The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 09, 2016 9:07 am

No sure thing in Big Ten tourney

Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette

Late-season slumps by Iowa and Maryland, two teams that were at one point among the class of the Big Ten, have helped feed a long-standing perception that the league’s tournament is wide open.

Beginning today at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, that perception could become reality, as the Big Ten’s 14 teams open a five-day free-for-all after an unpredictable year.

"To me, it’s going to be harder to move on in the Big Ten tournament than it will be in the NCAA tournament," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "This has been the craziest Big Ten I’ve been in."

Since Yogi Ferrell and Indiana (25-6) won the Big Ten regular-season title, they get to wear the bull’s-eye.

Even though the Hoosiers are playing great basketball and get the tourney in their home state, not everyone will see them as the favorite.

That’s because so many believe Michigan State is good enough and tough enough to win not just this tournament, but the NCAA tournament.

Izzo is the master of March and always seems to have his team peaking at this time. Plus, they have senior forward Denzel Valentine, the Big Ten Player of the Year, who threatens to put up a triple-double every game.

If a matchup materializes Sunday of Michigan State and Indiana, it would be rare.

Since this event began in 1998, the top two seeds have met only four times in the championship game. In 11 of those 18 seasons, the top seed went to the final. But for the No. 2 seed, anything goes, as only eight advanced that far.

One team that could bust this year’s bracket is defending champion Wisconsin. The Badgers’ No. 6 seed is surely misleading; they’ve won 11 of their past 13 games, with the losses coming on the road against ranked opponents.

Fifth-seeded Iowa has lost five of its last seven outings after a 19-4 start, and No. 3 seed Maryland lost four of its last six after a 22-3 start, but the talent is there to rise up.

As for a true spoiler? If seventh-seeded Ohio State can somehow navigate its way to the title game, look out. The Buckeyes are having a down year but have won the tourney four times the past nine years.

No. 4 seed Purdue is better than a spoiler and has the look of a team that will be tough to beat. The Boilermakers lost their lone meeting with IU this season but are on the same side of the bracket and could get a second shot in the semifinals.

In terms of the NCAA tournament, Indiana, Michigan State, Iowa, Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin are almost assuredly in, meaning there won’t be much bubble drama.

An exception is No. 8 seed Michigan, the only gray-area team in play for an at-large bid. But John Beilein’s crew is precariously perched on the bubble and probably needs multiple victories to feel secure, starting Thursday against No. 9 seed Northwestern.

"We feel we’re playing well," Wildcats coach Chris Collins said. "Coach Beilein is one of the role models for me as a young coach. They’re still in a great position to go to the NCAA tournament. It will be a big game for both teams."

The bottom five seeds – Penn State, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota and Rutgers – may not be around long, but all of them, except Rutgers, have beaten one of the big dogs.

"This league is terrific," Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon said. "This tourney is great for the fans, for teams. It is great preparation for the ultimate prize, the NCAA tournament."

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