What to watch for in the Big Ten tournament

  • Michigan-Ohio-St-Basketball-15

    Michigan's Moritz Wagner, left, posts up against Ohio State's Kaleb Wesson during the second half of a college basketball game Dec. 4 in Columbus.


  • Because it apparently was not enough for the Big Ten to include Rutgers and Maryland in an obvious money grab, the conference also will be playing the league tournament a week early in the Big Ten hotbed of New York, where a regular-season game between Minnesota and Ohio State earlier this season filled less than 20 percent of Madison Square Garden’s seats.

    Ahead of the tournament, commissioner Jim Delany admitted to the Chicago Tribune that playing a condensed schedule to accommodate this tournament was a mistake and that he won’t do this again.

    So on that note, who’s excited for some sparsely attended basketball games?

    Still, the league still has a few notable prizes on the line this week at MSG to conclude what has been a down year in men’s basketball. Here are the storylines for the tournament, which begins with first-round games Wednesday:

    Most Potential: Ohio State. While Purdue or Michigan State could earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference tournament, those schools are already projected second seeds with preferential treatment — both are slated to play the first two rounds in Detroit — even without winning a trophy this weekend.

    Behind Big Ten player of the year Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State is the second seed in the conference tournament.
    Behind Big Ten player of the year Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State is the second seed in the conference tournament.

    The Buckeyes, however, can drastically alter their NCAA Tournament placement by winning the tournament. OSU will be in the field no matter what, but as of now the Buckeyes likely would land as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed by losing their first Big Ten Tournament game. That means playing one of the best midmajor champions in a faraway destination such as Boise or San Diego.

    If OSU wins the trophy — and especially if it picks up additional wins against Purdue and MSU along the way — it would improve to 11-7 against the RPI top 100 and likely would be inside the RPI top 10 itself. In that case, the Buckeyes would be a No. 3 at worst and be in contention for a better regional and much easier path to the Sweet 16.

    Most Dangerous Team: Michigan. The Wolverines caught fire at this time last season en route to winning the Big Ten Tournament, and the Wolverines enter this year’s conference tournament on a five-game winning streak, all of which came by nine or more points.

    Though Michigan has the characteristic spacing and shooting of coach John Beilein’s teams, this Michigan squad is winning on the other end, ranking 11th in the country in adjusted defense. The Wolverines also have the easiest path to semifinals of any team outside the top four.

    Upset Hopeful: Penn State. The Nittany Lions have their second-round game against Northwestern, which has been dreadful during the past month, and with a win would play a quarterfinal against Ohio State, their best matchup of the top four seeds. It’s hard to know which Penn State team will show up on a given night, but a capable offense led by guard Tony Carr makes PSU a threat to upset the natural order. Add in a measure of late-season desperation, and Penn State could be the surprise of the tournament.

    Jaren Jackson Jr., and Michigan State will be playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament this week.
    Jaren Jackson Jr., and Michigan State will be playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament this week.

    Safest Bet: Michigan State. The first-seeded Spartans can’t play Purdue or Ohio State until the championship game, and if they do play Michigan, the Wolverines would be playing their third game in three days. Given the lack of depth in the Big Ten, the likelihood of an upset is much lower than in the standard Big Ten season.

    Most To Gain: Nebraska. Despite finishing fourth in the Big Ten, Nebraska is still playing for its NCAA Tournament life. The Cornhuskers are an unremarkable 58th in RPI and have a 1-5 record against teams inside the top 50.

    That’s not enough for inclusion as an at-large bid, so Nebraska needs a good showing in New York. The Huskers, who are likely to play Michigan in the quarterfinals, will need one win at the minimum to realistically qualify for the field of 68.

    Most To Lose: The entire Big Ten. As it stands before the league tournament, only four teams from the conference are sure bets to make the NCAA Tournament: Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan. If one of those four teams wins the championship, the conference will place only four teams in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

    What’s more, the Big Ten doesn’t have great odds of increasing its total. Aforementioned Nebraska probably has to beat red-hot Michigan to reach the semis. Penn State’s only good wins are against Ohio State, and the Nittany Lions would have to beat OSU a third time to reach the semifinals.

    Everyone else has to win the automatic bid to make it, which isn’t exactly promising for a conference that has had at least six teams in the field seven years running.

    Contact Nicholas Piotrowicz at npiotrowicz@theblade.com, 419-724-6110 or on Twitter @NickPiotrowicz