Throw the names of all 14 Big Ten schools into a hat, shake it up and pick two. That probably would end up just as accurate as well-thought out predictions of which teams will play in the Big Ten tournament championship game Sunday in Washington, D.C.
One or two upsets occur nearly every year in the conference tournament. This March feels different. In fact, the only reason top-four seeds Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland and Minnesota are guaranteed not to lose in the first two rounds Wednesday and Thursday is they don’t play until Friday.
The Boilermakers, who won the Big Ten title outright, lost to Nebraska this season, the No. 12 seed. Big Ten player of the year Caleb Swanigan struggled in the upset against the Cornhuskers, shooting 5-for-15 from the field and committing four turnovers. If Swanigan isn’t on his game, Purdue is vulnerable to get knocked off right away Friday.
The second-seeded Badgers and third-seeded Terrapins combined for 10 losses in February and early March, including three consecutive losses each before bouncing back just before the end of the regular season. Will those problems from their recent slides resurface?
Richard Pitino’s team was the hottest Big Ten team until Wisconsin halted Minnesota’s eight-game winning streak Sunday. Pitino believes his team can win the championship but said if the Gophers play like they did in a 17-point loss in Madison, it will be a “quick exit” in D.C. The lowest seed to ever win the Big Ten tournament was sixth-seeded Iowa in 2001. Only two double-digit seeds have made the final, Illinois as a No. 11 in 1999 and again as a No. 10 in 2008. That could change this weekend.
Penn State is the coldest team entering the tournament with five losses in a row. But if the Nittany Lions can get past Nebraska in the opening round, they’re arguably the double-digit seed most capable of making a run.
The pressure is seemingly off Penn State coach Pat Chambers, after he was given a vote of confidence by his athletic director to return next season. Chambers’ fearsome freshmen trio of Tony Carr, Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens led his team to upsets over Michigan State, Minnesota, Illinois twice and Maryland this year. The Nittany Lions only lost to Purdue and Michigan by a combined seven points.
No. 5 seed Michigan State probably would rather see the Cornhuskers than Penn State in the second round, since it swept them this season. The Spartans, who are trying to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997, would be confident in a potential quarterfinal matchup with the Gophers. They beat Minnesota twice in the regular season, including by 18 in East Lansing.
Two teams most desperate for wins to get into the NCAA tournament are No. 7 seed Iowa and No. 9 seed Illinois. The Hawkeyes and Illini have combined to win eight of their past nine games. Higher seeds beware if they have to face Illinois’ Malcolm Hill or Iowa’s Peter Jok. Both had 40-point games this year.
When Selection Sunday arrives, it wouldn’t be surprising if at least one of those bubble teams played itself into the Big Dance with a run to Sunday’s final. It’s been that kind of year for a conference that has been taking a beating for months on social media for being down. Simply put: No Big Ten team stands out.
Let the Madness begin a little early in D.C.