The men’s basketball Big Ten Tournament starts on Wednesday night with the opening round, featuring Nebraska and Northwestern at 5 p.m. CT and Minnesota and Penn State at around 7:30 p.m. CT. On Sunday, the Big Ten will crown a tournament champion who will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Your Wisconsin Badgers enter this week as the No. 2 seed in Indianapolis and won’t play until Friday evening due to earning a coveted double-bye. They await the winner of Thursday night’s Michigan State/Maryland tilt.
We got some of our staff together to discuss what they thought was going to happen this week at Gainbridge Fieldhouse and who they thought was going to be crowned champ. Here are their answers:
First things first, can we talk about how crazy it is that Rutgers finished fourth in the Big Ten and got a double-bye? What impressed you the most about the Scarlet Knights this season?
Tyler: I mean that just shows you how absurd this conference has been all season long. Coming into the year it was Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois. In the end you get Wisconsin and Rutgers being in those top four spots instead and teams like Michigan and Michigan State barely hanging onto a tournament spot. As for Rutgers, they’re just tough. Grit is what makes Rutgers, well, Rutgers and they had that for a lot of the season. I wouldn’t want to see them in March even if it is outside the RAC because that team just seems to battle.
Ryan: It’s insane that Rutgers finished that high in the conference. It feels like just a couple years ago that they would barely win any B1G games and never won on the road in conference play. To echo Tyler, it’s Rutgers’ toughness. They play with a ton of grit and push even the best teams in the conference until the very end.
J.J.: As resident New Jerseyan and childhood RAC attendee, I’m more than happy to discuss the virtues of Rutgers. Obviously, not enough can be said about precisely how good they are in big games at home, because that record speaks for itself. But I also think it’s a testament to their teams’ wealth of senior leadership and experience- guys like Geo Baker and Ron Harper who were there when the Scarlet Knights were battling their way out of the Big Ten’s cellar- that this team stabilized exactly when it needed to and is now peaking at the right time.
Neal: Rutgers fashioned themselves as giant killers this season. They have wins against each of the top seven teams in the conference but also dropped games to Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern. In short the absurdity, as Tyler notes above, of the B1G this year can be neatly summed up via Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have several players including Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. that are the epitome of streaky confidence guys. When their fearless shooting catches fire, look out.
OK, assuming that Johnny Davis is healthy enough to play, how do you see Wisconsin doing in the Big Ten Tournament? How many games will they win?
Tyler: I do see them taking care of business in that first contest. Personally, I think the Maryland/MSU draw is much better than the Indiana/Michigan draw. Both the Terps and Spartans are kind of reeling right now so I think the Badgers can come away with a victory in that contest. After that, it’s really a toss up depending on who you get.
If you draw Purdue I think it might be difficult to beat them a third time, but I thought it would be tough to beat them twice and they did. Who really knows. I could see them winning the whole thing, but I could also see them bowing out early. That’s what makes these tourneys so fun. I will say, I would love to see a title game between Illinois and Wisconsin to really finish off the year in the right way.
Ryan: I could see Wisconsin win the whole thing, provided Johnny is healthy. I think we should have a good chance to win our first game regardless of whether we get Maryland or Michigan State. Beating Purdue a third time could be difficult, but UW handled them both on the road and at home, so what is a neutral location? Beating Illinois will be tough though, as Kofi Cockburn is such a match up nightmare, but hey, the Badgers weren’t supposed to be in this spot this year, so why not keep proving the doubters wrong?
J.J.: Like everyone else has said, Johnny Davis’ health completely changes this teams’ floor and ceiling. The Badgers hardly looked like the same team in the few games Davis was out for extended stretches in- and their negative record in those games backs that notion up. Provided he’s healthy, I think the Badgers manage that first round matchup against either MSU or Maryland without a huge amount of difficulty- though the Spartans obviously have talent and split their season series against Wisconsin they’re in a massive down-slide and look like a shell of themselves.
In the semifinals, against presumably Purdue, the road gets a whole lot harder. It’s hard to beat a team three times, especially when you’re the underdog in all three. Davis could carry the Badgers to the final, but if they do make it a matchup nightmare in Illinois and Cockburn looms. It wouldn’t be completely infeasible for the Badgers to win in Indianapolis, but if they were to cut down the nets a lot of things would need to go right and a lot of players would need to step up.
Neal: The health of Johnny Davis is going to be a huge factor. Davis’s competitive nature seems like it will force him into action, whether he will be 100% or not. For a super streaky shooting team like the Badgers, having Davis unable to create offense during cold streaks is going to be a real challenge to overcome. They are just as likely for another 3-of-24 from three point line outing as they are to win it all. Either way, I do think the record in close games thing is more than just luck. If they can keep games within reach I think they get to the championship game and get another shot at Illinios.
Who do the Badgers match up better against, Michigan State or Maryland, and why?
Tyler: It’s a tough one, but I think the Badgers matchup with Maryland better than Michigan State. I know the Spartans are a shell of what they were in January but they still have a roster with immense amounts of talent. Marcus Bingham, Jr. is a DUDE. Gabe Brown is as talented a player as you’ll see in the conference, and they still have Tom Izzo who seems to bust out the Devil Magik come March. Anytime you can avoid Michigan State it’s good to do so.
Now, Maryland is still a tough out themselves when they play their best basketball. Eric Ayala gave the Badgers a run in their lone matchup, and Fatts Russell is a veteran scorer as well. Top to bottom though (coach included) Michigan State is still tougher though.
Ryan: I would take Maryland any day over Michigan State, even if they are having a down year. The Spartans are always a tough out regardless, especially in a tournament setting. And Tom Izzo is Tom Izzo after all…
J.J.: I think it’s Maryland because even though the Spartans have been woeful recently they still are a team stacked with talent and experience in March.
I don’t know if they will, but the Spartans COULD find their form and return to being a top 25 team any day now. I’d rather not chance it, give me the Terrapins.
Neal: I agree with Ryan here. Any chance to play a team coached by an interim coach over Tom Izzo coached team in March, you take the non-Izzo team nine days out of the week. Give me Maryland please.
Prediction time: who wins the tournament?
Tyler: I’ll go with Purdue. It looks like an easy path for Illinois to the finals, but I expect some carnage on that side of the bracket. You’ve got three teams on that side squarely on the bubble in Michigan, Indiana and Rutgers so they’ll all be hungry for wins to get into the dance. Desperation creates chaos!
On the other side I think Purdue has a path in their opening round game, and then they get a possible third bout with Wisconsin. I think its hard to beat a team three times so I think the Boilermakers can make a run in Indy. They have size, depth, and shooting which will make them a hard out in these one game scenarios.
Ryan: Oh what the hell, I will say Wisconsin. We’re coming off of a regular season where they were supposed to finish near the bottom of the conference and they were a Johnny Davis injury away from being outright conference champs. Why not win the conference tournament too? Tyler Wahl and Chucky Hepburn have gotten better as the season has gone on, Brad Davison is having his best season at UW and we have the player and coach of the year. If not this year, then when?
J.J.: I picked Purdue at the start of the year, and am doubling down on my Jaden Ivey appreciation. On some level because I genuinely enjoy watching the Boilermakers play and on some level because I am stubborn.
Neal: Every time I watch Purdue play I am baffled as to how they have lost any games this year. While maybe not as sound defensively as some previous Purdue teams, they have so much offensive firepower it doesn’t matter. A potential draw of Ohio State and Wisconsin before the championship game sure seems like a road full of hiccups, but I think Purdue is good enough to win it all on the way to a number one seed in the NCAA tournament.