Story lines for this week's Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
After a slow start to the season, the Badgers now look as strong as any team. Yes, interim Greg Gard’s team slumped in a 91-80 loss at Purdue only hours before the program announced he would be hired as the new head coach, but that was just one of two defeats in the past 13 games. Suddenly, Wisconsin looks as much the favorite as anyone else.
2. Battle of the big men
What better time to take in the talented array of big men than in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, where all 14 teams will blitz through in a matter of five days? Of course, All-Big Ten and Defensive Player of the Year A.J. Hammons (Purdue) and third-teamer Matt Costello (Michigan State) will be on display in their last go-round. But so, too, will a host of post-dominating newcomers. All five of the players on the All-Big Ten freshmen team are positioned at center at least some of the time. Freshman of the Year Ethan Happ (Wisconsin) along with the Gophers’ Jordan Murphy, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant, Maryland’s Diamond Stone and Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan all will be featured.
3. Tournament seeds at stake
None of the league’s top crop has had a totally smooth season, and everyone still is vying for positioning in the NCAA tournament. Michigan State is trying to make the case for a No. 1 seed. Purdue, Iowa, Maryland, Indiana and Wisconsin all are trying to improve their standing. Michigan is trying to stay on the right side of the bubble. Ohio State is hoping for a big run to even be considered. What happens in Indy will have ramifications throughout all of March.
OK, so the Boilermakers aren’t exactly languishing in true dark-horse territory, but they also haven’t been the team to beat in some time. Purdue has, however, finished the regular season on a roll, topping Maryland and Wisconsin at home as it won its past three. The Boilermakers’ weak spot this season has been in playing on the road — but the atmosphere at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse won’t feel so hostile with plenty of home state fans expected in attendance.
When you realize the Buckeyes have 11 conference victories, it seems bizarre that they wouldn’t make the NCAAs. But Ohio State still is waiting for résumé gems after all but one of its victories came against the league’s bottom seven. The youthful Buckeyes, now playing their best ball, need big W's this weekend.
Michigan State takes the cake for the third time in five years. The Spartans are looking 2015-unstoppable at the moment with Big Ten Player of the Year Denzel Valentine rolling and the past three victories coming by a total of 77 points. Oh, and you know what they say: Don’t bet against Tom Izzo in March.