March will come in on Tuesday. And I don’t care if it comes in as a lion or a lamb – or riding on a donkey. All I care about is the advent of basketball tournament season. What I like about the tournaments is the single elimination format: lose one and you’re done. Those regular season games in December and January are important as teams jockey for position in their respective conferences. This late in the season, games matter more as the tournament seeds start to take shape. But no regular season game measures up to one in a tournament.
I like conference tourneys, but these days they’re little more than prelims for the Big Dance. When I was at Virginia in the 70s, the ACC was the basketball powerhouse. And they got one NCAA entry – the winner of the ACC tournament. After going 4-8 in regular season conference play, Virginia won the tournament in 1976, beating three ranked teams on successive days, finishing it off by beating 25-4 North Carolina in the finals. And I was hooked on basketball tournaments.
The Big Ten tournament, 2022
After Ohio State’s thrilling win over Illinois on Thursday night, I’m ready to talk 2022 tournament basketball. Let’s start with the Big Ten tournament, which, with its odd configuration to accommodate all 14 teams, begins on March 9.
In this format, the top four teams have it great, getting byes from the first two rounds, and entering the fray for the quarterfinals on March 11. Contrarily, the bottom four seeds would have to win five consecutive games in order to claim the title. As the Brits say, “not bloody likely.”
Today, the top four teams are bunched at the top of the conference standings. Purdue and Wisconsin boast conference records of 13-4, with Illinois at 12-5 and Ohio State (playing one fewer game at this point) sitting at 11-5. Rutgers occupies fifth place at 10-7 and has a (dim) chance of getting one of the double seeds. The Scarlet Knights would have to renew their impressive February win streak (victories against Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois), win out (Wisconsin, at Indiana, Penn State), and get help in the form of losses from the current top teams. Maybe. But, again, unlikely.
Purdue, Wisconsin, and Ohio State appear to be the hot teams as we approach the end of the regular season. The Boilermakers have gone 6-1 in February and are ranked #4 nationally in the current AP standings. They’re looking at a tough (and perhaps decisive) game at Wisconsin on Tuesday night and also have home games against Michigan State and Indiana. Indiana is an in-state rival so anything goes there, but the Spartans are slipping fast, going only 2-5 in their February games. Purdue seems a lock to get one of the four double seeds.
Same for the Badgers. At 22-5 overall and ranked #13, they’ve played a 5-2 February. Even if they lose to Purdue, and at Rutgers, they’re nearly certain to beat Nebraska at home. Worst case: 14-6. Golden.
Illinois has been up and down. With Kofi Cockburn in foul trouble, as he was against the Buckeyes, they’re not the same team. And their outside shooters are streaky. The Illini go to Ann Arbor and then finish at home against Penn State and Iowa. They could win them all – or lose them all. I think that they’ll get one of the double seeds, but Illinois is my pick, among the current top four, to blow it.
That leaves Ohio State, a team with four games left to play, none of them (with Michigan State’s rapid decline) particularly fearsome and three of the four at home. I like the Buckeyes’ chances.
The bottom four, at the moment (from 14th to 11th seed) are Nebraska, Minnesota, Maryland, and Northwestern. Penn State and Northwestern could swap seeds (l0 and 11); otherwise, these teams are set too.
So, what’s it look like for the Buckeyes? I figure them for a #2 or #3 seed for the B1G tourney. If they pull the #2, they’ll play the winner of the #7 vs. #10 game – currently a muddle but likely to be any two of Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana, Penn State, and Northwestern. Not an easy task for the Bucks, but their opponent will be playing their second consecutive game. That extra rest, at this point in the season, is worth 5-7 points. A #3 seed would have them playing the winner of the #6 vs. the #11 vs. #14 winner. At this early point, that would be Iowa (dangerous, with a 5-1 February record, including a win over OSU) against either Northwestern or Penn State (#11) or Nebraska (#14).
The “Big Dance”
The conference tournament will be great basketball and great fun, as the top teams try build up momentum for the NCAA tournament.
As I write this story, Jerry Palm, the “Bracketology” guru for CBS sports, puts seven Big Ten teams in his tournament brackets, with Rutgers and Indiana among the first four out. Palm also has Michigan as one of the last four in, so, for these teams at least, performance in the Big Ten tournament will matter greatly.
Such bracketology is idle speculation, of course, but part of what makes March Madness so much fun. Palm places Purdue in the Midwest regional with a #2 seed to Auburn’s #1. It’s hard to think of Auburn as a basketball powerhouse, but they were in the final four just a couple of years ago and are for real this year. Nevertheless, if I were a Boilermaker fan (hardly!), I’d rather be in the regional with Auburn than any of the others, which have Gonzaga (West), Arizona (South), and Kansas (East) as their top seeds.
Wisconsin is assigned a #3 seed (South), Illinois a #5 (West), Michigan State a #7 (East)—too high, I think, and Iowa a #10 seed (South). Michigan, as one of the last schools in, would have to play in, as one of the “first four.” Palm has the Wolverines matched against Wake Forest.
The Buckeyes are sitting as the #4 team in the East; should they make it to the Elite Eight, they’d play the Jayhawks. Not bad. With the red-hot Malaki Branham joining E.J. Liddell as a genuine star and a really significant scoring threat, I like the Buckeyes. Branham’s scoring takes pressure off of Kyle Young and Jamari Wheeler so that they can do what they do best: rebounding for Young, and dishing and defending for Wheeler. Justin Ahrens seems to have left the stage for the wings, but Cedric Russell, Eugene Brown III, and Meechie Johnson Jr. can all put up points. So can Zed Key from time to time. The Bucks are ready!
Oh, I feel madness coming. Bring it on.