The Big Ten Conference Tournament tips off on Thursday with four games. View updated college basketball odds.
While the 2011 Big Ten Conference tournament features three teams that are clearly better than the rest of the field, a darkhorse pick below them is certainly capable of pulling off some upsets and making a run at an invitation to the Big Dance. Whether or not a seed worse than the top three can win the Big Ten’s automatic bid in Indianapolis remains to be seen, but there are four teams with 9-9 records in conference play that will essentially be playing to get into the NCAA tournament.
Of those teams, #6 seed Penn State (16-13) and #7 Michigan State (17-13) definitely have the most work to do since they both must play opening-round games on Thursday. The Spartans square off against #10 Iowa (11-19, 4-14 Big Ten) after #8 Northwestern (17-12, 7-11) plays #9 Minnesota (17-13, 6-12) in the first game of the day, and then the Nittany Lions face #11 Indiana (12-19, 3-15) in the nightcap.
Michigan State went 5-8 in its last 13 games and is clearly on the NCAA tournament bubble despite advancing to the Final Four in each of the past two seasons. The Spartans were swept by #4 Michigan (19-12) and failed to live up to lofty expectations after being ranked second nationally in the preseason. They also split two meetings with the Hawkeyes, including a brutal 72-52 loss on the road. Falling to Iowa again would likely keep Michigan State out of the Big Dance for the first time since 1997.
One victory for Penn State in the Big Ten tournament will not be enough either, as the Nittany Lions would need to knock off #3 Wisconsin (23-7, 13-5) in the next round as well to have any shot at an at-large bid. However, even that still would not guarantee them anything. It does help that #4 Michigan (19-12) plays #5 Illinois (19-12) in the quarterfinals on Friday, and one of those teams will lose. The Wolverines and Illini are the other teams with 9-9 conference records.
The top three seeds also have something to play for, although #1 Ohio State (29-2, 16-2) should be a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens. The Badgers also would like to earn at least a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament while #2 Purdue (25-6, 14-4) is shooting for a #2.
Led by Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jared Sullinger, the Buckeyes are currently ranked #1 in the nation and would be the top overall seed in the Big Dance if the tournament started today. They are the defending conference tournament champions after knocking off the sixth-seeded Gophers in the title game and could face them again in the quarterfinals if they get by the Wildcats on Thursday. Ohio State set NCAA Division 1 records by making 14 of 15 shots from beyond the 3-point arc in a 93-65 rout of Wisconsin in the regular-season finale.
The Boilermakers enjoyed an outstanding season without leading scorer Robbie Hummel, who re-tore his right ACL in practice before they even played a game. Hummel also missed last year’s Big Ten and NCAA tournaments with a torn ACL, but teammate JaJuan Johnson stepped up in his place by leading the Big Ten in scoring with 20.5 points per game. Johnson was rewarded for his efforts by being named Big Ten Player of the Year while Purdue’s Matt Painter won Coach of the Year for the second time in as many seasons.