2014 Big Ten Tournament Preview

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Michigan B1G Championship-5The Big Ten Tournament begins on Thursday, and while Michigan doesn’t play until Friday, there are still plenty of reasons to tune in to the first-round matchups. Michigan stands alone at the top of the league, having won the Big Ten title by three games in the regular season. But if this conference season has taught us anything, this tournament is as wide open as it’s been in years. Given the amount of upsets during the course of the regular season, a lower-tier Big Ten school could play its way into the NCAA tournament.

RELATED: View the 2014 Big Ten Tournament Bracket

Below you’ll find our complete breakdown of the Big Ten Tournament, complete with our pick to win it, which players to watch for over the weekend, possible upsets and much more. (Photo: Dustin Johnston)

Dark Horse: Ohio State (Thursday, 2:30 p.m. vs. Purdue, BTN)

Do we need to go over the Buckeyes’ record in the Big Ten Tournament under Thad Matta? Over the course of Matta’s tenure, Ohio State has had unreal success in the conference tournament — the coach holds a 19-5 record in the Big Ten Tournament and has won four of them. The coach won his latest only one year ago, beating Wisconsin in one of the uglier basketball games on record. This year, the Buckeyes are down. Their Big Ten record was a disappointing 10-8 and only netted them a five seed in the tournament, which means that for the first time in a while, they’ll be playing on Friday. However, Ohio State’s stellar record in the Big Ten under Matta, along with being matched up against the worst team in the conference for game one and the four seed for game two, gives the Buckeyes a chance to pull it off.

Three players to watch:

  • Yogi Ferrell – PG, Indiana – Thursday, 12:00 p.m. vs. Illinois, BTN: Indiana’s top scorer and arguably the best point guard in the Big Ten may be playing with a chip on his shoulder after being excluded from the All-Big Ten First Team when the conference handed out the awards on Monday. But more than that, Ferrell has the ability to catch fire from 3-point land, as Michigan knows all too well — the sophomore is a combined 11-for-16 from beyond the arc against the Wolverines. If he gets hot, Indiana has a chance to make a run.
  • Keith Appling – PG, Michigan State – Friday, 9 p.m. vs. Iowa/Northwestern, BTN: Michigan State fans may not like this, but the Spartans go as Keith Appling goes. The beleaguered point guard has been injured on and off for most of Michigan State’s season, but has struggled even after the doctors cleared him of his wrist injury. Spartan fans will be on pins and needles looking for Appling to find his groove. For a quick study on his relative importance to the team, take a look at Michigan’s State’s past two games: in a win over Iowa, Appling scored 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting with three assists and a steal; in a loss to Ohio State, he scored only two points and paired his six assists with three turnovers.
  • Kendrick Nunn - SG, Illinois – Thursday, 12:00 p.m. vs. Indiana, BTN: With nothing to lose and its only shot at an NCAA tournament berth being a Big Ten Tournament championship, Illinois should have one mission going into this weekend: get Kendrick Nunn the ball. The freshman wing has heated up in a big way since the start of the season and is one of the few Illini who is getting it done on the offensive end. Over Illinois’ first 23 games, Nunn averaged four points per game. In Illinois’ last eight games, he’s up to 12 points per game. Not only that, he’s shooting 53 percent from beyond the arc in that span. Get. Nunn. The. Ball.

Most to prove: Minnesota (Thursday, 6:30 p.m. vs. Penn State, ESPN2)

Minnesota has to prove one very simple fact: that they are good enough to play in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers may have more riding on this tournament than any other Big Ten team, since Nebraska likely played its way in by beating Wisconsin at home in the final conference game of the regular season. Minnesota had its chances for a big win like that near the end of conference play, going up against Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State in the last month, but the best it could come up with was a home win over a struggling Iowa team. With a run in the Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers could play their way in to the Big Dance.

Team we like: Nebraska (Friday, 2:30 p.m. vs. Ohio State/Purdue, ESPN/2)

Who doesn’t like Nebraska? Along with having the most likable coach in college basketball, the Cornhuskers are entering the weekend as arguably the hottest team in the conference. Nebraska has won 10 out of its last 12 games and is coming off of the biggest win in the program’s recent history, a 77-68 home win over Wisconsin that probably locked them into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. How have the Huskers gone on such a tear? Part of the reason is that they got through their tough stretch of conference play early. But the other piece has been defense: Nebraska has the second-best defense in Big Ten play with an efficiency rating of 99.2.

Team to worry: Iowa (Thursday, 9 p.m. vs. Northwestern, ESPN2)

As I talked about with Thomas Beindit on the UMHoops Podcast yesterday, Iowa has plenty to worry about heading into this weekend. For one thing, the Hawkeyes are in the middle of a precipitous slide out of the top tier of Big Ten teams — they’ve lost five out of their last six games, including losses to Illinois and Indiana. While they face a Northwestern team that is on a similar downward spiral, Iowa needs to beat the Wildcats and secure an opportunity to get back on track against Michigan State in the second round. The only problem? Michigan State has eliminated Iowa in the past three straight Big Ten Tournaments.

Easiest path: Michigan

We have to admit, the Wolverines have the smoothest path to a Big Ten Tournament title as the number one seed. Michigan will play either Illinois or Indiana in its second-round matchup, both teams it has played — and defeated — in the past two weeks. While Indiana has given Michigan trouble this year, Illinois was embarrassed at home by the Wolverines on March 4th, losing by 31 points thanks to a complete inability to stop Michigan’s offense. Not only does Michigan have plenty of favorable and recent history with the two teams it could face in its first game, it hasn’t lost to any of the teams it could be playing in its second game — Minnesota, Ohio State or Nebraska.

Our pick: Wisconsin

Outside of Michigan, the Badgers are playing some of the best offensive basketball in the conference right now. While it dropped their final game on the road at Nebraska (where no Big Ten team besides Michigan won this season), Wisconsin won eight straight games before that — including wins over Iowa (on the road), Michigan State and Michigan (on the road). With two models of efficiency in the starting five — Josh Gasser is the 7th-most efficient player in the country, according to kenpom, Frank Kaminsky the 45th — the Badgers have a strong chance of taking home the Big Ten Tournament championship.

  • mistersuits

    An Iowa vs Minnesota semi-final matchup would do wonders for Michigan’s RPI and their chances to win the BTT. That only has about a 10% chance of occurring though according to KenPom.

    Also I will be rooting hard for the Illini today as Indiana is not the team I want to see Michigan play for a third time this season.

  • UMHoopsFan

    I’m amazed at how few people are picking Michigan. I’ll take the team who practically lapped the field in conference, had the best efficiency margin in conference, has the highest kenpom ranking on the year, has the longest current winning streak, and has the easiest path. People are overthinking this one.

  • Dr_ZC

    a very nice article about the maturation of Nik in the Detroit free press. If you remember in the 60 minutes sports, they had a feature on Michigan’s secret weapon Greg Harden. They even had a 2 sec video of Stauskas embracing Harden before a game. There is more here.

    http://www.freep.com/article/20140313/COL38/303130042/nik-stauskas-michigan-basketball-big-ten

  • Mattski

    Have you guys considered running a BTT thread?

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      Consider this it.

  • Ben Sheler

    One of the things we need to happen to get a one seed if we win the BTT might be. Villanova down 14 to Seton Hall (6-12 in big east)

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      Yep. Michigan should be rooting hard against Villanova, Kansas (vs. Oklahoma State at 3 p.m.) and Wisconsin.

    • Repeat89

      Seton Hall is completely controlling this one…

      This is the first time I have been able to watch Nova, and boy oh boy, they sure don’t look like a 1 seed to me. Not impressed with them at all.

      • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

        I’m sure there have been times when people would have said Michigan didn’t look like a 1, 2, or 3 seed this year :-)

        • Repeat89

          Completely agree… Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they would be undeserving of a 1 seed…

          I have been a bit skeptical of the AAC, which leads me to doubt Nova as a legit contender.

        • Repeat89

          Touche… I completely agree. Believe me, by no means can I say whether they are deserving of the 1 seed or not…

          Simply pointing out that my first time watching them hasn’t been a convincing one.

      • Ben Sheler

        nova is 1-13 from three…ouch

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      Also worth noting.. Lunardi’s latest bracket math has Michigan at No. 5 on the s-curve. Top No. 2 seed and headed to Indy. http://insider.espn.go.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/10588865/latest-update-joe-lunardi-bracket-math-college-basketball?ex_cid=InsiderTwitter_LunardiBracketMath

  • JimC

    Looks like IU is going to lose to IL….I like our matchup with IL a lot better than IU, who has proven capable of beating the top teams in the B1G.

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      A lot easier to like our chances against a team we beat by 30 on the road compared to a team we almost lost to at home.

      Gotta figure Illinois will be fired up though. I figure they could at least be in the conversation for a tourney spot if they beat Michigan, especially if they can get to Sunday.

      • rlcBlue

        It only now occurs to me, but this was kind of the rock-paper-scissors corner of the bracket: Illinois’s strength is forcing turnovers, Michigan’s strength is limiting turnovers, and Indiana’s strength is committing turnovers. It works out very well for us.

        I certainly expect the Illini to have much more defensive intensity tomorrow than they had last week, but I still like our chances. I wonder how many times Irvin, GRIII and Albrecht have played in that arena.

    • Dr_ZC

      I would be a lot worried if we play against IL. We had a great game against them (we could not have played any better) in combination with bad shooting on their part. I am afraid of a possible let down due to over confidence. On the other hand, if we play against Indiana, we know we have to play hard for 40 min. We also know that IL will have something to prove if they play against us, and that worries me.

    • rlcBlue

      Enjoy the NIT, Clappy.

  • ajerome33

    Thank you very much Seton Hall…..now go Oklahoma State!

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      Yep. 1 seed is very much in play.

      • ajerome33

        Indeed. Never would have thought so a couple weeks ago, but with Embiid’s injury, this Nova loss today, and us controlling our own destiny (potentially with another matchup on the horizon with Wisconsin) in the BTT, it’s very much in play.

    • Ben Sheler

      Oklahoma State has been on a roll and just beat kansas March 1st. With embiid out I would pick ok st to win this game.

      • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

        Yep. If Kansas can have a decent showing at the Big XII tourney I think they might beat out Michigan for the No. 1 still.

    • rlcBlue

      A Jaren Sina sighting at Seton Hall – I had totally lost track of where he ended up.

  • UMHoopsFan

    New best case scenario: #1 seed in the East with Nova as the 2.
    Of course, UM winning their games is the most imporant thing, and everything else will take care of itself.

    • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

      Yep. The No. 1 in the East would be a dream scenario. Michigan would draw really well to the Garden.

  • Tony DeMaria

    CBSsports just updated their bracketology and knocked Villanova off the top line and put Wisconsin there. So I’m assuming that is basically a placeholder for whichever of UM or Wisconsin wins the BTT (assuing one of them do of course).

  • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

    Here’s a 3 minute long highlight video of Andrew Dakich @daycheck3 celebrating.
    https://t.co/MmpyKmeZwg

    • Dr_ZC

      he’s got to get some kind of an award for the moves he pulls. Highly entertaining and innovative.

  • Hail Blue

    So, Nova lost. I think if that means that if UM or Wisconsin wins the BTT, they will be the 1 seed. Man if we advance to the Finals, that Sunday will be really exciting.

    • mistersuits

      It’s going to be very interesting how the committee does it… both the BTT winner (UM or Wisc) and the ACC winner (Duke, Syracuse, Virginia) would all have good claims at the last 1 seed.

      • jakerblue

        I would think cuse is out of the 1 seed discussion with those bad losses to end the season

  • rlcBlue

    Mercy. All that remains of Iowa is a field of smoking stubble. Will they still get an at-large bid?

    • MLaw

      I was just thinking the same thing. Record not as impressive as I thought plus 4-8 finish if they lose this would be horrific.

      • MLaw

        We are their biggest win. Otherwise, they have wins against OSU, Xavier, and Minnesota. Plus the tailspin will make Sunday very uncomfortable for Iowa.