How will the Big Ten fare in the NCAA Tournament?
“The Big Ten was bad this year. No way around the truth.”
– Bracketography’s David Mihm on Selection Sunday.
Lost in all the Selection Sunday madness was any discussion of the Big Ten. And, because of the questionable season the entire conference put together, maybe the lack of discussion was warranted.
That said, only four Big Ten teams – the correct number – made the Field of 65; And, just one – Wisconsin – found itself as a protected seed. The NCAA Selection Committee obviously found the Big Ten to be an extremely flawed conference this season when the regular season and conference tournament champion was regulated to a No. 3 seed.
While the Big Ten, top to bottom, was the worst BCS conference this season, the top four teams could stack up with the top four in any other conference. But, because of the conference’s weakness, the Selection Committee has the Big Ten projected to do the following, at least according to their seeding: win four first round games and one second round game.
But this article isn’t meant to trade blows with the Selection Committee, because this year’s group put together arguably the best field in NCAA Tournament history based on the circumstances. (Other than Wisconsin, which probably deserved a No. 2 seed, no other Big Ten team can complain about its placement in the field. And, while Wisconsin is a No. 3 seed, the Badgers, if they win their first two games, will play the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds at Ford Field in Detroit).
The projections listed at the end of each team capsule, totaled together, would add up to a 7-4 record for Big Ten teams, which isn’t too shabby. That record, of course, could be much worse (0-4) or could end up being much better, say (11-4). Now we just get to sit and watch.
Here is a look at what to expect from Big Ten teams this postseason:
Wisconsin (29-4, Midwest No. 3 seed) – The Badgers are stealing a little phrase that Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis coined: “Just win babq!” Seriously, the Badgers just don’t seem to lose games they are supposed to win. And, games they are “supposed” to lose usually end with a victory. Wisconsin’s only losses this year are a season-sweep by Purdue, a loss at Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and a home loss to Marquette in an annual Wisconsin state battle. That’s it. It’s arguably Wisconsin’s unique motion offense that gives opponents fits, but one would assume Big Ten competition would have an answer for it now. Still, Wisconsin rolled through the conference this season to a tune of 16 regular season wins plus three more in the conference tournament. That includes two wins over Michigan State and another two over Indiana.
The road to a Final Four will be much tougher, however. The Badgers’ first round opponent – Cal-State Fullerton – shouldn’t provide much of a challenge.
Possible second round foes – the USC Trojans or Kansas State Wildcats would give the Badgers a little trouble with their athleticism (especially the Trojans) but it isn’t as if Wisconsin hasn’t played athletic teams this season (see 67-66 win at Texas). I don’t see either USC or Kansas State knocking off the Badgers.
That leaves Wisconsin with Georgetown as a likely Sweet 16 opponent. Both teams pride themselves on defense so this game will be won in the 50s. Georgetown has more talent, but so do most of Wisconsin’s opponents. The Hoyas also seem vulnerable when the 3-point shots aren’t falling, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see Davidson or Gonzaga knock off the Hoyas in the second round. In all three scenarios, Wisconsin should advance to the Elite Eight, although beating Georgetown will be the most difficult task.
There is one team in this region the Badgers will have significant problems with – Kansas. The Jayhawks are obviously the most talented team in the country with six players that can single-handedly carry Kansas to a victory. In this matchup, Wisconsin won’t be able to slow the Jayhawks down, and Kansas wins by double figures. The onlyway Wisconsin reaches the Final Four is if either Vanderbilt or Clemson knock off the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16 round.
Projected Run: Elite Eight
LAST 5 NCAA TOURNAMENTS
2007 – No. 2 seed; Lost in second round to No. 7 UNLV
2006 – No. 9 seed; Lost in first round to No. 8 Arizona
2005 – No. 6 seed; Lost in Elite Eight to No. 1 (and eventual champ) North Carolina
2004 – No. 6 seed; Lost in second round to No. 3 Pittsburgh
2003 – No. 5 seed; Lost in Sweet 16 to No. 1 Kentucky
Michigan State (25-8, South No. 5 seed) – The Jekyll-and-Hyde Spartans are making their 11th-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the fifth longest active streak in the country. The last time MSU was on the No. 5 line (2005), the Spartans advanced to the Final Four. That, of course, was a different team with different matchups along the way. But the biggest issue many people have with this year’s version of the Spartans is the inconsistency. For a team that had Final Four aspirations at the start of the year, here is what Spartan fans likely thought many times this season: “We’re up by six with five minutes to go… how will we lose this game.” And, sure enough, the Spartans coughed up a handful of games they should have won because poise and toughness disappeared down the stretch. MSU led UCLA by five with a few minutes to play. UCLA scored the game’s final 10 points to win; In the Big Ten Tournament semifinal, Michigan State led Wisconsin by 12 with eight minutes to play. Wisconsin won 65-63 thanks to a late-game steal and lay-up. It is these instances that make people leery about the Spartans, but it is the big-time wins (N-BYU, N-Texas, Indiana, Purdue) that make people think twice about picking against Michigan State.
The first round game against Temple, believe it or not, doesn’t look that difficult for the Spartans. Yes, Temple won the A-10 Tournament and finished second during the regular season, but the Owls’ numbers don’t put a scare into most teams. As far as efficiency goes, the Owls are 43rd in the country offensively and 97th defensively (The Spartans are 15th and 26th, respectively). That should give the Spartans a significant edge, especially when Temple has the ball (MSU held Marquette to 31.9 percent shooting in last year’s NCAA Tournament). Unless it goes cold, MSU should win this game by double figures.
The second round matchup is where the going gets tough. Most people assume Pittsburgh, the Big East Tournament Champions, will beat Oral Roberts in the first round, though I anticipate that game being closer than most think. But, much like a projected Wisconsin-Georgetown matchup, the first team to score 50 points in the MSU-Pitt game will be the victor. Both teams have toughness, though Pittsburgh seems to have a little more. I think this game comes down to free throw shooting in the final minutes and that is where the Panthers struggle. Michigan State, on the other hand, shoots in the mid-70s from the stripe. This game honestly could go either way. For arguments sake (and just to provide a look at a possible MSU-Memphis matchup), we’ll say the Spartans advance.
If the Spartans happened to advance past the Panthers, a matchup with Memphis would be the team’s final tournament game. While the Tigers are the worst teams in the country at free throw shooting, that will only matter if the Spartans are fouling in the final minutes, attempting a major comeback. Memphis’ athleticism is too much for Tom Izzo’s team. This is the deepest the Spartans should advance, though, if Memphis gets knocked out early, the Spartans should beat either Mississippi State or Oregon and a rematch against Texas in the Elite Eight round would be a dandy.
Projected Run: Sweet 16
LAST 5 NCAA TOURNAMENTS
2007 – No. 8 seed; Lost in second round to No. 1 North Carolina
2006 – No. 6 seed; Lost in first round to No. 11 George Mason
2005 – No. 5 seed; Lost in Final Four to No. 1 (and eventual champ) North Carolina
2004 – No. 7 seed; Lost in first round to No. 10 Nevada
2003 – No. 7 seed; Lost in Elite Eight to No. 1 Texas
Purdue (24-8, West No. 6 seed) – The Baby Boilers cooled off late in the season after winning 13 of 14 games from mid-January to the beginning of March. The biggest weakness the Boilermakers have is a lack of height. But, despite being so young, the Boilermakers have no fear, making them very dangerous for any team they face. It should be noted that in Purdue’s last two losses were in overtime, so even in losses, Purdue doesn’t go down easily). Will youth be served or will the elder statesmen of the NCAA Tournament give the Boilermakers a rude awakening?
The first round game against Baylor is a great matchup for Purdue. Like the Boilermakers, the Bears like to play small ball, going with three guards and two forwards (both 6-foot-9) as the bigs. The way Purdue plays means unless a team goes unconscious shooting the 3-pointer, the Boilermakers will be in the game at the end. Baylor is a decent 3-point shooting team, but one of the feel good stories of this year’s tournament will go home early.
Against Xavier in the second round, the Boilermakers will have their hands full (it could be a game against Georgia but the worst thing that could happen to Georgia was to have a break from games. I don’t see a team that won four SEC games during the season getting hot again after three days off). If Drew Lavender’s ankle is still an issue, Xavier will struggle mightily. But, if he’s healthy, this should be a great game. Because Purdue relies on its defense and 3-point shooting, it could be a rough game against a team that has shown it can play with the best of them. But, the best news is, Xavier also has a smaller lineup, making Purdue’s matchup a little better. Common sense says to go with Xavier in this game. But, for fun, let’s see what would happen if Purdue defeated the Musketeers.
In a Sweet 16 matchup, the Boilermakers likely would face Duke – a team that has gone just 5-4 in its last nine games. Like Purdue, the Blue Devils play small which, for the third straight game, would not exploit Purdue’s biggest weakness. If this matchup happened, Duke’s experience might be too much. But, if Duke isn’t hitting the 3-point shot, Purdue actually could advance to the Elite Eight.
A matchup with UCLA is likely in the Elite Eight round and this is where the Baby Boilers go back to the crib. Kevin Love would get close to 30 points in this matchup and Purdue would struggle to keep the game close.
PROJECTED RUN: 2ndRound
LAST 5 NCAA TOURNAMENTS
2007 – No. 9 seed; Lost in second round to No. 1 (and eventual champ) Florida
2003 – No. 9 seed; Lost in second round to No. 1 Texas
2000 – No. 6 seed; Lost in Elite Eight to No. 8 Wisconsin
1999 – No. 10 seed; Lost in Sweet 16 to No. 6 Temple
1998 – No. 2 seed; Lost in Sweet 16 to No. 3 Stanford
Indiana (25-7, East No. 8 seed) – Remember two months ago that Indiana was a bonafide Final Four contender? Well, times have change and so has the momentum Indiana rode during the season. Talent-wise, the Hoosiers have plenty. But all the chaos in Bloomington right now doesn’t bode well for the NCAA Tournament. Indiana has lost three of its last four games, including two straight to Penn State and Minnesota. If you’re looking for a team that is under seeded, Indiana is a nice choice. However, if you’re expecting that team to make a deep run, you should be looking elsewhere.
The first round game against Arkansas will be a battle of wills. The Razorbacks, who has proven to be one of the SEC’s best conference tournament team in recent years with a couple deep runs. However, before winning three straight in the SEC tournament, Arkansas lost three of four and five of seven. I see this being a game of two teams that did enough to make the Field of 65 but who, in the end, played as if they didn’t want to be included. The inside-outside combo of Eric Gordon and D.J. White should be enough to get Indiana into the second round, though it would not be surprising to see Arkansas win by double figures.
In 2000, a pair of No. 8 seeds not only knocked off No. 1 seeds, but also reached the Final Four. I say that as a preface to this comment: This is NOT the year to predict that to happen again. Indiana will run into a buzz saw when it faces North Carolina. If Michigan State can put up 103 points against the Hoosiers, the Tar Heels might attempt to match the 168 the Denver Nuggets scored Sunday night.
Projected Run: 2nd Round
LAST 5 NCAA TOURNAMENTS
2007 – No. 7 seed; Lost in second round to No. 2 UCLA
2006 – No. 6 seed; Lost in second round to No. 3 Gonzaga
2003 – No. 7 seed; Lost in second round to No. 2 Pittsburgh
2002 – No. 5 seed; Lost in National Championship to No. 1 Maryland
2001 – No. 4 seed; Lost in first round to No. 13 Kent State