Thursday, March 13, 2008

Big Ten Conference Tournament Preview

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The Big Ten Conference was the worst of the power conferences this season, and by a decent margin. It had a clear-cut top-four and featured a decent conference race, but the bottom of the league – five teams were below .500 overall – was horrendous. At the top, Wisconsin won the conference, going 16-2 and finishing one game ahead of surprise Purdue. Indiana and Michigan State followed behind the top two. Ohio State was the only other team to finish above .500 in league play.

Favorite: Even though it might not be the most talented team in the league, or the team that jumps out at you at paper, Wisconsin has to come into the conference tournament as the favorite. The Badgers lost just two games in conference play, both to Purdue, and are playing their best basketball of the season. They are very balanced, with Brian Butch and Marcus Landry anchoring the frontcourt, and Trevon Hughes and Michael Flowers the prime players on the perimeter. Jason Bohannon can really shoot the ball, while Joe Krabbenhoft does a little of everything.

Contenders: There are certainly teams poised to take Wisconsin’s throne at the top of the conference. Chief among them could be the team that beat the Badgers twice already: Purdue. The Boilermakers are very young and relatively inexperienced, but they have a lot of talent and create match-up problems. In the backcourt, E’Twaun Moore is the top threat, while Chris Kramer is a force defensively with his physical play. Keaton Grant can also score. Freshman Robbie Hummel is one of the best players in the conference, while Scott Martin can do a variety of things. Indiana might have the two best players in the league in guard Eric Gordon and big man D.J. White – but the Hoosiers have been inconsistent at times this season and don’t seem like they have the focus to win the conference tourney. Still, with Gordon and White on your side, anything can happen. Throw in gunner Armon Bassett and do-it-all freshmen Jordan Crawford and Jamarcus Ellis, and this team has the talent to take on anyone. Lance Stemler is a decent inside-outside threat up front. Going into the season, I thought that Michigan State was going to win the Big Ten and make a legitimate run at the Final Four. However, the Spartans have been missing something all season, usually their offense. They are just 5-5 in their last 10 games. Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan form one of the best duos in the conference, although Neitzel has taken a step back since last season. Freshman Kalin Lucas has really stepped up lately, and is going to be a star one day. Goran Suton leads the way down low; he is an underrated rebounder.

Sleeper: Considering the bottom half of the league is awful, the pickings for a sleeper are extremely slim. So I’m going to go with Minnesota, who finished in sixth. The Golden Gophers seemed poised for an at-large bid earlier in the Big Ten season, but the tight defeats soon began to pile up and a 2-4 start was too much to overcome for an NCAA bid. Lawrence McKenzie and freshman Blake Hoffarber are outstanding three-point shooters, while Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson form a very solid frontcourt duo. Minnesota plays very good defense, forcing turnovers all over the court.

Prediction: The Big Ten has been a major disappointment this season, and I think it is going to continue in the NCAA Tournament. Each of the top-four teams in the league has flaws and could be exploited in the first weekend of the Big Dance. However, that is still a week away – expect a competitive and unpredictable semifinals and finals of the conference tourney. It is almost like process of elimination that I came to my projected winner: Michigan State is too inconsistent away from home; Indiana is not focused enough to win three straight; and Purdue is too young. That leaves Wisconsin, which might be the least talented of the big four – but also the best. The Badgers get the auto-bid.

First Round
#9 Michigan over #8 Iowa
#6 Minnesota over #11 Northwestern
#10 Illinois over #7 Penn State

#1 Wisconsin over #9 Michigan
#4 Michigan State over #5 Ohio State
#3 Indiana over #6 Minnesota
#2 Purdue over #10 Illinois

#1 Wisconsin over #4 Michigan State
#3 Indiana over #2 Purdue

#1 Wisconsin over #3 Indiana

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