Indiana aims for Big Ten double

Originally Published: March 13, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

At this point, the 2013 Big Ten is like caffeine, or wholesale lanyard orders at SXSW: It sells itself.

In October, we all expected this to be the best league in the country, and it hasn't come remotely close to disappointing us.

[+] EnlargeJordan Morgan
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIndiana's narrow win against Michigan to claim the Big Ten title was a fitting finale to what was an eventful regular season.

With few exceptions, an inordinate number of the best and most exciting games of the season have taken place in one of the Big Ten's 12 arenas, and the regular season ended in perhaps the most fitting fashion possible -- with Indiana and Michigan trading late buckets Sunday, a game ultimately decided by Jordan Morgan's oh-so-close roll off the rim on the final play of the season.

Thanks to that win, and a campaign that set the Hoosiers apart even from the best league in the country, Indiana will enter the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA field as a No. 1 seed, and undoubtedly the league's most obvious shot at a return to the Final Four (and its first national title in 13 seasons).

Still, you don't get to have people call you the best league in the country for four months with absolutely zero argument to the contrary without going deeper than just one team, and so the Big Ten does: Michigan wields the best point guard (and arguably the best player) in the country in Trey Burke; Michigan State has the look of a vintage Tom Izzo title contender; Ohio State is playing some of the best defense in the country; and Wisconsin almost always seems to close out close games.

When hot, Illinois can beat anyone in the country (including Gonzaga at Gonzaga); when focused, Minnesota is every bit as dangerous. Iowa, which began the season still in rebuilding mode, plays some of the toughest (and most underrated) defense in the country, and finished .500 in the league. Even a team like Purdue -- which at times played some of the ugliest hoops in the league this season -- is capable of big things in spurts, like its out-of-nowhere win at Wisconsin last week.

Combining all of these variously talented squads yielded some truly great basketball games, and even a handful of classics, from January to March. There's no reason to expect anything less from four days in the United Center.

Indeed, with all of these teams and their fans under one roof for one weekend, we may yet -- hard as it is to imagine -- see the Big Ten's best.

Top three storylines

Can Minnesota get it together?

All things considered, we've seen enough of Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin to know exactly what to expect from them as they fan out across the country next week. All are very good but flawed in distinct ways. Beyond the possibility to provide thrilling hoops, I'm not super interested in that quintet.

No, I'm much more interested in the teams about which I have questions, and that list truly begins with the Minnesota Gophers.

Minnesota began the season 15-1, played in the toughest exempt tournament (the Battle 4 Atlantis) in the country, earned some solid wins and some very tidy RPI and strength of schedule numbers and was frequently considered among the 10 or 15 best teams in the country.

Since the Gophers visited Indiana back on Jan. 12, however, they've been a disaster. They went 5-10 in their final 15 conference games, including back-to-back final-week losses to Nebraska and Purdue -- the latter of which came by 16 points.

When the Gophers are locked in, when they avoid turnovers and rebound their own misses (which they do better than any team in the country) and play even passable defense, they're a matchup nightmare for plenty of teams. When they're unfocused, which is apparently 75 percent of the time, they're average at best.

They aren't exactly fighting for their tournament lives this time around, but they are fighting to take something positive into March, and it will be very interesting to see if they can finally get it together.

Can Iowa make the tournament?

Iowa is probably the only source of real bubble intrigue heading into the Big Ten tournament. The Hawkeyes are a bit of a fringe bubble team at this point, thanks in large part to their horrid nonconference schedule, but they aren't totally out of it; a 9-9 record in this league will get you a look from the committee, ugly nonconference or not.

The Hawkeyes obviously have to beat Northwestern in the first round Thursday, which would set them up for a possible -- if not definite -- do-or-die bid game against Michigan State on Friday afternoon.

Iowa has some nice young pieces, an excellent coach in Fran McCaffery and a top-20 efficiency defense. This isn't a moon shot. It's a realistic, if challenging, goal. Now the Hawkeyes just have to get it done.

Can Indiana sweep the league?

The biggest recurring theme in this Big Ten postseason is whether the league can translate its undeniably impressive regular-season success into NCAA tournament success (thus quieting the predictable bleats of "overrated!" from basically every other league in the country).

[+] EnlargeZeller
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsIndiana was the team standing above the rest after the Big Ten's regular season marathon. How will the Hoosiers manage the final sprint in Chicago?

We'll have plenty of time to talk about that. But what about this: What if Indiana wins both the outright Big Ten regular-season title and the Big Ten conference tournament? Would that be more impressive an accomplishment than making the Final Four? And if not, why not?

We tend to devalue regular-season performance this time of year; we tend to forget that an 18-game sample size is probably a better judge of a team's overall ability than we give it credit for.

What Indiana did in this season's Big Ten really was impressive. Tossing a conference tournament title atop this already excellent season would have to at least start the conversation, right?

Five players to watch

Trey Burke, Michigan

The just-crowned Big Ten Player of the Year -- and maybe still the favorite to win the national awards, though it is growing more difficult to argue with Otto Porter's candidacy by the day -- is an asset any time he takes the court.

Well, duh: Burke is one of the most efficient scorers in the game, a dual jump shot and penetration threat, who also posted a top-20 assist rate and basically makes everything about the Michigan offense go.

But Burke is particularly special in a tournament format, when shooters get tight and games break down and become half-court affairs. Not only is he capable of getting his shot against almost anyone, but he's an unflappable presence. His value in March can't possibly be overstated.

Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about Minnesota's apparently apathetic slide into mediocrity these past six weeks is the fact the Gophers are led -- or should be, that is -- by a likeable-despite-it-all sixth-year senior who fought his way back from a torn ACL and a litany of regrettable personal decisions to take one final crack at college hoops glory. The rest of the Gophers are veteran, too; you'd think they'd be making the most of this incredibly promising campaign.

In any case, when Mbakwe is engaged on the low block, there isn't a player in the country who can keep him off the offensive glass. And while it is unfair to put too much at just one player's feet, Mbakwe really does have the ability to swing the Gophers' season mentally, emotionally and tangibly, too.

Victor Oladipo, Indiana

Not only is Oladipo one of the nation's best defenders -- when you win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award in a league with Aaron Craft, you are officially doing something right -- he is also one of its most efficient and opportunistic scorers and one of its most tireless rebounders.

But even better? He fits the "players to watch" category perfectly, because to appreciate him fully, you really do have to watch.

The Victor Oladipo Experience is can't-miss stuff -- even when he misses.

Cody Zeller, Indiana

You hate to devote two of these slots to one team, but it would be unfair to Zeller to mention Oladipo and not also include the Hoosiers' ever-steady big man. Oladipo has played his way into the collective hoops consciousness this season, often dwarfing Zeller in the popular imagination, to the point where the preseason player of the year has almost become -- dare I say it -- underrated.

Zeller reminded everyone what he's capable of with his 25-point, 10-rebound performance at Michigan, and if he plays at that level consistently for the next three weeks, look out.

Keith Appling, Michigan State

[+] EnlargeAppling
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsThe level of Keith Appling's confidence is a key indicator of Michigan State's success.

Make no mistake: Appling is not the Spartans' most talented player; that would be freshman guard Gary Harris.

He's not the Spartans' most exciting player; that would be the suddenly 3-point-firing, out-of-the-gym-jumping Adreian Payne.

He is not the Spartans' most endearing player; that would be Derrick Nix.

But Appling is, without question, Michigan State's most important player. When he has struggled this season -- in both games against Indiana, or in the final minutes at Michigan -- the Spartans have lost not only his production but his confidence, and all of the areas of the game (secondary break transition decision-making, defense) that confidence bleeds into.

Michigan State has the pieces to win the Big Ten tournament and make a very deep run in the Dance. But the Spartans need Appling to be good, if not great.

Hottest team: Ohio State

For most of the season, the Buckeyes were a very good defensive team limited by their inability to find someone besides triple threat Deshaun Thomas to get buckets.

Since Feb. 20, they haven't merely been good defensively. They've been one of the best defensive teams in the country, holding five opponents -- Minnesota, Michigan State, (at) Northwestern, (at) Indiana and Illinois -- to just .87 points per trip. All of those games were wins.

The Indiana win featured probably the best defensive performance of the season by any team, especially considering IU's No. 1-ranked offense. When you guard like that, suddenly a second featured scorer doesn't seem like such a big deal after all.

(Bonus points here go to Purdue, which struggled for vast swaths of a rebuilding season but ended by winning at Wisconsin, losing by five to Michigan and dominating Minnesota. I'm not sure any coach in the league would relish playing the Boilermakers right now.)

Coldest team: Northwestern

The Wildcats were wracked by injuries early (Drew Crawford) and late (Jared Swopshire) in this campaign, and predictably suffered eight straight losses down the stretch.

Of the non-obvious choices, Minnesota certainly qualifies -- outside of that win at Indiana, the Gophers haven't looked truly good in months -- and Wisconsin, which saw its once-surging offense cool off in losses to Purdue (March 3) and Michigan State (March 7).

Sleeper pick: Iowa

Even if the Hawkeyes weren't playing for their NCAA tournament lives, they'd be the ideal sleeper for this league, because (A) they've never been as bad as you probably think, (B) they've only gotten better in recent weeks and (C) they really do guard.

If they can force Michigan State into a grinding defensive battle (which is a little like coaxing a Labrador into a park full of freshly de-canned tennis balls), anything can happen.

Potential upset victim: Michigan

It is profoundly weird to consider that, but two reasons:

1. The Wolverines have already lost to Penn State once this season, and were played closely by the Nittany Lions in Ann Arbor previously.

2. I don't think there's any way Northwestern beats Iowa (famous last words), and I'm not sure Nebraska over Purdue counts as an upset.

Michigan gets the call here for first-round matchups, but only by default.

Best first-round matchup: Illinois-Minnesota, no question. One team that needs to be hot to beat you, another that needs to be prodded into consciousness. Anything could happen.

Best potential quarterfinal: Michigan-Wisconsin, also no question. The Wolverines' closer-than-close loss to Indiana on Sunday not only cost them a share of the Big Ten title, it also relegated them to the No. 5 seed, setting up a really good quarterfinal matchup with fourth-seeded Wisconsin.

Pick: Ohio State. Indiana is the favorite and for good reason, but for as blindingly intense as Tom Crean is, the Hoosiers have bigger fish to fry this month. No team is hotter, or defending better, than the Buckeyes.