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The Big Ten Conference was constantly underrated by the nation during non-conference play, and many did not think they were headed for more than four berths come Selection Sunday. However, with the regular-season completed and the Big Ten ranked No. 2 in the RPI and headed for potentially eight bids to the NCAA Tournament, the league is starting to get some respect. Michigan State won the conference at 15-3, while Purdue and Illinois finished tied for second at 11-7. Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State went 10-8, with Minnesota and Michigan finishing 9-9.
Favorite: Michigan State came into the season as a potential Final Four threat, and the Spartans have shown flashes of that throughout the season – but not consistently. Tom Izzo has a load of talent on his hands, led by ultra-quick point guard Kalin Lucas and versatile forward Raymar Morgan, who battled walking pneumonia for several weeks. Goran Suton is a solid inside player, while Durrell Summers and Chris Allen provide scoring from the perimeter. Travis Walton is an outstanding defender and leader, and forward Delvon Roe has a lot of potential.
Contenders: Purdue had a chance to make a run at Michigan State for the league crown, but the Boilermakers lost three of their final four games to end the season. They were also inconsistent throughout the conference campaign, mainly because of a lingering back injury to Robbie Hummel, who had to sit out several games as a result. However, when he is healthy, this team is solid. E’Twaun Moore is a very good scorer who can also rebound and pass, while JaJuan Johnson has developed into a go-to option down low and a shot-blocker defensively. Keaton Grant is a leader and Chris Kramer is a standout defender. Illinois had won five of six before losing its final two games of the season, to Michigan State and Penn State. The Fighting Illini are outstanding defensively, but struggle at times to score (witness their 32-point effort against Penn State). Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale anchor the interior, with both players solid double-figure scorers. Demetri McCamey can create his own shot off the bounce and also create for his teammates. Chester Frazier is one of the better defenders in the country and a very underrated point guard.
Sleeper: The talk of Northwestern being on the bubble ended almost as quickly as it started, with the Wildcats losing at Ohio State on the final day of the season. However, don’t count this team out from making a run in Indianapolis. Kevin Coble is one of the best inside-outside scorers in the league, and can put Northwestern on his back. Furthermore, he is complemented on the perimeter by Craig Moore, who can get hot from three-point range. Michael Thompson is a solid point guard.
Prediction: The Big Ten tournament is going to be one of the most-watched ones in the country, due to the multitude of bubble teams and NCAA Tournament implications. The first-round game between Minnesota and Northwestern is a must-win for the Golden Gophers, while Michigan and Penn State also can’t afford losses to Iowa and Indiana, respectively. Wisconsin and Ohio State would lock up a bid with a win in their quarterfinal match-up. Once the bubble talk is settled, though, I think we’re going to see Michigan State and Purdue in the title game, with the Spartans coming out on top thanks to their balance and versatility. Expect a No. 1 seed for Michigan State.
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