Boilermakers nearly pulled the upset in Columbus by shutting down the perimeter (OSU shot 3-for-17) and getting Oden in foul trouble. If Purdue wants to pull out the win this time around, the Boilermakers need to follow the same game plan by attacking the paint with Landry and get another hot shooting night from Teague, who made 5-for-9 from the perimeter. Ohio State is due for a let down and I think that Purdue has the personnel to do it to him.
Game Nine: Wisconsin vs. Illinois
Wisconsin and Illinois have had some epic battles in the Big Ten tournament – tournament finals in 2004 and 2005 and quarterfinals in 1998 – and some epic regular season battles in the past two years. This season was no different, as the rivalry went right down to the last minute with the Badgers winning for the first time in Champaign in seven tries.
This game will be the telling sign of whether Wisconsin can cope without Brian Butch. Illinois's two big men – 6-9" Warren Carter and 6-10" Shaun Pruitt – gave Wisconsin a handful of trouble in their last meeting and UW will be playing – for its second straight year – in a glorified home game in the conference tournament. Even so, Wisconsin has got the experience to make it to their third conference final in four years against a young Illinois team.
Game 10: Wisconsin vs. Purdue
Wisconsin and Purdue played a tight game in the Kohl Center and brothers Carl and Marcus Landry will play their final game against each other in the tournament final. Purdue made the finals in the first year of the conference tournament, losing to Michigan by 9. Although it will be close early, Kammron Taylor breaks out of his slump, scoring a solid 16 points, and Alando Tucker drops 26 on the Boilermakers, as Wisconsin wins its second tournament title.