I wore sandals outside last night. There were still fairly large snow drifts around the neighborhood, and it was only about 50 degrees, but after the last three months of Chicago winter, it felt like 80. Sandals and snow? That's just your typical March Madness here in the midwest. The basketball March Madness officially kicks off Thursday at the United Center, when Illinois and Minnesota play in the first game of the 2013 Big Ten Tournament.
Despite previous panicked prognostications, the Buckeyes are safely in the NCAA Tournament, no matter what happens in Chicago. The general consensus seems to be that the Buckeyes are in the 3-4 seed range, and could conceivably get all the way up to a 2 seed should they win the whole tournament, which seems totally crazy when you realize that less than a month ago, the Buckeyes were getting completely clowned by Wisconsin and a 7 seed seemed more appropriate. Hey, that's March for you, and crazy things happen this time of year. Let's take a look at the B1G bracket, to see what you should watch, what you should skip, what the implications are, and what the Buck's chances are to cut down the nets.
8) Illinois vs 9) Minnesota This is certainly the most intriguing of the first round games on Thursday. There has been some talk around the internet that the loser of this game may actually miss the tournament. Don't believe them. Both Illinois and Minnesota both have too many quality wins outside of Big Ten play and have too solid of computer backgrounds to be left out of the dance entirely, especially given the relative weakness of the bubble field. Still, both squads are on losing streaks and will be desperate to gain a little momentum heading into the Big Dance.
These teams split their season series, with the road team winning both games. Minnesota *killed* Illinois back on Jan 9th, while Illinois won 57-53 on Feb 10th, despite an off night from Brandon Paul. I'd put Illinois as a slight favorite, as they'll likely have a partisan crowd backing them, and their recent slide is much more forgivable (Illinois may have lost 3 of their last 4, but that was at Michigan, at Ohio State and against a desperate Iowa squad, while Minnesota lost back to back to Nebraska and Purdue). If Illinois struggles with their outside shot though, Minnesota's commanding rebounding advantage could turn this into a blowout. Either way, both teams should be around the 8-10 seed line in the NCAAs.
5) Michigan vs 12) Penn State First, how crazy is it that a team that spent time as the number one team in the country, and remains a top 10 squad, is FIFTH in their league tourney? Good heavens this league is stacked. Normally, you'd say this is a colossal mismatch, but Penn State actually BEAT Michigan at home, and played them very tough on the road. That means this is only a *very big* mismatch, rather than a colossal one. Michigan could grab a one seed if they win out, and look for them to roll over an overmatched Penn State squad this time around.
7) Purdue vs 10) Nebraska Both of these teams were terrible for large swaths of the season but have really improved as of late to give both fanbases hope for the future. Purdue recently knocked off Minnesota and Wisconsin at home, a stretch so impressive it moved our Purdue blog to name Matt Painter as Big Ten COY, which, you know (see: lololololol). Nebrasketball has recent wins over Minnesota and Iowa. These two squads only met once this year, a 65-56 Purdue victory in Lincoln. It wouldn't surprise me if Nebraska stole a victory here, but I imagine Purdue's rebounding advantage would allow them to win an ugly game.
6) Iowa vs 11) Northwestern The only other potentially interesting game of the first round, if only because Iowa is the only team that could plausibly grab a NCAA berth without winning the entire Big Ten tourney, based on their performance. It'll have to start with a wounded Northwestern team with nothing to play for other than pride, which means that Northwestern winning 49-45 would be like, the most Big Ten thing ever. Iowa beat Northwestern comfortably twice this season though, and we should expect them to make it a 3rd, even though the Wildcats are "Chicago's Big Ten Team".
Possible Second Round matchups
1) Indiana vs 8) Illinois How fun would this be? An Indiana team hoping to reassert their command over the number one overall seed, not to mention atone for their embarrassing collapse against Illinois during the regular season, against a bunch of fearless gunners egged on by a pro-Illinois crowd? Indiana should be able to win this game, but Illinois was able to overcome their size disadvantage and win their only regular season meeting. An Illinois victory wouldn't be SHOCKING, but you'd expect the Hooisers to move on.
4) Wisconsin vs 5) Michigan The highlight of the second round, by far, and would could easily be an Elite-Eight caliber matchup. Wisconsin won the regular season meeting in a 65-62 OT thriller that ended up as one of the best games of the regular season. I don't see any reason to expect this one to be any different, although I think Michigan is a teensy bit better, and finds a way to pull out a close win on their strength of Hardaway and Burke.
2) Ohio State vs 7) Purdue How important is getting that 2nd seed now? The Buckeyes clearly have the easiest early route in the tournament. The Bucks are 3-0 against Purdue and Nebraska in the regular season, and Purdue doesn't have anybody who can check Deshaun Thomas should he decide to go off. Ohio State getting upset at this stage would be a massive disappointment, and given that this team is playing their best basketball right now, I don't think that's happening.
3) Michigan State vs 6) Iowa This should be very interesting. Iowa played Michigan State very closely, and lost a very winnable game 62-59. The Hawkeyes absolutely need this win to make the NCAA, while Michigan State's motivations won't be as strong (although they are the superior ballclub). Every B1G tourney needs one upset, and I like the Hawkeyes to grab it here, as Sparty has looked a little shaky as of late.
1) Indiana vs 5) Michigan Omg omg omg can we be so lucky? The season finale was an outstanding basketball game, and would have been perfect if only Michigan could hit their damn free throws, which would have given us a share of the B1G Title. That, my friends, is why Michigan still sucks. Picking a winner is a complete coin flip, given how evenly matched the two squads are, but rest assured it's going to be great television that you won't want to miss. It seems hard to believe that Indiana could beat Michigan 3 times in one season, but I think they'll find a way to win another heartbreaker.
2) Ohio State vs 6) Iowa I actually like Ohio State's chances against either Iowa or Michigan State, given how closely the Buckeyes have played the Spartans in their last two meetings, but I have a hunch it'll be a rematch of Iowa, a team that OSU blew out, then nearly choked away. Aaron White is a load down low that would give OSU's frontline trouble, but the Buckeye's significant advantage on the wings, plus Iowa's poor free throw shooting, should give OSU the edge. If there aren't any major upsets that steal at-large bids, I think getting to the semis might be enough for Iowa to grab an 11 seed.
1) Indiana vs 2) Ohio State While the bragging rights would obviously be huge, the bracket implications at this point would be largely moot. Indiana would be locked into a 1 seed, probably 1 overall at this point, and Ohio State's ability to grab 2 seed is just as dependent on what other squads are doing as their own performance. Likely, if OSU is in the finals, they'll settle in as a 3 seed and get to play their first games closer to home. The Buckeyes grabbed their win over the Hoosiers thanks to superior defensive play, AND the fact that Indiana's two best players were in foul trouble for most of the first half. I don't think that's the case here, and Indiana wins a close one, followed by a 4 hour net-cutting ceremony from Indiana, featuring Tom Crean crawling into the stands and individually cursing out fans.
It could happen right? Wouldn't be the craziest bit of March Madness that we'll see in the next week.