FORT WAYNE – The Big Ten tournament has a lot to live up to after one of the conferences most competitive seasons.
The league has four teams in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll – No. 3 Indiana (26-5), No. 6 Michigan (25-6), No. 8 Michigan State (24-7) and No. 10 Ohio State (23-7) – and has a fifth team in the poll with No. 22 Wisconsin (21-10).
The conference is so strong that Michigan is only the No. 5 seed in the tournament, which opens Thursday at the United Center in Chicago, even though the Wolverines missed out on getting a share of the regular-season title with Sundays 72-71 loss to Indiana.
Michigan opens play at 2:30 p.m. Thursday against No. 12 seed Penn State (10-20).
It says a lot about the strength of this league, Michigan coach John Beilein said during Mondays coaches teleconference. Ive only been in it six years, its the toughest Ive seen it.
After a grueling season, the teams will battle it out again with an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament on the line.
Indiana enters as the No. 1 seed for the first time in the 16-year tournaments history after winning the outright Big Ten for the first time since 1993. The Hoosiers will play the winner of Thursdays game between No. 8 seed Illinois (21-11) and No. 9 seed Minnesota (20-11) at noon Friday.
I honestly think that competition always helps you, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. Im looking at us playing Michigan and Indiana and Ohio State and Minnesota and Wisconsin I can say to my players, Who havent you played? Who havent you played thats been ranked? I think there is a comfort level, knowing you can play with everybody.
The Big Ten is projected by ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi to have Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois in the NCAA tournament.
There is a fear that the competition Big Ten teams face this week could leave squads spent when the NCAA tournament begins.
You certainly have to plan for it. You cant start planning for it this week; its too late, Indiana coach Tom Crean said of avoiding fatigue in the postseason. I think its a culmination affect. What you do is, you continue to pace your team the right way. You put them in situations that will make them better but not wear them down. But to me, you have to go in with the intention of winning every game that you play.