Thursday, March 9, 2006

Big Ten Conference Tournament Preview

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The Big Ten Conference, after being considered "down" the past couple of years, was the #1 RPI conference in the country. They had a title race that had five or six teams with the potential to win it at some point in the season. In the end, Ohio State took the championship at 12-4, finishing one game ahead of Illinois and Iowa. Wisconsin was in the mix until the stretch run, while Indiana was in contention early. At the midseason mark, Michigan was in first, and, of course, Michigan State is always competitive. In other words, the conference is wide-open and there are several teams capable of winning the title.


Ohio State's success came a year earlier than expected as they won the regular-season title by winning nine of their last ten. Terence Dials won the Big Ten Player of the Year award; he is a load to stop in the paint. Je'Kel Foster is one of the best shooters in the country, while Jamar Butler is a very solid all-around point guard. J.J. Sullinger is an underrated player and could play a big role in March. Ron Lewis is an athletic wing that can score in bunches coming off the bench, while Matt Sylvester is an inside-outside threat up front.

Illinois has stayed at the top of the rankings all season long even with all the losses from a year ago. They have won five of their last six and are playing very solid basketball. Dee Brown is one of the best and most exciting players in the country, while James Augustine is one of the better big men in the nation. They form a great inside-outside combo. Rich McBride is an excellent shooter from long-range, and Brian Randle is a very good all-around player at the forward spot. Jamar Smith is another outstanding three-point shooter, and Warren Carter is athletic and verstatile. Shaun Pruitt is improving down low.


Iowa got the #2 seed in the tournament, but could have won the league if they knew how to win on the road. The Hawkeyes were undefeated at home, but struggled on the road. They have arguably the second-best trio in the conference. Greg Brunner is a bruiser down low and he averages nearly a double-double per game. Adam Haluska is a very good scorer, while Jeff Horner is a solid long-range shooter and an underrated passer. Mike Henderson is a decent all-around player, while Erek Hansen uses his height and length to rack up blocked shots. Doug Thomas is an athletic rebounding force.

Michigan State is a team that most people think can just turn it on and win games when it becomes important. I am not one of those people, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Spartans make a run in the tournament. They own possibly the best trio in the country. Shannon Brown is one of the best players in the conference, and might be the best dunker around. Maurice Ager is a very good scorer, both driving to the basket and shooting the ball. Paul Davis is one of the top big men in the nation, and can dominate games. Drew Neitzel is a capable point guard, while Matt Trannon and Goran Suton are decent forwards.

Wisconsin was looking like a possible Final Four sleeper a month ago and then they decided to go 5-8 in their final 13 games, including losses to North Dakota State, Northwestern, and Purdue. However, they are still a solid team. Alando Tucker is one of the best scorer in the country, and he finds ways to get baskets using his impeccable body control. Kammron Taylor is a good scoring point guard, while Brian Butch has a lot of potential down low. Ray Nixon is a versatile wing player who can score inside and out, and Michael Flowers is a solid guard. Jason Chappell is a serviceable big man.

Indiana made a big-time run late in the season by winning their final four games to save their season and get some momentum heading into the postseason. Marco Killingsworth is a beast down low who can dominate a game at times. Robert Vaden is a versatile all-around forward who can pass the ball, drive to the basket, and shoot the three. Marshall Strickland is a terrific three-point shooter that can stretch the defense. Roderick Wilmont is an athletic wing that can score and rebound. Earl Calloway and A.J. Ratliff are solid contributors, while Errek Suhr is a very good shooter and Lewis Monroe can run the show. Ben Allen is an inside-outside threat in the post.


Penn State has played possibly the Big Ten's most difficult in-conference schedule, and finally put themselves on the map with a road win over Illinois, something no team had done in over 30 games. They then followed that up with a home win over Indiana and a road victory at Purdue. With only one senior in their rotation, the Nittany Lions could be a sleeper next season, but don't sleep on them this year just yet. Minnesota came into the season with high expectations after last year's NCAA berth. Six straight losses to open the Big Ten season was not the start they were looking for in conference play, but the Gophers have turned it around. UM had won four of six, including victories over Indiana, Michigan State, and Iowa, before dropping their final three games. Vincent Grier is very difficult to stop one on one, while Maurice Hargrow and Adam Boone combine with him for a talented perimeter trio. Although they have not proven they can beat a good team on the road, I would not overlook Minnesota.

Prediction: There is not one particular "team to beat" heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Ohio State comes in as the favorite as a result of their regular-season title, but they are certainly no cinch to win the championship, or even get to the championship game. The inconsistency of most of the Big Ten teams makes it difficult to predict. Michigan State could randomly become a Final Four contender tomorrow, while Indiana could revert back to their midseason ways as well. However, I'm going to go with Ohio State. They have great inside-outside balance, and have a plethora of shooters that can hit the three. Illinois lacks a third scorer and Iowa has not shown they can win away from home, which makes me weary of those two teams. The other three contenders are too up and down for me to pick them. The Buckeyes get in the mix for a #1 seed by winning the Big Ten Tournament.

Game-by-game predictions:
#8 Penn State 67, #9 Northwestern 62
#6 Michigan State 81, #11 Purdue 68
#7 Michigan 72, #10 Minnesota 65

#1 Ohio State 74, #8 Penn State 60
#5 Indiana 71, #4 Wisconsin 68
#3 Illinois 73, #6 Michigan 69
#2 Iowa 66, #7 Michigan 61

#1 Ohio State 75, #5 Indiana 69
#3 Illinois 65, #2 Iowa 58

#1 Ohio State 70, #3 Illinois 67

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