Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Conference Tournament Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Tournament - Indianapolis - Thursday-Sunday

Storylines: All year long, this has essentially been a four team race for the top. Wisconsin came out ahead at 16-2 thanks to the ridiculous unbalanced Big Ten schedule where they only had to play Indiana and Michigan State once each. Purdue was the surprise of the conference. Nobody expected anything from the Baby Boilers, let alone a 15-3 regular season. Indiana spent the second half of the season dealing with the Kelvin Sampson scandal and subsequent resignation, and finished shaky. They are the #3 seed at 14-4. Michigan State couldn't win on the road, but looked incredible at home. They won only one of their last six road games. Unfortunately for them, the tournament isn't played in East Lansing. After Ohio State, the rest of the teams are bottom feeders.

The first round games are snooze-fests. The Noon tip Thursday is #8 Iowa vs. #9 Michigan. Talk about a game devoid of talent. Iowa is led by guards Tony Freeman and Justin Johnson. In their last eight games, the Hawkeyes are 2-6, with both wins coming against Northwestern. Will the Michigan basketball program ever recover? Coach John Beilin had a tough first year, finishing 9-21 with losses to such powerhouses as Harvard, Central Michigan, and Northwestern. They do have a nice young talent in Freshman Guard Manny Harris, their leading scorer at 16.4 per game.

Up next is the completely unwatchable #7 Penn State/#10 Illinois tilt. Poor Bruce Weber. I guess this is what your program looks like when Bill Self isn't around to recruit talent for you. 13-18 and a 10th place conference finish is a far cry from the days of Deron Williams and Dee Brown. Penn State meanwhile comes in on a high after upsetting Indiana Sunday. Give Ed Dechellis credit: he is doing it without his top two players who are lost for the season with injuries (Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley).

The finale pits #6 Minnesota against #11 Northwestern. Tubby Smith did a nice job in his first year in obscurity. His Gophers finished a respectable 8-10 in the Big Ten and 18-12 overall. Seniors Dan Coleman, Lawrence McKenzie, and Spencer Tollackson really took to their new coach. Freshman three-point shooter Blake Hoffarber showed a lot of promise, averaging nine a game off the bench and hitting 44% from deep. As for Northwestern, what can you really say about a team that one only one game in a bad Big Ten other than their season will be over soon?

The quarters will feature the rematch from Sunday: #5 Ohio State vs. #4 Michigan State. The Buckeyes are sweating even harder now that San Diego snagged a bid that would have gone to an at large team. For the Buckeyes to win, they will have to pound the post with Freshman Kosta Koufos and hope it opens up shots the way it did for Jamar Butler and David Lighty in OSU's win in the season finale. That day Lighty was a perfect 5-5 from the floor and Butler had 20. Freshman Three-point specialist Jon Diebler will also be counted on to hit his shots. There isn't much depth in the post behind Koufos and Othello Hunter, so staying out of foul trouble will be big. The Spartans need to get more consistency from Senior Guard Drew Neitzel. He was preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and literally fell off the face of the earth. It's probably the same reason the Spartans struggled in conference play. When he doesn't play well, the Spartans usual lose. Raymar Morgan is a singular talent, but he too has the tendency to fade in and out. The guy to watch for Michigan State is Freshman PG Kalin Lucas. He has cat-like quickness and is the team's spark. When he gets going, the rest of the team responds. They get little in the post from a bevy of players like Drew Naymick, Goran Suton, and Marquise Gray.

Then we move to the to three seeds. #1 Wisconsin gets the Iowa/Michigan winner and should have no trouble. Bo Ryan's got his team playing well again behind Senior Center Brian Butch and Sophomore Guard Trevon Hughes. This is a team full of role players, and they have perhaps the ultimate glue guy in Joe Krabbenhoft. He does it all and his teammates love him for it. We are sure the Badgers want another crack at Purdue in the finals. The Boilers swept the Badgers this year, their only two conference losses. First they'll have to beat the Michigan State/Ohio State winner.

Speaking of the #2 Purdue Boilermakers, they will dispatch of either Penn State or Illinois Friday. Matt Painter is a lock for Big Ten Coach of the Year and must have had a fun time watching his young team develop. Freshman Robbie Hummel is a matchup nightmare for wing players in this league. At 6-8 he is too big for guards and too quick for big man. Another Frosh, E'Twaun Moore, is their leading scorer, and Sophomore Chris Kramer is the straw that stirs their drink. Watch for our favorite left off the bench, Scott Martin. Our boy loves to jack threes.

Sitting in the #3 spot is Indiana. The Hoosiers may have the best talent of any team in the Big Ten with All-Big Ten Eric Gordon in the backcourt and D.J. White up front. White, our runaway choice for Big Ten player of the year, is the leader of the team and the one who has kept them sane throughout this tumultuous time. Interim Coach must get this team to play hard for him. It seems as though they have sulked their way through the games he has coached. Jarmarcus Ellis is expected back from his suspension for violating team rules. He is a key piece. Jordan Crawford also must play under control for the Hoosiers to win this tournament. It also helps when the games will be played 45 minutes from campus.

Best Quarterfinal Matchup

#4 Michigan State vs. #5 Ohio State - Really, the other games look like duds compared to this one. The Buckeyes are trying to fight their way off the bubble and a second win over Michigan State in less than a week could really help them. The Spartans are trying to regain their lost magic from early in the season.

Juiciest Potential Matchup

#1 Wisconsin vs. #2 Purdue or #3 Indiana - Tough call on this one, but consider this: Wisconsin beat Indiana on a bank-shot three by Brian Butch in Bloomington in their only meeting while Purdue handed Wisconsin both of it's losses in conference. Either way, we win with a final featuring a combo of these teams.

Players To Watch:

Armon Bassett, Indiana - While Eric Gordon gets all the publicity, the best shooter the Hoosiers have is the Sophomore from Terre Haute. He must play big for the Hoosiers to get past Purdue and make their way to the finals.

Drew Neitzel, Michigan State - Does the Senior Guard realize his career is coming to an end and his NBA stock is at a three year low? He is averaging over five points a game less than he was last year. Time for him to wake up.

Robbie Hummel, Purdue - When he wants to be, he is an unstoppable force. If Hummel plays that way for three straight games, the Boilers could take home the gold trophy.

Michael Flowers, Wisconsin - He runs a very controlled point for the Badgers and that must continue during this tournament. Plus, as a Senior, this is his last rodeo for his hometown team.

Jamar Butler, Ohio State - As Butler's game goes, so go the Buckeyes. He has had games this year where he has dropped 30, and others where he has been shut out. The Senior has been here before, he just needs to shine now that the pressure is on him and his club.


First Round

#8 Iowa 56 #9 Michigan 52

#7 Penn State 65 #10 Illinois 50

#6 Minnesota 61 #11 Northwestern 49


#1 Wisconsin 77 #8 Iowa 59

#4 Michigan State 66 #5 Ohio State 65

#2 Purdue 70 #7 Penn State 65

#3 Indiana 64 #6 Minnesota 61


#1 Wisconsin 68 #4 Michigan State 67

#3 Indiana 70 #2 Purdue 68


#3 Indiana 69 #1 Wisconsin 64

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