In a conference that routinely sends six to eight teams to the NCAA tournament, the function of the Big Ten tournament as a ticket-puncher has been muted over the 17 years of its existence. Still, it isn't without its drama: last year, seven of 11 games were decided by eight points or fewer, and then regular-season champion Michigan was blown out by third-seeded Michigan State in the final (both teams then went to the Elite Eight). ¶ This week in Chicago, will we see the coronation of top-seeded Wisconsin? Will the Badgers and conference runner-up Maryland give us the neutral-court matchup of the league's dominant duo we've been waiting for? Or will the tournament's unpredictability live on? Whatever happens, one thing is clear: the annual Big Ten affair means the NCAA tournament is right around the corner. But before the Big Dance, here's a forecast for what awaits in Chicago:
The fire is out: Indiana
The seventh-seeded Hoosiers are clinging to a play-in berth in the projected NCAA brackets of experts Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBS, almost solely on the strength of impressive victories before February (Southern Methodist, Butler, Ohio State and Maryland among them). Indiana's coals clearly are losing heat. Once predicted as high as a No. 5 seed in the NCAAs, the Hoosiers have lost eight of 12, including their past three games. Facing suddenly scrappy 10th-seeded Northwestern on Wednesday could be dangerous.
Looking hot: Iowa
A year ago, Iowa lost five of its last six regular-season games and then its first conference tournament matchup to fall to an NCAA play-in game. This year couldn't feel more different. The fifth-seeded Hawkeyes are on a six-game winning streak and haven't allowed an opponent to shoot 40 percent in that span. First-team All-Big Ten forward Aaron White is having his best stretch, averaging 24 points a game in the past four games. With an opening game against either Penn State or Nebraska (presumably) followed by a quarterfinal with Purdue, it's hard to see the Hawkeyes not advancing to the semifinals.
Best potential early matchup: Ohio State-Michigan State
On paper, the first two days don't bring many enticing story lines, but come Friday, we could see the Buckeyes (if they beat the Gophers or Rutgers) go head-to-head with the Spartans. Both teams have plenty of flaws, and it's hard to believe either are past some of those head-scratching moments. Michigan State nearly gave Tom Izzo a heart attack Saturday after Denzel Valentine fouled in the waning seconds with the Spartans up two in an eventual 74-72 win over Indiana. And that was before freshman Marvin Clark Jr. made a free throw he was supposed to miss. Ohio State, meanwhile, was held to 34 percent shooting at home and blown out by Wisconsin 72-48 on Sunday, with the Badgers having little to play for. Anything could happen when these two teams meet.
Best potential late matchup: Wisconsin-Maryland
We were cheated this season. We only got to see the two conference powers — now the only ranked teams in this largely disappointing Big Ten — meet once this season. Although Wisconsin is considered superior in most conference and national minds, the single game was held at Maryland — and played out as a 59-53 defensive-oriented victory for the Terrapins. But both squads are capable of lighting up the scoreboard, and both have stars that are playing as well as they have all year in Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and Maryland's Dez Wells. Give us a rematch, please.
And the winner is ...
Wisconsin. The conference's best team doesn't always translate to its tournament champion, but there aren't many teams in the country playing as well as the Badgers are right now. Wisconsin is far and away the best team heading to Chicago, and national Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky is reaching for an even higher plateau. The Badgers have one of the nation's most efficient offenses and at least three potential NBA players in their starting lineup, and they are one of the best teams around at executing the little things. If point guard Traevon Jackson can return from a fractured foot for any games, it will be even harder to imagine Wisconsin being stopped.