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Michigan, Michigan State among deep crop of title contenders at Big Ten Tournament

Will season of parity carry over into conference tournament?

David DeJulius #0 of the Michigan Wolverines drives to the basket in the first half of the game against Cassius Winston #5 of the Michigan State Spartans at Crisler Arena on February 8, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
David DeJulius #0 of the Michigan Wolverines drives to the basket in the first half of the game against Cassius Winston #5 of the Michigan State Spartans at Crisler Arena on February 8, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Getty Images)

DETROIT – It’s been a wild season of basketball in the Big Ten Conference, with all 14 teams losing at least six games. Will that parity follow the league to Indianapolis for this year’s Big Ten Tournament?

Wisconsin, Maryland and Michigan State tied atop the league standings at 14-6, followed closely by Illinois at 13-7. From there, seven teams finished with between nine and 11 losses.

Here’s a look at the full bracket:

The 2020 Big Ten Tournament bracket
The 2020 Big Ten Tournament bracket (Big Ten Conference)

Other than Minnesota (14-16 overall), Northwestern (8-22) and Nebraska (7-24), the rest of the conference travels to Indianapolis with at least some hope of making the NCAA Tournament. It might be a long shot for 16-15 Purdue, but a few wins in Indianapolis might be enough to earn the Boilermakers a bid in a year without many great teams.

Top seeds

While Wisconsin is the tournament’s No. 1 seed, Michigan State definitely enters as the favorite to take home the crown for the second straight season. The Spartans are the only Big Ten team ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll and seem likely to earn a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, depending on this weekend’s results.

Michigan State ripped off five straight victories to end the regular season, including four straight against teams ranked in the top 20 at the time -- Iowa, Maryland, Penn State and Ohio State.

Wisconsin shouldn’t be discounted, though. Despite losing one of its top players, Kobe King, to transfer midway through the season, the Badgers ripped off eight straight victories to end the year atop the Big Ten. They haven’t lost since Feb. 5 at Minnesota.

The third member of the shared conference title, Maryland, held a two-game lead atop the standings just two weeks ago before losing three of its last five games to settle for a No. 3 seed in Indianapolis. The Terrapins lost back-to-back games against Michigan State and Rutgers by a combined 23 points before beating Michigan on senior day.

The teams in the middle of the pack are tough to differentiate. Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers all finished 11-9. Michigan was the only team to finish an even 10-10, while Purdue and Indiana tied at 9-11.

Michigan’s draw

Michigan at one point looked like a team ready to make a run, winning five straight games from Feb. 8 to Feb. 22, including a victory against Michigan State and three true road wins.

The momentum disappeared as quickly as it arrived, though, as Michigan lost for the fifth time at the Crisler Center in a match-up with Wisconsin and ultimately dropped two road tests against Ohio State and Maryland.

The Wolverines have only won once since Feb. 22: a home game against hapless Nebraska.

Juwan Howard’s team hopes to recapture the neutral court magic that allowed it to storm through the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November. The Wolverines defeated Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga in consecutive days by a combined 34 points.

Michigan Wolverines players Eli Brooks #55, Zavier Simpson #3, Franz Wagner #21, and David DeJulius #0 huddle during the second half of a college basketball game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Crisler Arena on January 22, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Penn State Nittany Lions won the game 72-63 over the Michigan Wolverines.
Michigan Wolverines players Eli Brooks #55, Zavier Simpson #3, Franz Wagner #21, and David DeJulius #0 huddle during the second half of a college basketball game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Crisler Arena on January 22, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Penn State Nittany Lions won the game 72-63 over the Michigan Wolverines. (2020 Aaron J. Thornton)

Michigan also won a neutral court game Feb. 1 against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden.

It will take a third win over Rutgers for the Wolverines to advance Thursday, and the Scarlett Knights are playing their best basketball of the season. They added two much-needed wins to their resume in the final week, defeated then-No. 9 Maryland and knocking off a desperate Purdue team on the road in overtime.

Michigan won the first two meetings by six and eight points, respectively, so Thursday figures to be another close battle.

The winner earns another shot at top-seeded Wisconsin. Michigan lost its only game against the Badgers, while Rutgers split two meetings.

Michigan State’s path

The Spartans earned a double bye and will await the winner of Purdue and Ohio State on Friday. Michigan State lost its only game against Purdue back in January, getting blown out by 29 points at Mackey Arena. Ohio State’s visit to East Lansing on senior day resulted in an 11-point Spartans victory.

Michigan state hopes to defend the 2019 Big Ten Tournament title after beating Michigan last year in a tough championship game. A potential rematch with Maryland in Saturday’s semifinals would break a 1-1 season series tie that saw both teams win on their opponent’s court.

Cassius Winston #5 of the Michigan State Spartans drives the basket past Brandon Johns Jr. #23 of the Michigan Wolverines. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Cassius Winston #5 of the Michigan State Spartans drives the basket past Brandon Johns Jr. #23 of the Michigan Wolverines. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) (Getty)

Tom Izzo’s team beat ever Big Ten opponent besides Purdue and Indiana this season, and it’s unlikely to get a chance against either team in Indianapolis. Purdue would have to reach Sunday’s championship game to meet the Spartans, while Indiana would have to beat Nebraska, Penn State and Maryland on back-to-back-to-back days.

The final four games of the season -- vs. No. 18 Iowa, at No. 9 Maryland, at No. 20 Penn State and vs. No. 19 Ohio State -- gave MSU a taste of what to expect this weekend, and it won those four games by an average of 9.75 points.

Cassius Winston is playing his best basketball of the season, and in a tournament that’s typically powered by point guard play, that’s great news for Michigan State. Xavier Tillman and Rocket Watts give the Spartans a trio of legitimate scoring threats inside and out.

Bubble teams

Michigan State, Maryland, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Illinois are considered securely in the NCAA Tournament by all reputable bracketologists. Rutgers also appears to have secured its spot in the final week. When the NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed Sunday, those nine teams will hear their names called.

Indiana and Purdue are the only teams on the bubble -- and they’re firmly on opposite sides.

Indiana is considered a safe bet to make the field of 68, but it’s not a done deal. At 19-12, No. 40 in the Kenpom rankings and No. 59 in the NET rankings, the Hoosiers have a borderline tournament resume.

On one hand, Indiana played 14 games against what the NCAA Tournament Committee considers “Quadrant 1” opponents -- top 30 NET teams at home, top 50 NET teams at a neutral site or top 75 NET teams on the road. The knock against IU is that it only won four of those contests.

The Hoosiers only lost two games outside of Quad 1, both against top 50 NET teams at home. They don’t have any ugly losses, they just have a high number of losses. Unlike Michigan -- which has an identical 19-12 record -- Indiana doesn’t have the quality of wins to make up for those losses.

A loss to Nebraska -- the No. 197 team in the NET rankings -- would be disastrous for the Hoosiers. But as long as they win Wednesday, even a loss to NCAA Tournament lock Penn State on Thursday wouldn’t do much damage to their resume. A win over the Nittany Lions would give Indiana 21 wins and basically lock it into the field.

Purdue has a much taller task ahead. It would likely need to win at least three games in Indianapolis to get into the Big Dance, and even that wouldn’t be a guarantee (obviously, a fourth win would earn Purdue an automatic bid).

The Kenpom rankings view Purdue as the No. 24 team in the nation, while the NET rankings have the Boilermakers at No. 33. Those metrics are the only reason Purdue still has life at 16-15.

Opportunities for signature wins won’t be hard to come by in Indianapolis. Purdue will get a shot at Ohio State on Thursday and would earn a shot against Michigan State with a win. Then, Maryland or Penn State would likely await in the semifinals.

The Boilermakers have a chance to pick up three wins over NCAA Tournament teams, including two over top four seeds. If they pulled that off, even a loss to Wisconsin, Illinois or Iowa in the conference championship game would put the final record at 19-16. Backed by what would be seven Quad 1 wins, Purdue would at least have a chance.

Final thoughts

As wild as the Big Ten has been this season, it would be a bit surprising to see a team outside the top four seeds win the tournament title.

But it feels like the top 12 teams could legitimately win on any given day, so maybe a strange Sunday match-up should be expected.

No. 12 seed Minnesota swept Ohio State this season and has wins over Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. Why couldn’t the Golden Gophers upset No. 5 Iowa in a possible Thursday meeting?

As stated above, No. 11 Indiana has a handful of good wins and enters the tournament desperate to cement its NCAA Tournament status. The Hoosiers are certainly talented enough to win a few games behind star forward Trayce Jackson-Davis.

There are a dozen good teams in the Big Ten and dozens of very good players. Anything can happen when they all come together for five days at a neutral site.

Either Michigan or Michigan State has taken home the crown each of the last four years, but the field has never been this level. Buckle up, basketball fans.


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