by Kent Sterling
Indiana has been one of the worst teams in the history of the event – never winning it, and only advancing to the finals once. In 16 total events, Indiana is 10-16. That means they have averaged .625 wins per tournament, and an imperfect one loss – the maximum allowed by math in a single elimination format.
Surprisingly, there are five teams that have won less than Indiana’s ten. Not surprisingly, two of them are Northwestern and Nebraska. Given that this will only be the Cornhuskers third trip to the tournament, that makes sense, but their 1-2 record extends to 8-16. Purdue, Michigan, and Penn State are the other three who have won less than Indiana’s ten.
Enough arcane statistics. Let’s get to the results of the 11 games that will be contested in Indianapolis this weekend, and who will win each of them.
Indiana vs. Illinois – 12p Thursday
Through February 18th, the Illini had beaten only Indiana and Penn State (2x) among its first 13 Big Ten opponents, and then they awakened to win four of their final five, and those five were not patsies. All are at least being discussed as potential bubble teams, and three of the wins were on the road against Minnesota, Michigan State, and Iowa. The other win was at home against an improving Nebraska team.
Minus wins against Northwestern and Penn State, Indiana has not won a game not played at Assembly Hall since November 21st against Washington, but won three of its final six, including games against #22 Ohio State and #20 Iowa.
Both teams finished with 7-11 Big Ten records, and Illinois finished ranked #65 in BPI while Indiana was #66. Illinois is a comparatively old team with juniors (Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu) and seniors (Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey) as its five leading scorers. Indiana is very young as three freshman (Noah Vonleh, Troy Williams, Stanford Robinson) are among the top five scorers, and the leading scorer is sophomore Yogi Ferrell.
Illinois placed zero players on the All-Big Ten teams announced yesterday, while Ferrell (2nd team) and Vonleh (3rd) placed for the Hoosiers. Vonleh was also named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
I like the way neither the Hoosiers nor Illinois folded as a weak team might have late in the season when it became clear they were playing only for pride, but I’m picking Indiana because I live in Indiana, know the team better, and have an affinity for some of the people associated with the program. Indiana’s lack of quality depth might be problematic if they win Thursday as the tournament moves forward, but for Thursday they should be fine.
The key will be scoring. If the game is played in the 60s or higher, advantage Hoosiers. In a defensive game, Illinois has the better chance. Everything points to a low scoring game, but that’s not enough to push me off IU.
The pick: Indiana 64-63.
Ohio State vs. Purdue – 2:30p Thursday
The Boilermakers finished last in the Big Ten, and after the final regular season game, coach Matt Painter claimed responsibility for their lack of execution and guts. That’s the appropriate thing to do because either Painter made errors in who he invited to play for him, or failed to unlock the trait that attracted him in the first place to the recruits. Will Painter’s mea culpa bring out the best in the Johnson, Rapheal Davis, A.J. Hammons, and Errick Peck, or will they shut down?
Ohio State has been very successful in the Big Ten Tournament under Thad Matta. Since 2006, Ohio State has failed to advance to the finals only once, and have won three of the last four. Some teams just know how to play in tournaments, and Ohio State appears to be one of them. It’s helped that the Buckeyes have had Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger, DeAndre Thomas, and Aaron Craft during that era of excellence, but they seem to be very well prepared day after day.
The Buckeyes beat the Boilermakers twice in the regular season – by nine and 18 points. In order to upset Ohio State, Purdue would need to get best of season efforts from everyone on the floor.
Pick – Ohio State ends the season for Purdue 72-56.
Minnesota vs. Penn State – 6:30p Thursday
Sadly, this game has no more meaning to me than let’s say Cal vs. Utah or Boston College vs. Wyoming, but I can read a schedule to see that Minnesota beat Penn State twice. Despite Minnesota finishing the last 15 games of their Big Ten schedule 6-9, I think they move through Penn State without struggle.
Whoever wins this game is likely nothing more than chum for Wisconsin.
Of the 11 games in the tournament, this is the one game I can’t find a narrative compelling enough to generate any interest – at least for me. Because of that, I’m picking Penn State. That pick for a significant underdog, while being impossible to substantiate intellectually, will allow me to watch with mild interest.
Pick – Penn State wins 65-62.
Iowa vs. Northwestern – 9p Thursday
Both of these teams bring something I like. Iowa has the fiery Fran McCaffrey as their leader, and who knows what might set him off. Northwestern hangs its hat on tenacious defense under first year coach Chris Collins. Both are fun to watch.
Before winning the regular season finale at Purdue, Northwestern had lost its previous seven games. The Wildcats rank 349th out of 351 D-1 teams in points per game, so they are going to have to out defend Iowa to win. But Iowa hasn’t exactly been a juggernaut since the game that was postponed at Assembly Hall on February 18th.
Iowa has lost five of its last six, but they will have the best player on the floor – by far – in senior Roy Devyn Marble. When in doubt, go with the best player, and the most volatile coach.
My Pick – Iowa wins 64-46
Michigan vs. Indiana – Friday, 12p
I love Indiana in this game. Michigan has looked very uncomfortable against the Hoosiers in the two previous games they have played which means either they are due to hammer Indiana, or that Indiana is just a bad matchup for them.
The problem for Indiana is that they have very limited depth, and playing a second game in two days after a very tough first game. Michigan has everything Indiana lacks – experience, ability to create offense, and Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas – but I think Indiana is due for a little success in this event.
My Pick – Indiana 71-67
Ohio State vs. Nebraska – Friday, 2:30p
The Cornhuskers emergence as a decent Big Ten team has been a great story. Tim Miles is a hell of a good coach, and Nebraska was always a bit of a sleeping giant, so their 11-7 record was hardly unforeseeable. They are a bubble team, so a loss here could send Nebraska to the NIT. That will either serve as inspiration, or cause the Huskers to tighten.
Ohio State is firmly in the NCAA tournament, and while I’m never a big fan of picking a game solely because of one player, I think Craft is such an effective leader and defender that the Buckeyes will win this game because of his presence.
I would love to see Miles and Nebraska move forward, and frankly I’ve had about enough of Ohio State winning games in this tournament, but Craft is going to get this done.
My Pick – Ohio State 67-59
Penn State vs. Wisconsin – Friday, 6:30p
Wisconsin’s season has been defined by streaks of good and bad play. They started the season with 14 wins, and then lost five-of-six. Then they ran off another eight straight wins before losing at Nebraska in the regular season finale. There will not be a second consecutive loss this time, as the experienced lineup of Ben Brust (senior), Frank Kaminsky (junior), Traevon Jackson (junior), Josh Gasser (junior), and Sam Dekker (sophomore) will beat the Nittany Lions badly.
My Pick – Wisconsin 81- 59
Iowa vs. Michigan State – Friday, 9p
Since Michigan State beat Indiana in East Lansing on January 21st, the Spartans have been unable to win consecutive games. The inconsistency of the roster has a lot to do with that. Not only is it disruptive to lose a player, but it can be difficult getting one back too. Only Denzel Valentine and Gavin Schilling have played in every game.
The Spartans are always only one game away from getting it together and going on a long run, and that may start Friday against Iowa. Then again, it might not. Tom Izzo has a nice balance of experience and youth, but the past two months have been tough for Sparty.
Michigan State won the two regular season games, with an overtime thriller in Iowa City. Gary Harris scored a combined 21 points in the two games, and the Spartans had some foul trouble in both. Marble got it rolling in both, scoring 24 and 21 points.
Harris will be coming home, although that can be good or bad. This game could bend either way, so I’m going to go with the better rested Spartan team.
My Pick – Michigan State 74-67
Indiana vs. Ohio State – Saturday, 1:40p
Indiana won their only matchup against Ohio State 72-64, and the depth disadvantage is mitigated a bit because both teams will be playing their third game in three days. How much will Ferrell and Craft have in the tank? That’s the fun of this tournament – it’s a battle of attrition.
I like the Hoosiers in this matchup because Ohio State has had enough success in this event over the past eight years. The odds have to favor an opponent eventually.
My Pick – Indiana 61-57
Michigan State vs. Wisconsin – Saturday, 4p
Both of these teams were dominant during stretches, and both have sputtered. Both finished the conference season 12-6, have elite coaches, and upperclassmen leadership. This is a crapshoot, but Wisconsin is a tough matchup for Michigan State to use to win a second straight game for the first time in nearly two months.
Games like these are what makes the Big Ten interesting. Top to bottom, the Big Ten has the best coaches in college basketball, and Izzo vs. Bo Ryan is one of the great duels that CBS can use to build promos.
This is a coin flip, but I’ll take Michigan State because I think Gary Harris is the type of player who can elevate his game to a level Traevon Jackson can’t. I saw him do it in the Hinkle Regional in 2011, and he will find a way to help Sparty win this game.
My Pick – Michigan State 72-68
Indiana vs. Michigan State – Sunday, 3:30p
There just won’t be any gas left in the tank for the suddenly improved Indiana team playing its fourth game in four days against a very deep Michigan State team playing their third game in three days. Tom Crean will claim victory for getting this far, and who can blame him as the Hoosiers fall just short of pulling off the miracle upset to earn the Big Ten’s automatic berth.
My Pick – Michigan State 82-64
Of course, some very odd things would have to happen for more than half of these games to actually roll the way I have predicted, but the fun of these tournaments is that no one is wrong about either the results or the rationale until Thursday at about 2p.