Considering that 11 out of the 14 Big Ten teams finished within three games of each other in the final standings, the 2023 Big Ten tournament promises to be one for the ages.
From March 8 to 12, the United Center in Chicago will be buzzing with fans from all over the country, anxiously awaiting to see how their team performs on the conference’s highest stage.
For some teams, the Big Ten tournament isn’t the end, as they are essentially guaranteed to make the NCAA tournament. However for others, how they perform this weekend will determine whether they squeak in to March Madness or are left on the wrong side of the bubble.
Less than a week before Selection Sunday, these are the teams I project to be in and out.
LOCKS (7): Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana, Michigan St, Iowa, Maryland, Illinois.
BUBBLE (4): Michigan, Rutgers, Penn State, Wisconsin
OUT (3): Nebraska, Ohio State, Minnesota
*Note: the winner of the Big Ten tournament will receive an “auto-bid” to the NCAA tournament, and that’s the only way I foresee any OUT teams getting in.
THE FAVORITE: Purdue
THE CONTENDERS: Northwestern, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois
THE DARK HORSES: Penn State and Nebraska
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
Purdue quickly established itself as the team to beat in the Big Ten, sporting the national AP No. 1 ranking for most of the season. Currently ranked No. 5 in the nation, Purdue is led by 7’4” third-year Zach Edey, who is averaging 21.9 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, leading the conference in both. Purdue looked unbeatable at the beginning of the season, but struggled to win on the road down the stretch, losing at Indiana, Northwestern and Maryland in February. They’re still the favorites, and any team that wants to beat them will have to contain Edey enough to rattle their first-year guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith. Purdue will be a tough team to dethrone, but it is 0-3 against 2-seed Northwestern and 3-seed Indiana, so an upset is definitely possible.
This has been a historic year for Northwestern. The Wildcats’ 21 wins are second-most in program history, 12 conference wins and 2nd place finish in the conference are the highest in Northwestern’s history, and they will most likely make the NCAA tournament for only the second time. In addition, head coach Chris Collins, who was on the hot seat at the beginning of the year, was named Big Ten Coach of the Year. What a year for a team projected to finish at the bottom of the conference. Led by fourth-year guard Boo Buie, averaging 17.2 points and 4.5 assists per game, this Northwestern team plays with confidence and heart. They have an elite defense, and when they hit their threes, they are extremely tough to beat. That being said, their sporadic offense and occasional second half meltdowns could hurt them, especially as the tournament progresses and fatigue sets in. On the bright side, Northwestern is 4-0 this season against 1-seed Purdue, 3-seed Indiana and 4-seed Michigan State, the other teams that received the double-bye. Furthermore, the tournament is being held in Chicago, so they’ll have home-court advantage.
After starting Big Ten play 1-4, Indiana surged to a tie for second place in the back half of the season. They are currently ranked No. 19 in the nation, but have been as high as No. 10. All-American fourth-year forward Trayce Jackson-Davis has been the man in charge for several years in Bloomington, but this year he has reached new heights. He leads the team with 20.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.8 blocks per game. Jackson-Davis, along with first-year guard Jalen Hood-Schifino, have delivered win after win for the Hoosiers, most notably against 1-seed Purdue, twice. Indiana never gives up, because it knows its explosive offense can change the trajectory of a game quickly. Against 2-seed Northwestern, Indiana was down by 17 and 21 points, respectively. However, they battled back and only lost each game by one and two points, respectively, the latter loss coming on a Boo Buie buzzer-beater. This team is experienced, they play aggressively and have talent that can compete with any team in the country, making them extremely dangerous in this tournament.
To me, Michigan State has been one of the quieter Big Ten teams this season, but they have found great success in the midst of tragedy. With an 11-8 record, the Spartans earned the fourth seed in the tournament, and the final double-bye. They’ve been steady, winning most of their home games with a 12-2 record, but struggling a bit on the road, only winning four of 10, leading me to wonder how they will perform in Chicago. However, they have experienced veteran leadership, with fourth-year guard Tyson Walker and graduate forward Joey Hauser leading the way for the Spartans, averaging 14.8 and 14.2 points per game, respectively, and shooting 42.9% and 45.9% from three. In addition, Michigan State ended the season by winning five of its last seven games, so they’ve got momentum heading into the postseason.
#5 IOWA HAWKEYES (19-12, 11-9 BIG):
Iowa has one of the most dangerous offenses in the country, averaging 80.6 points per game. Led by third-year forward Kris Murray, who averages 20.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, Iowa has picked up key wins against 2-seed Northwestern, 9-seed Rutgers (twice) and 3-seed Indiana (twice). However, their most notable game was a thriller against 4-seed Michigan State last week, where Iowa was down 10 with under a minute to go, but ended up winning in overtime. When they shoot well, they are very tough to beat, but like all teams that rely on an explosive offense, one bad shooting day could be enough to send them home early… see their recent game against Northwestern, for example.
There were two Maryland teams in conference play: the team that went 10-0 at home, and the team that went 1-9 on the road. That one win came against 14-seed Minnesota, the worst team in the league. They are led by graduate guard Jahmir Young, who leads the team with 16.3 points and 3.2 assists per game. The Terps have the talent to win and play with intense physicality, but until they prove they can overcome a hostile environment, don’t be surprised if they make an early exit in both the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament.
Illinois started off Big Ten play 0-3, but then won seven of its next eight games. They’ve got some impressive wins, such as a huge comeback against 2-seed Northwestern, a double-overtime thriller against 8-seed Michigan and an early season victory against national No. 2 UCLA. That being said, they have lost their last five road games, including a shocking loss at 13-seed Ohio State. Illinois made use of the transfer portal, acquiring fourth-year guard Terrence Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech. Shannon, who leads the team with 17.1 points per game, has battled injuries towards the end of the season, but should be good to go for the postseason. Illinois will face 10-seed Penn State, who they’ve lost to twice already this season, in the second round on Thursday.
Michigan has been one of the most volatile teams in the country this season. The Wolverines are led by experienced third-year center Hunter Dickinson, who averages 18.2 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, along with first-year guard Jett Howard and second-year guard Kobe Bufkin who score 14.5 and 13.9 points a game, respectively. They’ve beaten 2-seed Northwestern twice, split the rivalry series with 4-seed Michigan State, and won convincingly on the road against 9-seed Rutgers, who they’ll play in the second round on Thursday. That said, they never got a signature non-conference win, losing close games to national contenders No. 13 Virginia, No. 23 Kentucky, North Carolina and worst of all: Central Michigan. These losses, in addition to two straight overtime losses to close out the season, have Michigan on the outside looking in on the bubble. They will likely need to beat Rutgers and 1-seed Purdue to have a chance at making the NCAA tournament, and victories in the semifinals and final couldn’t hurt either.
If the season ended in January, Rutgers might be national champions. They’ve got impressive home wins against 3-seed Indiana and 6-seed Maryland, and beat 1-seed Purdue and 2-seed Northwestern on the road. That was Purdue’s first loss of the season, and the Boilermakers’ only loss until February. But then it all fell apart for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers lost six of its last eight games, including a heartbreaker at 14-seed Minnesota. They are led by third-year center Clifford Omoruyi and fourth-year guard Cam Spencer, who average 13.5 and 12.7 points per game, respectively. As an athletic center, Omoruyi also averages 9.8 rebounds per game. Stumbling to the finish line has put Rutgers in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament, and I expect they need to at least beat 8-seed Michigan to stay on the right side of the bubble. Clearly, this team has the talent and potential to win, but given their lackluster February and March, I wouldn’t put any money on them.
Penn State is not a team you want to face in the Big Ten tournament, as they won five of its last six games, carrying significant momentum into the postseason. This includes beating 2-seed Northwestern on the road and 6-seed Maryland, who was ranked No. 21 nationally at the time, at home. Both victories came via buzzer-beaters by fourth-year guard Camren Wynter. That being said, the star for the Nittany Lions this season has been fourth-year guard Jalen Pickett, who averages 18.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.0 steals per game, leading the team in all those categories. In theory, containing him is the key to beating Penn State; however, other players have also stepped up when necessary, especially in the Northwestern game. Penn State will play 7-seed Illinois in the second round on Thursday. Considering they’ve beaten Illinois convincingly twice this season, and are one of the hottest teams in the league, I believe this game has upset written all over it.
Nebraska is another team you don’t want to face in the postseason. The Huskers started Big Ten play 4-10, but won five of their last six, including winning on the road at 5-seed Iowa and 9-seed Rutgers, and beating 6-seed Maryland in overtime. Fourth-year forward Derrick Walker leads the team with 13.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 0.7 blocks per game. They are sneaky good, and have excelled when playing with nothing to lose. Given that they will only make the NCAA tournament if they win the auto-bid, don’t be surprised if Nebraska causes some drama this weekend.
#12 WISCONSIN BADGERS (17-13, 9-11 BIG):
After starting Big Ten play 3-0, Wisconsin lost six of seven games and never really recovered. The team that lost to national No. 3 Kansas by only one point in overtime has now stumbled all the way to the bottom of the Big Ten. They have played high quality teams closely, but have been unable to finish the deal, losing to 1-seed Purdue and 2-seed Northwestern (twice) by a combined seven points. Wisconsin lacks star power, as four different players are averaging 11-12 points per game. They are firmly on the bubble, with early season wins acting as a lifeline for the Badgers. Multiple wins in the Big Ten tournament might have helped their resume, but Wisconsin lost to 13-seed Ohio State in the first round 65-57 on Wednesday, ending their NCAA tournament chances in my opinion.
Ohio State has without a doubt been the biggest disappointment in the Big Ten this season. They’ve picked up a few random wins, but a devastating stretch in January and February where the Buckeyes lost 14 of 15 games was more than enough to ruin the season. First-year forward Brice Sensabaugh leads the team with 16.5 points, so maybe he’ll help them be a factor next year. However this season will end in disappointment unless Ohio State miraculously wins the Big Ten Tournament. They’re on the right track, as they upset 12-seed Wisconsin in the first round on Wednesday.
Minnesota is the one team I consider to have zero chance at winning the Big Ten tournament and receiving the auto-bid. At one point they had lost 12 conference games in a row, most of them being blowouts. Second-year forward Dawson Garcia has been a bright spot, averaging 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, but I doubt this team will win a game in the Big Ten tournament, especially considering how well 11-seed Nebraska is playing.
It might be a bit optimistic, but I genuinely think Northwestern has as good of a chance as any of the other teams, including Purdue, because of the home court advantage.
This Big Ten tournament is bound to be extremely entertaining and exciting, so I hope every Wildcat either watches or attends the games and cheers Northwestern to victory. Go ’Cats!!!