Buckeyes, Wolverines have high hopes

Rivals could meet in semifinal matchup in wide-open Big Ten tournament


INDIANAPOLIS — For area Big Ten fans, the league basketball tournament has followed a time-honored script.

Ohio State fast tracks to the championship game; Michigan makes a beeline for home. OSU has played for the tournament title each of the last five years and nine times overall — winning five of them — since Robert "Tractor" Traylor led the Wolverines to their only appearance on the final Sunday in 1998.

Could this be the year the rivals swap fates?

If the basketball gods deliver, they will decide it on the court.

There’s a decent chance No. 24 OSU (23-8, 10-8) and the eighth- ranked Wolverines (23-7, 15-3) will meet in the semifinals Saturday.

The fifth-seeded Buckeyes would need to handle last-place Purdue for the third time this season in today’s opener and beat No. 4-seed Nebraska on Friday while top-seeded Michigan must dispatch the winner of today’s 8-9 game between Indiana and Illinois.

Then again, nothing about this overturned Big Ten season suggests breaths should be held.

Expect an always wide-open tournament to be blown off its hinges this week at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis.

"This Big Ten tournament could be one of the classics of all-time," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "I saw where Warren Buffet is offering a billion dollars [for a perfect NCAA tournament bracket]. I’d like to see someone try to pick the route of this one."

Michigan is the surprising favorite. Despite losing preseason All-American forward Mitch McGary to season-ending back surgery, sophomore shooting guard Nik Stauskas evolved into the Big Ten’s player of the year, John Beilein was named the league’s co-coach of the year along with Nebraska’s Tim Miles, and UM won its first outright conference regular-season title since 1986 by a staggering three games — the second-largest margin by a Big Ten champion since 1997.

The Wolverines could snare top billing in the NCAA tournament with a strong weekend. While Florida, Wichita State, and Arizona appear locked in as No. 1 seeds, the fight for the final spot on the top line remains undecided. Don’t rule out Wisconsin either after the Badgers won eight of their last nine games to vault to sixth in the latest RPI.

"We’ll have great opportunities this week," Beilein said.

Yet navigating this four-day event will be more perilous than usual.

The top-to-bottom parity coaches often extol each winter, in fact, existed this season, with the league featuring few elite teams but little cake. Eleven of the 12 teams won at least two games over top-25 opponents while head-turning results became a weekly staple. Penn State swept the Buckeyes, Illinois stunned Michigan State in East Lansing, and Northwestern won at Wisconsin.

Even Michigan’s quarterfinals game is no sure bet. Illinois has won four of its last five games while Indiana split the season series with UM.

Ohio State, meanwhile, likes its chances.

The Buckeyes have raised their game at their most pressing crossroads this season, following a January stretch of five losses in six conference games with six of seven wins, then rallying from back-to-back road losses to unranked teams with a win over Michigan State in Sunday’s regular-season finale.

"I'm not particularly proud of that," Matta said. "But moving forward, we've got two [tournaments] left, and each one presents the same outcome. You lose, you go home. Hopefully that's a motivating factor for our guys."

The reigning Big Ten tournament champions have no intentions of ceding their reign quietly.

"We’ve all packed to stay through Sunday," OSU forward Sam Thompson said.