By Jackson Heiden and Nelson Hubbell
For the second straight year, the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament will be played at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, home of the Indiana Pacers, starting Wednesday at 6 p.m., featuring Nebraska versus Northwestern.
Illinois, as the defending conference tournament champs, captured the one seed and are poised to repeat as the Big Ten Champs. They will be tested as their half of the bracket is filled with teams that are known to get hot and play spoiler as tournament season comes around.
Game 1: No. 12 Northwestern v. No. 13 Nebraska | March 9, at 6:00 p.m.
No. 13 Nebraska: Led by Freshman Bryce McGowens (17.2 ppg) and Alonzo Verge jr. (14.2 ppg), Nebraska is quietly one of the hotter teams in the conference. The Cornhuskers may have the worst record in the conference (both overall and in conference play) but they are winners of three straight road games to finish the season. They turned in an excellent performance against Wisconsin on Sunday night at the Kohl Center to knock the Badgers from their top-seeded spot into a two seed and sole possession of the Big Ten regular season Championship. Just five days prior they beat Ohio State by eight in Columbus. Nebraska has gained a lot of confidence and they probably believe in themselves more than any other 10-21 team in the country.
Looking at the rest of their schedule is pretty discouraging but if they stay hot you never know. They could surprise some people and win a few games.
No. 12 Northwestern: That said, Northwestern seems to have Nebraska’s number this season. The Wildcats have won both of their previous matchups against the Cornhuskers by 12 and 24 twenty four points. Star forward Pete Nance (14.7 ppg) will have to show up this tournament if they want to make a semblance of a run. Boo Bouie (14.1 ppg) is a clutch shot maker and if the game is close late you’re gonna want to keep your eyes on him. Northwestern has been able to stay competitive against some very good teams this season.
Just about any team they play they have a shot to beat, and the game is almost a guarantee to be exciting, but don’t get your hopes up if you’re a Wildcats fan.
Game 2: No. 11 Penn State v. No. 14 Minnesota | March 9, 25 minutes following game 1
No. 14 Minnesota: Despite not playing any big power five schools to start the season, except for Pitt (ACC), Mississippi State (SEC), Michigan (BIG), and Michigan State (BIG), Minnesota started their 2022 season hot, winning 10 of their first 11 games. Once the conference schedule began, all wheels came off for the Gophers as they lost 15 of their 18 final games with their only three wins coming against Penn State, Rutgers, and Northwestern, who are all three bottom-tier teams. The Gophers haven’t shown any signs of optimism this season, as they have lost virtually all of their games by almost 10 or more points. They finished their season
No. 11 Penn State: Penn State’s men’s basketball program has been historically inconsistent throughout the years, they’re either that pesky team who can wreck any team’s dreams of going on a tournament run, or they’re a team that is flat out terrible. This season was another one of those for the Nittany Lions as they struggled to put any sort of winning streak together all season. Their biggest wins of the season were against ranked Michigan State, Iowa, and Indiana. However, they gave quite a few ranked teams a run for their money this season as they didn’t lose by much in the games in which they played a ranked opponent. The Nittany Lions finished their season with a 12-16 record overall and 7-13 in conference play, finishing 11th in the conference.
Even though both these teams split their season series, I see Penn State as the winner in the first round.
Game 3: No. 8 Michigan v. No. 9 Indiana | March 10, at 11:30 a.m.
No. 8 Michigan: The Wolverine’s are coming off of a five game stretch without their Head Coach Juwan Howard who was suspended for hitting Joe Krabbenhoft, a Wisconsin Assistant Coach, in a scuffle following their game over two weeks ago. Unmarred by that, Michigan has remained consistently inconsistent for the final 14 games of the season, winning back-to-back games only once in that span but never losing back-to-back games.
Most recently, Michigan defeated Ohio State this past Sunday, March 6, without star forward Hunter Dickinson (18.4 ppg) who leads the team in points and rebounds (8.5 rbg). Dickinson had a stomach bug and is expected to be back for Thursday’s game. Michigan seems to have figured something out and they’ve been getting quality bench contributions lately. Look for senior guard Devante Jones to step up this tournament and in the big dance if the Wolverines are going to make a run. Jones put up 21 points and nine assists against Ohio State.
Michigan can beat anybody when they play at their best which makes them a lot of people’s dark horse pick to win the tourney.
No. 9 Indiana: Let’s face it, the Hoosiers have collapsed. They’ve lost seven out of their last nine and two straight following wins against Minnesota and Maryland. Indiana is still a very talented basketball team. Led by forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (17.4 ppg and 8.2 rbgp) and guard Xavier Johnson (11.8 ppg and 4.8 apg), Indiana is trying to dig themselves out of their hole and into a bubble spot. Beating Michigan, especially in commanding fashion, will go a long way to doing that. Indiana is probably the only true bubble team in the Big Ten and they could really use a tourney run.
At 18-12 their record would imply that they might be NCAA tournament worthy but the late season implosion significantly hurt those chances. Indiana is most likely NIT bound unless they can pull off an upset or two.
Game 4: No. 5 Iowa v. Winner of Game 1 | March 10, 25 minutes after Game 3
No. 5 Iowa: Leading the way, the Hawkeyes have forward Keegan Murray and then everyone else. Murray led the conference with 23.3 points per game this year. That’s more than twice as many as their next closest player, Jordan Bohannon (10.9 ppg). Bohannon has been pretty inconsistent this season for Iowa but throughout his six year career he has always come up in the clutch. He’s a guy that can explode for points at any point and is absolutely built for tournament time. The sixth year senior has played in 174 games to date. Iowa’s post play has been their weak spot but when they’re shooting the ball well they’re one of the toughest outs in the conference and in the country.
I like Iowa to win a couple games before falling in the semifinals.
Game 5: No. 7 Michigan State v. No. 10 Maryland | March 10, at 6:30 p.m.
No. 7 Michigan State: Following what was a rough 2020-21 basketball season, Michigan State has had a decent bounce-back season despite their cold skid at the end. The Spartans started the season looking like the dominant team that the sports world knows them as, winning 14 of their first 16 games, before running into a pesky Northwestern team. Regardless of their tough schedule in January and February, the Spartans became inconsistent as they lost eight of their last 14 games to end the season, finishing with an 11-9 conference record,20-11 overall.
No. 10 Maryland: Maryland had a rough 2021-22 season as it began with their head coach resigning not even a month in the season. Following the resignation of Mark Turgeon, the Terrapins played mediocre basketball. They were able to beat the bottom half of the conference pretty easily however when it came to the top eight teams in the conference, Maryland had no answer, as they finished the season with a 7-13 conference record and a 15-16 record overall.
Michigan State swept the season series against Maryland, and it’s never easy to beat a team three times in one season. Look for Michigan State to easily handle Maryland to move on to Friday.
Game 6: No. 6 Ohio State v. Winner of game 2 | March 10, 25 mins. after game 5
No. 6 Ohio State: Ohio State will look to play as one of the sleeper teams as they played dominantly throughout the season. The Buckeyes finish the season with an impressive resume as they notched wins against the No. 1 Duke, No. 22 Seton Hall, No. 15 Illinois, and split the season series with No. 13 Wisconsin and unranked Michigan. However, Ohio State didn’t finish their impressive season out nicely as they dropped three of their last four games of the season, two of the losses being against the bottom teams in the conference.
Look for Ohio State to cleanly run through the winner of Minnesota v. Penn State, and as they move on through the postseason, prepare for them to pull some upsets.
Game 7: No. 1 Illinois v. Game 3 Winner: March 11, at 11:30 a.m.
No. 1 Illinois: Kofi Cockburn (21 ppg and 10.6 rpg) will pretty much always be the strongest man on the court. Dominating the competition in the post, Cockburn is a mismatch against just about anyone he plays. Illinois is an extremely deep team except for the center position behind Cockburn but that doesn’t matter. Their guard play is terrific and any one of them can go off for big scoring games. Illinois’ consistently performed extremely well throughout the season. They probably have the most solid team identity which bodes well.
The Illini ended up sharing a conference title with Wisconsin and I think they’re better than the Badgers so watch out for them as a title contender.
Game 8: No. 4 Rutgers v. Game 4 Winner: March 11, 25 minutes after Game 7
No. 4 Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have been a streaky team this season, but they’re on a two game winning streak following three-straight losses. Guard/forward Ron Harper Jr. (15.7 ppg) is their best scorer and big shot maker. They’ve needed him to be that in their last two wins against Penn State and Indiana where Harper Jr. hit a 3-point shot in the final seconds to win the game. Guard Geo Baker (12 ppg) is a hot and cold second option who has also shown the ability to hit big shots late in games throughout his career. Rutgers seems determined to prove their doubters wrong. A historically atrocious basketball program has been turned around by head coach Steve Pikiell in the last few seasons, and they play with an edge.
Rutgers could muck up a game against anyone which makes them a tough team to pick one way or another. I don’t see them making it out of the quarterfinals.
Game 9: No. 2 Wisconsin v. Winner of game 5 | March 11, at 6:30 p.m.
No. 2 Wisconsin: Wisconsin has been one of the most surprising stories all season as they were projected to finish 10th in the conference. The Badgers played as one of the most consistent teams in the country all year long, despite not having any notable big blowout wins. Wisconsin failed to claim outright regular-season champs as they dropped a close game to finish out the season. Overall the Badgers finished with a 24-6 record, going 15-5 in conference play.
Most of Wisconsin’s win’s this season have been by single digits, and they’ve been closing out games very nicely this season which is crucial for a deep postseason run. Look for Wisconsin to put up a tough fight against the winner of Maryland v. Michigan State, but don’t be surprised to see them get upset early on either.
Game 10: No. 3 Purdue v. Winner of game 6 | March 11, 25 mins. After game 9
No. 3 Purdue: After spending most of the season ranked in the top five, and dropping a couple of games late in the season, the Boilermakers are destined to make a semi-finals appearance. Purdue notched big wins over ranked teams such as North Carolina, Villanova, Illinois, and Ohio State. However, down the stretch, they lost to a tough Michigan State team and lost at the buzzer to a tough ranked Wisconsin team, which in return cost them at least a share of the Big Ten regular title. Purdue finished with a 25-6 record overall and went 14-6 in conference play.
Every team is bound to let a few games slip away that they lost that they should’ve won, and this was the case for the Boilermakers. Look for them to be a tough team to face that won’t back down. Expect them to be a favorite to be presented in the Big Ten title game.
Jackson’s Championship Game Prediction: Illinois v. Wisconsin
Wisconsin and Illinois only matched up once during the regular season where Illinois won by 13. Since then the Badgers have grown a lot with a huge defender down in the paint and the quick shooting of guards Brad Davison and Johnny Davis. Wisconsin is looking to continue proving people wrong and is also out for revenge against the Illini. Expect this game to be close and come down to the final minutes where Wisconsin will find a way to close it out, just as they have been all season.
Nelson’s Championship Game Prediction: Illinois v. Purdue
I find that Purdue matches up with Illinois the best and I’m not particularly impressed with Wisconsin. I’ve been standing on my soap box yelling that Wisconsin is overrated all season. As they continue to win games this stubborn dolt still thinks they’re imposters. My predictions would (possibly?) prove that. Purdue matches up with Illinois the best. Their dominance in the post with Zach Edey and Trevion Williams coupled with a top NBA prospect in Guard Jaden Ivey makes them too tempting to not choose as the winner here. I’m expecting Cockburn to get into foul trouble and the jump shots not falling for Illinois. It’ll be a close one but Purdue will hold on and avoid another buzzer beating defeat like they’ve faced in 2 out of their last 3 games.
In a weaker top half of the Big Ten Tournament bracket, Illinois sits atop as the one seed with a double-bye. Rutgers (4 seed) is the second highest seeded team in their half of the bracket. Michigan (8 seed), Indiana (9 seed), and Iowa (5 seed) all received single-byes. The first game among the four teams without a bye is between Northwestern (12 seed) and Nebraska (13 seed).