Commentary

Surprise in store for Big Ten tourney?

Originally Published: March 7, 2012
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

The Big Ten tournament has offered a multitude of surprises in recent seasons.

In 2010, Minnesota reached the title game despite losing its starting point guard midway through the season. Talor Battle led Penn State to a championship game appearance in 2011. Now, in 2012, the Big Ten postseason possesses the ingredients for even more drama.

Northwestern is thisclose to its first NCAA tournament appearance. Iowa has contended with the league's best and could be a sleeper. Bruce Weber might have to win the tournament on Sunday to keep his job.

Here we go …


Top three storylines

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Mike Carter/US PresswireDraymond Green hopes to lead Michigan State to a Big Ten tournament title.

Who's the best? The Big Ten regular season ended with a three-way tie for the conference title. Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State were all impressive for the bulk of the Big Ten slate. But the shared championship left questions about the league's hierarchy. Who's the best? We should find out this weekend. All three teams certainly have a place in the conversation, but if one of the tri-champs walks away with the conference tournament title, then that should settle any lingering arguments stemming from the regular-season finish.

Northwestern's first dance. Maybe the Wildcats are in. Maybe they need another win or two. Regardless, Northwestern are a serious candidate for an at-large slot in the NCAA tournament. Another quality victory would secure the team's first NCAA tournament berth. If they get past Minnesota in the opening round on Thursday, the 7-seed Wildcats will face Michigan on Friday. A victory over the Wolverines could lead to good news on Selection Sunday. A loss to the struggling Gophers in Round 1 might knock the Wildcats out of the field, depending on what happens in the other conference tourneys.

Bruce's last stand. Under Weber, the Illini have enjoyed some highs. During the 2004-05 season, he led the team to an appearance in the national title game. But they haven't achieved that level of success since. After a 6-12 finish in the Big Ten and NCAA tournament hopes that will demand a conference tournament title, all signs point to Weber's exit, so this could be the last time we see Weber on the sideline with the Illini. Two years ago, Iowa's Todd Lickliter was fired following an opening-round loss in the Big Ten tournament. The postgame press conference was quite awkward as Iowa players were forced to respond to rumors about their then-head coach's future. Illini players might have to endure a similar postgame scenario this season.


Five players to watch

Draymond Green: (Michigan State) He's the Big Ten Player of the Year, a star by all accounts who has carried the Spartans all season. The last time Michigan State won the Big Ten tournament was during the 1999-2000 season, which was the same season that it won the national championship. Green could certainly lead the Spartans to their first Big Ten tourney title in more than a decade.

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Mike Carter/US PresswireJared Sullinger is one of the players to keep an eye on in Indy.

Jared Sullinger (Ohio State): His numbers were comparable to Green's (16.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg). And after some struggles in late February, he put together a pair of impressive performances that helped the Buckeyes capture a piece of the Big Ten title (36 points and 28 rebounds combined in back-to-back wins over Northwestern and Michigan State). He's a national Player of the Year candidate for the second consecutive season. And he'll be a force in Indianapolis.

Trey Burke (Michigan): Last summer, Darius Morris decided to take his talents to the NBA. But Wolverines fans didn't panic. The buzz in Ann Arbor centered around an incoming freshman who was expected to excel right away. Well, Burke has not disappointed. He earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors (media) over Indiana's Cody Zeller, who earned the nod from the coaches. Burke was a vital component of Michigan's run to the conference title (14.6 ppg, 4.6 apg). And he'll be a key player in Indianapolis, too.

Robbie Hummel (Purdue): Two seasons ago, Robbie Hummel tore his ACL. Less than a year later, he tore it again and missed the entire 2010-11 season. Yet, he returned this season and wasted little time reminding the country that he hadn't lost his touch (16.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg). He was an all-Big Ten first team selection by both the coaches and the media. It's been a remarkable recovery for Hummel, who will lead the Boilermakers back to the NCAA tournament just two seasons after a devastating injury brought his entire career into question.

John Shurna, Northwestern: Because his team struggled this season, Shurna's performance (he's leading the Big Ten in scoring at 19.8 ppg) has been overlooked nationally. He'll have to carry a tough load in Indianapolis to create history. Northwestern might need a win or two to feel "safe" on Selection Sunday. With Shurna's offensive prowess, the Wildcats could secure a signature victory that locks up the team's first-ever NCAA tournament berth.


Hottest team: For Indiana, the Big Ten tournament will feel like home. Even in the tough years under Tom Crean -- those that followed Kelvin Sampson's scandalous reign -- Hoosiers fans supported their team. They'll arrive in droves to watch an Indiana squad that capped one of the top turnarounds in the country with seven wins in its past eight games (including six victories in the team's last seven Big Ten games). Fueled by the league's top-scoring offense (77.5 ppg), the Hoosiers finished fifth in the Big Ten. And with the momentum they're taking into the conference tournament -- they upset Michigan State in Bloomington, Ind., last week -- they could add another chapter to their comeback story.

Coldest team: You could put Penn State or Nebraska in this spot. But the Illini weren't supposed to finish the season at the bottom of the standings. Not with a potential lottery pick in Meyers Leonard. Not with a talented recruiting class. But the Illini have lost eight of their past nine games and finished the regular season in a tie for ninth with Minnesota, another cold team that botched its spot on the bubble. The Big Ten tourney has been wacky in recent seasons. So you never know. But the Illini have shown few signs of life in recent weeks.

Sleeper pick: For the past two seasons, a 6-seed has played its way into the NCAA tournament by reaching the Big Ten tourney title game. This tournament hasn't had a No. 1 versus No 2 matchup in the championship finale since the 2006-07 season. Northwestern is a 7 seed this season, but the Wildcats have to be as hungry as any team in this field. A run in Indy would guarantee the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament. They have to get past Minnesota team in the first round, a Michigan team that needed overtime in both of its wins over the Wildcats in the second round and an Ohio State squad that they played tough last week (75-73 loss) in order to reach the conference tourney final. But with the history in this tournament and everything that the Wildcats have on the line, they could shock the field and win it.

Potential upset victim: The first time Penn State faced Indiana, the Nittany Lions scored 82 points and played tough in a six-point loss. While they've struggled on the road, they own a neutral-site victory over South Florida. They've played Big Ten teams tough at home all season. If they can duplicate those efforts, they might have a shot against Indiana in the opening round. Tim Frazier (18.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6.3 apg) is Mr. Everything for the Nittany Lions.

Best first-round matchup: Northwestern and Minnesota split their games this season with the Gophers winning in Minneapolis(75-52 on Jan. 22) and Northwestern taking the matchup in Evanston, Ill. (64-53 on Feb. 18). Tubby Smith's squad made a run to the Big Ten tournament title game two seasons ago. Northwestern could use a conference tournament rally to improve its résumé for an-large berth. The Gophers have nothing to lose. The Wildcats could lose everything with a first-round exit. The stakes could make this a the best opening round game in the Big Ten tournament.

Best potential quarterfinal: Purdue and Ohio State battled until the final minute during the Buckeyes' 87-84 win over the Boilermakers on Feb. 7. The two teams will meet again in the Big Ten tourney quarterfinals if the Boilermakers beat Nebraska in the first round. Purdue is one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country (37 percent), and it was 11-for-19 from beyond the arc in that loss to Ohio State in Columbus. William Buford's 29 points and clutch plays in the closing minutes were too much for the Boilermakers to overcome. A second meeting between the two this season could be classic.

Pick: Ohio State.

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN.