Somewhere on paper this seemed like a great idea…especially with that “grow the footprint” guy in the conference office.  What better way for the Big Ten to grow its brand than to plant the flag at the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden?  Forget that New York City is within 300 miles of just three of the 14 Big Ten schools (for those counting, Maryland is actually closer to the Big Apple than Penn State by about 14 miles).  Never mind that instead of waiting for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to open up or choosing to play in the usually available Prudential Center in Newark, they had to move the tournament a week early because the Big East has MSG locked up through 2025.  That’s why we had conference games played the first weekend of December.  And that’s why there will be teams potentially working on a two-week layoff going into the NCAA Tournament.  And let’s not realize the residual effect of the men’s tournament sucking all of the oxygen out of the room while the women’s tournament takes place in Indianapolis at the same time (the league should have considered moving the women’s tournament to next weekend to give it maximum exposure).  Of course, if the conference lands an extra at-large team than expected and if the Big Ten dominates the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament this will turn out to be the stroke of genius.  Thank goodness the tournament returns to Chicago next March.

Fun Fact- while the top seed has won the tournament eight times, don’t sleep on the #6 seed which is 29-19 over the years with one title and three finals appearances.  More recently, the #8 seed has more tournament wins (7) than the regular season champ (6) over the last five years.

Teams to Beat-  Michigan State won its last 12 games to earn the #1 seed for the first time since 2012.  The Spartans led the conference in scoring, shooting and rebounding–the only thing they don’t do well is take care of the ball (last in the league in turnover margin).  Purdue was in first place for most of the season before some late hiccups and there’s no better team in the Big Ten at shooting the three.  They’re also a year older than the team that went one and done as the #1 seed last March.  Ohio State under Coach of the Year Chris Holtmann beat both the Spartans and Boilermakers but somehow got swept by Penn State.

Players to Watch- the Buckeyes’ Keita Bates-Diop was a big reason for OSU’s resurgence;  the junior ranked second in the conference in scoring and rebounding on the way to being named Big Ten Player of the Year.  Myles Bridges may not have the numbers, but the Michigan State Sophomore is arguably the most talented player in the league and is the most productive one when necessary.  Purdue forwards Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas are the typical skilled but gritty big men Midwest teams seem to run off of the assembly line each winter (perhaps we can get a few shipped to College Park).

Bubble and Bench Watch- Nebraska is in an odd spot as the #4 seed.  Despite winning 8 of 9 down the stretch the Cornhuskers don’t have a great at-large profile: credit a non-conference strength of schedule that ranks 297th in the nation as one reason why ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has them one of the “first four out” in his latest field.  They’re likely going to face #15 Michigan in the quarterfinals, and the Wolverines bring a five-game winning streak into Madison Square Garden while looking beyond awesome in their dismembering last Saturday of Maryland.  An early exit from MSG for coach Tim Miles’ team could mean banishment to the NIT.  Meanwhile, the Nebraska bench has become a lightning rod for their antics that depending on your age and mentality could be called “creative” or “obnoxious”.  It’s cute the guys at the end of the pine pantomimed Olympic bobsledding after a big bucket…but beware:  the last team to pull such shenanigans was Monmouth and they were left out of the field despite a 27-7 mark that included wins over UCLA, Notre Dame and Georgetown.

Wednesday’s “First Round”-  one of the costs of doing business in a 14-team league is the unfortunate bracket where the first day features a doubleheader of despair:  unlike a 12-team format where you potentially have bubble teams battling and at worst a 5 vs 12 game where one of the schools is headed somewhere we get the “dreaded first round”.  (I’m checking with legal on the rumor that we have to refer to it as “dreaded” at all times, like “Lowly Rutgers”).  Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and “Lowly Rutgers” went a combined 15-57 in league play and these four schools will square off in a doubleheader of depression:  two of those schools’ fan bases get 40 more minutes of watching their sub-500 squads fumble around on the court (although 6th seed Indiana isn’t much to talk about).  The ACC, SEC and Atlantic 10 subject us to this as well; it’s commonly referred to by the media as “the day we pick up our credentials and test the phone lines while watching as little actual hoops as possible”.

 

Thursday’s Second Round-

Maryland (19-12, 8-10 Big Ten) vs Wisconsin (14-17, 7-11), noon.  The Terps won the lone regular season meeting between the two schools 68-63 on Super Bowl Sunday in a game where they blew a ten point halftime lead.  Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 23 points in 39 minutes that afternoon–and for the record, the sophomore has played in 234 of 240 possible minutes since.  In a season where injuries and last-minute losses have all but dashed the Terps’ NCAA hopes (a bid is coming only if they cut down the nets at MSG Sunday), Cowan has been the major bright spot–ranking in the top three of the Big Ten in assists and steals while leading the conference in minutes played.  His play along with Kevin Huerter (the two combined for 14 of the team’s 23 baskets in the win over the Badgers) will be paramount if the Terrapins want to be playing in the quarterfinals Friday.

Wisconsin has endured a winter of discontent as well:  instead of thinking about a potential third straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen under coach Greg Gard, the team that received votes in both preseason polls is likely going to finish with a losing record for the first time since 1998.  But they did conclude the regular season with four wins in six games (and their two losses were against Michigan and Michigan State).  The Badgers’ bright spot is junior Ethan Happ;  the 6-foot-10 forward scored 18 points in College Park earlier this month and paces leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks (but is a 9% shooter from three-point range-slacker).  Freshman guard Brad Davison has given them feast (30 points against Michigan State) and famine (5 on 1-4 shooting earlier in the week at Northwestern) in varying doses but is their number two option.  At the beginning of February it appeared as though Wisconsin was a year away from being a factor;  there’s no reason not to expect they’ll be a handful Thursday.

 

 

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