We are just a couple of days away from the 2016 Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament taking over our lives on March 9. The field has been set following the conclusion of the regular season on Sunday, and we're happy to say that Rutgers and Minnesota won't be able to force a rematch unless both sides reach the championship game. It's more likely that those teams fall in Wednesday's opening round to set up a 12-team field on Thursday. After that, it's anyone's tournament! Not really, as there are some teams that have a much better chance to win than others. That's what really makes this exciting as expectations set by fans and the media lead to surprises, upsets, and awesomeness. Let's break down the field.
Remember when the Big Ten title was decided by large men and grueling defenses? Even if basketball fans tend to over-romanticize how physical the game was in the past, you can't deny that this season's field is led by a couple of surprisingly potent offenses. Tom Crean's Indiana Hoosiers won the league outright and are fresh off of a dominant victory over Maryland despite not even needing the game to clinch their crown. If Robert Johnson can overcome his ankle injury and Thomas Bryant continues being a force in the post, it wouldn't be surprising to see Yogi Ferrell lead Indiana to a double conference championship this month.
But the Hoosiers shouldn't be the favorites this weekend, because the Michigan State Spartans are playing perhaps their best basketball of the season. After going undefeated in the non-conference slate and earning a No. 1 poll ranking, Tom Izzo's squad suffered three straight losses in January (including a puzzler at home versus Nebraska) before righting the ship and posting resume-boosting victories over Maryland, Indiana, and Wisconsin. With Matt Costello fast becoming one of the Big Ten's dominant big men and Bryn Forbes entrenched as a lethal three-point shooter, the Spartans are ready to do what they seem to do every March: win bucket-loads of basketball games. Oh yeah, and Denzel Valentine might be the best player in the country. The Michigan State defense isn't as suffocating as it was in years past, but the offense is even more balanced and dangerous than Indiana's.
The way the top two teams have played lately make them clear favorites to reach the title game, especially when you consider the recent struggles of the No. 3 seed Maryland Terrapins and the No. 5 seed Iowa Hawkeyes. Considered a contender for the national championship since last season ended, Maryland lived up to expectations in the early going. Lately, though, the Terps have wilted with losses in four of their last six games. Melo Trimble isn't shooting as well as he did during his freshman season, but he's still one of the top players in the conference. When you throw in a shooter as accurate as Rasheed Sulaimon and a forward as versatile as Robert Carter, you've got a team that can beat anyone on any night.
So what has gone wrong for Maryland? Diamond Stone is dominant when he's on the floor, but he only averages 22 minutes per night, which exposes opponents to the Terrapins' depth... or lack there of. There's simply not much going on when you get past the starting five, and that could factor into this team's late-season malaise.
Iowa similarly is watching its star center struggle. During the team's recent four-game losing streak that was just broken up when the Hawkeyes defeated Michigan on Saturday, Adam Woodbury was held to five points per game. That's not acceptable for a player that grabs as many rebounds and spends as much time in the paint as Woodbury does. With the way Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok stretch opponents out, there should be more opportunities inside for the big man. If Fran McCaffery can't figure out how to get Woodbury more involved in the offense, his team's stock will continue to drop this week.
So who is flying under the radar in Indianapolis? Let's start with the Purdue Boilermakers. They haven't experienced the highs that Iowa and Maryland have risen to this season, but have earned their No. 4 seed by being consistently solid throughout conference play. Purdue has avoided consecutive losses all year, but it has also not won more than three games in a row since it stopped playing the likes of Howard and IUPUI in December. While the Boilers do one thing better than everyone else -- score in the post with A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas -- their lack of quality perimeter shooting has prevented them from becoming a truly dominant force.
Speaking of poor shooting, that's something that's also holding back Ohio State, the long, athletic, defensive team that gets a lot of its points by earning trips to the free throw line. With third-leading scorer Jae'Sean Tate now lost for the season due to a shoulder injury, there's not many who think the Buckeyes can make a run, especially since two of their last three games were crushing losses to projected quarterfinal opponent Michigan State. However, Thad Matta is still one of the top coaches in the country and he has the disruptive defense that he needs to wreak havoc on opponents' game plans.
Of all the teams in this tournament, Wisconsin is probably the one most misrepresented by its seed. After a nightmarish start to the season featuring the retirement of legendary coach Bo Ryan, interim coach Greg Gard has led the Badgers to 11 wins in their past 13 games. With Vitto Brown developing into a consistent contributor and Ethan Happ turning into a star before our eyes, it's little secret that Wisconsin is now one of the Big Ten's elite teams, but inconsistent shooting from star forward Nigel Hayes could make for a limited run in Indianapolis.
The final team that has a real chance to make noise this week is Michigan due to its deep stock of shooters and ability to take advantage of floor spacing. With wins over Maryland and Purdue this year, the Wolverines have proven that they're one of the best groups in the nation when it comes to avoiding turnovers and knocking down shots, but severe deficiencies in rebounding and defense will make it tough to overcome foes that clamp down on the perimeter.
Your picks on tap
I'm going to go out on a huge limb and pick Michigan State to win the tournament with a win in the finals over Purdue. Bold, I know.
Hate the pick? Think you can do better. You'r probably right! That's why we're launching our tournament pick 'em contest tomorrow. Keep an eye our for it and get your selections in before the action tips off on Wednesday afternoon!