It’s just about time for the best month in sports. The NCAA basketball tournament is one of the most watched sports events ever. Offices will be buzzing with brackets and every water cooler conversation will be about the Cinderella teams that will emerge in the first weekend of March Madness. Tomorrow the first of the Power 5 conferences tips off. #13 Illinois plays #12 Iowa at 5:30 ET followed shortly by #14 Rutgers against #11 Minnesota. Since this is the Big Ten, I’ll do a more comprehensive overview, split by the 4 different quarterfinal divisions, #1 Michigan State, #4 Nebraska, # 2 Ohio State and #3 Purdue.
#1 Michigan State
Teams: #9 Wisconsin, #8 Maryland, #1 Michigan State
Sneaky Pick: I have seen this team play live and they can score when they want. They have a big man that can dribble and control the paint and they have a duo of three point shooting buzz-cut blond guards that can shoot the team out of any situation. It wasn’t hard to guess, but the Wisconsin Badgers have a sneaky easy first round. Illinois was able to stay within 3 points of Michigan State for majority of the game and if Wisconsin makes it past Maryland (they did lose to the Terps 68-63 is early February), the Spartans could have a tough time guarding Ethan Happ, Brevin Pritzl and Brad Davison. Besides, the Badger’s 19 -year tournament streak is on the line.
Team Most Likely to Win: Michigan State easily has the best team in the conference. The Spartans are 28-3 on the season and the 2nd best team in the country. The Badgers are good but they are in a rebuilding season and State is playing with fire in their belly. MSU will make it to the semi final round.
#2 Ohio State
Teams: #10 Northwestern, #7 Penn State, #2 Ohio State
Sneaky Pick (well not so sneaky in this case): Ohio State only has to win 1 game to make it to the Semifinal game on Saturday afternoon. But that game has to come against Northwestern or Penn State. With the Wildcats out of the picture, mentally and physically, Ohio will have to beat Penn State. The last time the two teams met, the Buckeyes were simply out matched and looked worn out. To win they will have to regain their strength and play to win and advance.
Team Most Likely to Win: Penn State is 1-1 against Northwestern and 2-0 against Ohio State. Penn State beat the Buckeyes 79-56 on February 15 in State College, but did drop the last three games. Penn State also has a 10 point victory against Northwestern. The Nittany Lions ended Big Ten play 9-9 and 19-12 on the season. With everything going wrong for Northwestern towards the end of the season, Penn State should make it to the quarterfinals and beat Ohio State.
Teams: #14 Rutgers, #11 Minnesota, #6 Indiana, #3 Purdue
Sneaky Pick: Indiana has a very good chance. First, neither Minnesota nor Rutgers are any good, and I know you will tell me that Illinois is ranked below Minnesota (especially after my next Sneaky Pick) But other than the 3 victories, Minnesota and Rutgers have not had a close loss in the Big 10. Indiana on the other hand has beaten both teams by 20 points. But for Indiana to make it to the semi finals, the Hoosiers have to play instate rival Purdue, who beat Indiana on their home court in late January. The game was close but a 2 and a half minute scoring drought in the last 4 minutes gave Purdue the final lead. The teams matchup well and if Indiana plays like it did in the first half of the game, the Hoosiers have their chance.
Team Most Likely to Win: Purdue has it easy. It gets to rest at home until Friday and the Boilermakers get to play Indiana, Rutgers or Minnesota. The Boilermakers are 26-5 on the season and ranked 8th in the nation. Although they had a late 3 game slide, they have since recovered, routing Minnesota 84-60 in the last game of the season. The Purdue seniors are 5-1 against IU and need these victories to get that precious #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Boilermakers are ready and the Purdue Train has no brakes.
Teams: #13 Illinois, #12 Iowa, #5 Michigan, #4 Nebraska
Sneaky Pick: Illinois actually has a chance. Hear me out. Yes I will be biased, but Illinois has a chance. Game 1: Iowa. This game is crucial. Illinois has played hard all season. Yes they lack talent, but they make up for it with heart. Illinois has player every single game close, for a half. But they have had big games and Iowa hasn’t been strong all season. Illinois can play ball with the big guys. They stayed withing 3 points of Michigan State in the first half, stayed in the entire game against Purdue, and actually beat #4 Nebraska for their first win in the Big 10 this year. Illinois will win the game tomorrow, which brings us to round 2 against Michigan. Michigan is ranked 25 in RPI and 15th in Ken Pom, but that hasn’t mattered to Illinois all season. The Illini only lost to Michigan in early January by 10 and this team has made strides since. Trent Frazier has emerged as a premier scorer and Leron Black doesn’t want his senior season to end. The Illini have nothing to lose. If they do lose, it’s not like their post season chances will change. As I have said all season, the only fault Illinois has, other than inexperience, is the propensity to go on scoring droughts. If they don’t do that, they win. Huge take, I know. After, Michigan, game three is easy, the Illini have already beaten Nebraska. Confidence is key for the Illini and they have shown in spurts that they can do it. Let’s hope this spurt lasts all tournament.
Team Most Likely to Win: Michigan has experience, both at the player level and John Beilein is one a hell of a coach. Michigan, has one of the easiest paths to the semi-finals and should have no problem running past Illinois and Nebraska.
If I am correct, Michigan will play Michigan State and Penn State will play Purdue. But more on that Saturday, when the stage has been set.
Sneaky Pick to Win it All: Wisconsin. It is a rebuilding year, but they have been playing well all season. If any team has a chance of Cinderella-ing it to the big dance, its the Badgers.
Team Most Likely to Win: Michigan State. Was that ever a question?