Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
This week’s topic: Which underdog could win the Big Ten Tournament?
Josh’s Take: Iowa
You know I wanted to say Nebraska here, right? The Cornhuskers have suddenly become the new Rutgers — AKA the team actual good teams don’t want to play. Their upset of Wisconsin is definitely not one that I saw coming, but I feel like that is exactly why we’re having this debate.
A different Big Ten team has seemingly been on upset alert every day of the week, for the past month. It has been great for college basketball, and frankly, great for the conference. Talking heads, social media, and the common fan have all been following the race closely. The chaotic nature of this league has also been frustrating, maddening, annoying, and depending on your ability to predict games, either very costly or very profitable.
The Big Ten is the wild, wild (mid)west, where anything can happen. The parity among teams is giving us some great basketball, and I predict that the conference tournament will be a wild ride. So I feel like I can’t go wrong with my choice here, but there is one underdog in the top half of the conference standings that I am ruling out. That team is Ohio State.
I just can’t do it, Gene. Remember when this team was considered one of the favorites to wear the regular season crown? And undefeated at home? Yeesh... But the Buckeyes have limped to the finish, and I cannot, in good conscience, pick them to win the Big Ten Tournament. I still think they have two borderline/burgeoning superstars. I still believe that Chris Holtmann is a good coach. I have watched them beat Duke and Wisconsin, and take Purdue to the final buzzer. But this team is not the same team we saw earlier in the season, and Liddell/Branham/Holtmann can only do so much with so little at their disposal. Hopefully this is a reverse jinx, but I see the Buckeyes bowing out relatively early.
So which underdog do I like to potentially win the B1G tourney? Well, it is one of the teams I generally dislike the most. The Fighting McCaffery’s, baby! Iowa has one of, if not the best, players in the conference. They’re experienced, and they take great care of the ball. Oh yeah, they can also score with the best of ‘em. If you’re asking for an honest opinion, I think the Hawkeyes can win in Indianapolis.
A few weeks back, I ethered Fran McCaffery and some of his players. I don’t regret it for a nanosecond. But they proved me wrong against the Buckeyes, and they are playing well at the right time. Winners of five of their last six, the Iowa Hawkeyes are a dangerous basketball team. They are averaging 85 points per game since the beginning of February, and rank 5th in the country in PPG for the season. Keegan Murray has been doing Keegan Murray things all season, and his supporting cast really stepped up down the stretch.
The one thing that could make me look foolish here, is the fact that Iowa has failed (so far) to take down any of the top three teams in the Big Ten. They finished a combined 0-5 against Wisconsin, Illinois, and Purdue, but their average margin of defeat in those games was 6.4 points. They should have scored their first win against those teams last night, but failed to hit a corner three at the buzzer. Should have let a McCaffery shoot it.
In a single-loss elimination tournament, with only 14 teams, the Hawkeyes only need to get hot for a few games. Keegan Murray is essentially a guaranteed 20 points, and the guys around him are more than capable of providing the rest of what is necessary to knock off a conference superpower. If they could just play some damn defense, I like their chances even better. They are currently 235th in the NCAA in points allowed per game, but they force 14.1 turnovers per game (while committing only 8.9), so I’m clinging on to some hope for the sake of this argument.
Despite my indifference towards Iowa, I just think they are going to make a run this season — in one tournament or another. Keegan Murray is a do-it-all future lottery pick, and we’ve seen teams ride one player to success before. Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony is the example that comes to mind (insert Boeheim/McCaffery joke here). With their ability to take care of the ball and put it through the hoop, they should have a puncher’s chance against anybody. Their lack of signature wins doe not scare me away, so give me the Hawkeyes.
Gene’s Take: Rutgers
Like Josh, I have a hard time picking Ohio State as the underdog to potential win the Big Ten Tournament. Could they do it? Absolutely. But the Buckeyes have been far too inconsistent for my liking, and as a betting man, I would not feel comfortable wagering my money on Chris Holtmann’s group. E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham have been sensational, but their supporting cast has been less than stellar, and injuries to key players like Kyle Young, Zed Key and Justice Sueing have just made that much harder. Compile that with missing out on the double-bye and playing a backloaded grind of a schedule to end the regular seasons, and I simply don’t love Ohio State’s odds.
Speaking of odds, let’s see how our friends over at the DraftKings SportsBook have set the stage for this year’s B1G conference tourney. Unsurprisingly, the favorite to win it all is Purdue at +220. Jaden Ivey has been phenomenal this season, and his surrounding talents like Zach Edey, Trevion Williams and Sasha Stefanovic will make them an incredibly tough out. Behind the Boilermakers are Illinois (+350), Iowa (+400), Wisconsin (+700) and then Ohio State (+900). The top three seem to be pretty clean cut, and if I could take that trio against the field, I think I would.
That being said, I really like Josh’s pick of the Hawkeyes. As he mentioned, Iowa has an incredibly potent offense, and Keegan Murray is one of the best players not only in the conference, but in the country at large. If I was going to place an actual wage on an underdog to win the B1G tourney (I'm not), I think Iowa would be a really good choice. However, for the sake of fun in this debate, I want to look at an underdog even further down the list. If we want to find a Cinderella to come out on top, I'm digging deep and looking for a team that probably doesn’t have the firepower to get the job done, but has a little magic in that glass slipper.
The team I'm talking about of course is Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights had one of the weirdest regular seasons for a program that I have seen in recent memory. Steve Pikiell’s team began the year 3-3, with awful losses to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass. The bad losses didn’t stop there, as they would also go on to lose to Penn State, Minnesota and Northwestern — all Big Ten bottle feeders. It looked as though Rutgers was in store for a pretty terrible season, but then some things started to happen.
On Dec. 9, the Scarlet Knights defeated then-No. 1 ranked Purdue, 70-68. Over a month later, on Jan. 19, they won an ugly 48-46 affair over Iowa. However, it was in February when things really started to get crazy in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights began a stretch of five-straight games against ranked opponents, three of which were at home. Rutgers would handily defeat No. 13 Michigan State, 84-63, and followed that up by beating No. 16 Ohio State by two, No. 14 Wisconsin by eight on the road, and No. 12 Illinois by 11 back at the RAC. They closed out the stretch by falling on the road to Purdue, but Rutgers showed the world they can ball with the best of them when they’re playing at a high level.
Entering the conference tournament, Rutgers has already defeated each of the top-six seeds (not including themselves at No. 4, obviously) at least once during the regular season. The unfortunate caveat here for the Scarlet Knights is that almost all of those wins, outside the one against the Badgers, was at home, but they still showed they can compete with the top-end teams in the Big Ten. Rutgers certainly has the individual talent to show out on any given night with guys like Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker. I wouldn’t put money down on Rutgers to win the whole thing — they’re a +2000 underdog — but they just need to get hot for three games to get the job done. Anything is possible!