Madness Previews: The Big 26… or 10… or 14… Whatever They Call Themselves Now…

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March is a time of basketball related rejoicing. The NCAA Tournament starts midway through the month, but in the early weeks we get a flurry of fantastic college basketball with the various conference tournaments which will help decide the field for the Big Dance. I’m going to take a look at each conference, try (almost certainly unsuccessfully) to pick the winner, and determine whether anyone from that conference can make some noise, come Tourney Time. So with that, onward and upwards amigos! 

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Formerly the nations elite upper Midwestern conference, the Big 10 has since devolved into some mutant chimera that has consumed Big 12, Big East, and ACC schools to stretch from Nebraska to New Jersey. In my eyes they’re a joke and a bastardization of what was once a really cool conference with a lot of fantastic tradition BUT that’s neither here nor there. We’re here to discuss their abilities as a basketball conference for the 2014-15 season. Last season they were the nation’s best college basketball conference, and probably the year before that too. Michigan’s resurgence as a big time power, and Wisconsin and Michigan State’s continued success had a lot to do with that. This year, however, things ahve changed.

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Michigan is in near full collapse and has been all season long since they were humiliated by N.J.I.T, a school that only recently went D1 and hasn’t even found an athletic conference to let them in at the D1 level yet. Minnesota is paying the price for their moronic decision to fire Tubby Smith (a National Championship winning coach who stocked Minnesota with more talent than they had seen in decades) and bring in Richard freaking Pitino of all people… a scumbag who tried to ruin Eric Bledsoe’s basketball career before it started all cuz the kid didn’t choose to commit to his school AND a guy who couldn’t even win games in the Sun Belt Conference, so how exactly can you justify throwing him into the Big 10? Nebraska is in a disappointing rebuilding year after Tim Miles built an impressive squad last year. Penn State continues to be awful, new addition Rutgers continues to be awful (just in a new venue). Northwestern has still never once competed in the NCAA Tournament (and this year certainly won’t be their year). So there’s your bottom of the barrel in the Big 10. If anyone among them was going to do something in the Big Ten Tournament it could be Nebraska (Terran Petteway is really good… only problem is he’s a one man band for Big Red this year), Minnesota (Andre Hollins, one of the last remaining Tubby Smith guys on the roster, is really good), or Michigan who have looked slightly better closing out the season than they did opening it, but all in all noone from that crop should be much of a threat.

After that, however, you have a large crop of teams that has somehow tricked the national media into thinking the Big 10 is still the best conference in college basketball. Which it certainly is not. Joe Lunardi has been predicting around 7 Big 10 teams to make the NCAA Tournament all year long which is an outrage. The fact that Maryland, a middle tier team in the ACC, came in and dominated the Big 10 in its first ever season in the league should be proof enough that this isn’t the same Big 10 from the last 2 seasons. Putting 7 Big 10 teams into the Tournament is an absolute joke, and I really hope it doesn’t happen. Let’s take a quick look into why.

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Indiana has been an absolute dumpster fire to close out the season, and if Tom Crean miraculously avoids getting fired this season its only because IU wants to wait a hire until Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens potentially become available to hire his replacement. James Blackmon Jr. is REEEEEEEALLY good and producing much more, much quicker than I ever expected he could. Yogi Ferrell has been the backbone of this team for a couple years and is a legitimate NBA prospect (if the NBA hasn’t already soured on Tom Crean guys after the Noah Vonleh disaster). Troy Williams is also a very solid big man who practically every team on the country could use in their starting lineup. So how did this team lose 12 games this year??? Tom Crean is a terrible coach. Indiana is a terrible team. And so help me if they make it in on the bubble over a Mid Major bubble team such as Murray State I’ll be livid.

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Next on the list comes Illinois. Admittedly they probably aren’t that close to the bubble (although they have been all year long) and probably need to win the Big 10 Tournament to secure a bid, so this one I’m not so angry about. A couple wins over a Baylor team that is over-performing right now and a Maryland team that is reeeeeeeally overperforming this season are the only impressive marks on their resume. Moreover, both those wins came in the first half of the season. Illinois has been racking up losses the second half of the season, and really should be NIT bound.

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Iowa is a little different. They had a very impressive team last year that under-performed. They have a great coach (in my opinion) in Fran McCaffery, and brought back a fair amount of talent (albeit in the form of big goofy white guys for the most part) left on this roster. However, what they are is a solid team in a down year for the Big 10, not a good team in the normally excellent Big 10. You see, the Big 10 has been so good the last 2 or 3 seasons that people on the NCAA Tournament selection committee have (rightly) gotten into the habit of picking teams that were middle of the pack in the Big 10 over teams that had excellent seasons in inferior conferences. Often this was the correct choice because those middle of the pack Big 10 teams had to deal with the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State beating on them in conference, when other teams had no such Herculean tasks to overcome.

This year, however, that elite top tier of the Big 10 has thinned out significantly… in fact its just Wisconsin, meaning the Big 10 looks a lot like most other conferences in college basketball… 1 team having a great season surrounded by several solid teams and a pile of crap. The problem here, then, is that those wins against crap teams fluff up the records of the middle of the pack teams like Iowa. Its a lot less impressive to stockpile wins against the Rutgers and Penn States of the world, and makes your record at the end of the day look a lot better than it really is. That’s whats happening to Iowa this season, and because of it I simply don’t think we should give these middle of the pack Big 10 teams the nod this time around. They could prove me wrong and win a couple games in the NCAA Tournament, but I just can’t get behind rewarding the Big 10 as a conference for past success during a down year.

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Next on our list of mid level Big 10 teams are the Purdue Boilermakers. I’ll be honest, it was nice to see Purdue bounce back this season, as its been a bit of a rough stretch since the Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson years. However, as much as I may have enjoyed it, this success isn’t a sign that Purdue has finally bounced back, but rather a product of a down Big 10. They beat the two aforementioned overrated Big 10 bubble teams Iowa and Indiana in January, and that’s what put them back on the map, but their real statement win was a February home win over Ohio State (who we’ll get to shortly). That win was impressive and all but this isn’t even a vintage OSU team, and they didn’t close their season out well with losses to both Ohio State and Michigan State on the road. I needed to see them win at least one of those tough road games to close out the season if I was going to deem them worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid, and unfortunately they let me down. They’re just another paper tiger built up by a weak Big 10. They’re just a very good bad team.

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Next comes the traditional cream of the Big 10, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans. Michigan state had an excellent team last season, but lost the entire core of that roster to graduation and the NBA. Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice, and Branden Dawson are all very good, but there simply isn’t enough talent on this year’s Spartans to even hold a candle to last year’s crew. Tom Izzo is still one of the best coaches in college basketball, and his abilities have forced this team into contention and molded this roster into an NCAA Tournament bid worthy team. However, I see no Sweet 16, let alone a Final Four, in this particular group’s future.

Again, they lost to every ranked team they played in the non-conference, and even lost at home to Texas Southern of all schools. Their only win against a ranked opponent came in that Valentine’s day thriller where Denzel Valentine had to hit a late game winner to push the Spartans (playing at home mind you) past Ohio State. There really isn’t anything impressive about the season they’ve had at all. They’ve beaten up on middle tier Mid Majors and the lesser teams in the Big 10 to throw together a 21-10 record. I still think they deserve to make the tournament, but this is honestly probably me giving too much credit for Izzo’s past accomplishments. Again… it has been a REALLY down year for the Big 10.

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The last fringe Tournament team (in my opinion) from the Big 10 is Ohio State. Here we have the first Big 10 team that I actually like this year. Freshman D’Angelo Russell is an absolute stud who can score on anyone and any team. The talent around him isn’t nearly what Ohio State and Thad Matta have grown used to, but I cannot wait to see this guy lighting people up in the NCAA Tournament. They didn’t do much in the non-conference and in fact lost to every ranked opponent they played (seriously… how is the Big 10 predicted to put 7 teams in the Tournament this year?!?!?!) but they did knock off Maryland  and take care of business (most of the time) in conference. However, they’re undeniably flawed. If Russell is going off they could beat most teams, but they got lucky in that they only had to play Maryland and Wisconsin once this year (they beat Maryland but as I’m writing this they’re currently losing to Wisconsin 33-19). SO in a down year for the Big 10 they barely even had to play the good teams in conference (whereas Michigan State had to play Maryland twice). They were also incredibly disappointing away from home in Big 10 play going only 4-5 outside of Ohio. This is a team that could get hot and make a Sweet 16 run or could lose in the opening round of the Tournament. No matter how they perform once they get there, however, they are one of the few Big 10 teams that does still deserve to be there.

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And here we come to one of only 2 teams in the Big 10 that could actually be considered ‘good’ this season, the Maryland Terps. In their first ever season in the Big 10 (after moving over from the ACC) the Terps have run train on their new league. They’ve been ranked practically all season long, and are currently ranked #10 in the country. Freshman Melo Trimble has been a revelation for Maryland, and Senior Dez Wells provides whatever leadership Mark Turgeon may need on the court. They started the season out strong with an upset win over then #13 Iowa State and came out of non-conference play with a 12-1 record. Things got a little rougher for them once they entered Big 10 play as they went 13-4 including a pair of losses to Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio State, all fairly disappointing losses. However, they did put together a fairly impressive victory over Wisconsin just a couple years ago (only Wisconsin’s 3rd loss on the year, and 2nd in Big 10 play [they other, hilariously enough, being to Rutgers]). So even though Maryland’s resume isn’t exceptional, it is at least impressive. They are CERTAINLY flawed and its been widely discussed how their losses have always been big (10-15 point affairs) and their wins have been close fights (1-4 points), but hey sometimes in sports its better to be lucky than good, and if their luck holds out they could make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. It almost certainly won’t and I expect them to make a disappointingly early exit from the Big Dance, but lucky or not they at least took advantage of their new, down conference and have put together a deserving Tournament resume.

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The last team on our list of Big 10 disappointments, however, is the first one that actually matters in the national picture. The Wisconsin Badgers followed up last years 2 seed and Final Four run with a spectacular regular season that will hopefully net them a 1 seed in the coming Tournament. Like I said for the most part they have blasted this bad Big 10, and had a reasonable non-conference result (they took care of everyone they played except Duke whom they almost beat anyway, even if they didn’t play many marquee matches). Frank Kaminsky is a National Player of the Year candidate, Sam Dekker is a guaranteed first round draft pick in the NBA, and Nigel Hayes is a third option and X-Factor who would be a star on most other rosters in the country. Wisconsin is good, they’re athletic, they’re well coached, and they deserve every accolade they receive this year, no matter how bad the Big 10 has been. They’re the real deal and, if everything broke the right way, could definitely win a national championship this season.

In the end, then, the Big 10 hasn’t been nearly as atrocious as the PAC-12 was this year. However, they’re clearly #4 out of the Big 5, and aren’t even close to the Big 10 of last season. Wisconsin has as good a chance to make the Final Four as any of the top teams in the country this year, but the rest of their league is falling apart all around them (except the team they stole from the ACC…). I certainly hope they don’t get 7 teams into the tournament because they don’t deserve that at all. There is too much bias and slow thinking on the part of the Tournament Committee most of the time, so it’ll probably happen, and I’ll have to settle for feeling vindicated when 6 of the Big 10’s 7 teams get bounced in the first round. That should not, however, detract from Wisconsin’s greatness, because in all liklihood this team will be torn apart after this season when Kaminsky and Dekker leave, so enjoy it while you can, because they really are something.

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