(SportsNetwork.com) - The 17th annual Big Ten Conference Tournament takes the Windy City by storm for the second straight year, with action beginning on Thursday March 13, and culminating with the championship game on Sunday, March 16.
The winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Ohio State Buckeyes are the defending Big Ten Tournament champs, as they defeated Wisconsin, 50-43, in last year's title tilt. It was OSU's league- leading fifth Big Ten Tournament championship, but for coach Thad Matta's club to make a sixth straight title game appearance it will need to do so as a five seed.
Michigan is the No. 1 seed in the event. as the Wolverines enjoyed an impressive run to their first outright regular-season title in nearly three decades. The Wolverines finished the season at 23-7 overall, 15-3 in conference, and enter the postseason on a five-game win streak.
The top four seeds all receive byes into the quarterfinal round, as joining Michigan are (2) Wisconsin, (3) Michigan State and (4) Nebraska.
Getting back to opening-round action, the first game pits ninth-seeded Illinois against eighth-seeded Indiana. The teams split a pair of meetings during the regular season, with each winning on its home floor. The winner will move on to tangle with top-seeded Michigan in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Illinois had gotten off to a tremendous start to the season, going 7-0 and winning 11 of its 13 non-conference games. The Illini then won their first two Big Ten bouts, but then lost eight in a row and 10 of their next 11. Coach John Grace rallied his team to win three straight and four of its final five games, giving it some momentum heading into this tournament.
Illinois, which has a pair of Big Ten tourney titles to its credit (2003, 2005) and is 24-14 all-time in the event, boasts only two double-digit scorers in Rayvonte Rice (15.7 ppg) and Tracy Abrams (10.5 ppg), as the team has had more than its share of issues shooting the basketball (.408, 11th in the conference) and putting points on the board (64.7 ppg, also 11th). However, the team's defensive effort (62.8 ppg, second) has been superb.
Indiana notched a few big wins this season (Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State), but also suffered some demoralizing defeats (Illinois, Northwestern Nebraska, Minnesota, Penn State, Purdue). As a result, Tom Crean's Hoosiers finished the regular season just three games over .500 (17-14), but they were four games below in conference (7-11). Indiana has never won this event, going just 10-16 all-time, and has only one championship game appearance (2001).
The Hoosiers have been inconsistent at both ends of the court this season, ranking fifth in the conference in scoring offense (72.8 ppg), and eighth in scoring defense (67.7 ppg). The team has three double-digit scorers, led by standout point guard Kevin Ferrell (17.4 ppg, 3.9 apg). Big Ten Freshman of the Year Noah Vonleh (11.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg) and veteran Will Sheehy (11.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) have both been productive players, but sloppy play has saddled IU with a turnover margin in the red (-2.7), despite a rebounding differential (+7.7) that ranks first in the league.
Game two on Thursday features a matchup between 12th-seeded Purdue and the aforementioned fifth-seeded Buckeyes. Ohio State won both encounters during the regular season, and has won five straight over the Boilermakers overall.
Purdue limps into the postseason having lost six straight and 11 of its last 13 games overall. The Boilermakers do have one Big Ten Tournament title to their credit, having defeated Ohio State in 2009, and they are just 9-15 all- time in the event. That was only PU's second championship game appearance, the team also turning the trick in the inaugural event back in 1998.
While Purdue certainly has some talent on the roster this season, where the team has come up small is when it plays defense. The Boilermakers allow the most points of any unit in the Big Ten (71.9 ppg), while ranking in the middle of the pack with regard to scoring offense (72.6 ppg). Coach Matt Painter's club sports three double-digit scorers, and none average more than Terone Johnson's 12.0 ppg, a figure which certainly doesn't cause opposing teams many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to stop him, or the Boilermakers as a whole.
Ohio State, which won four of its final six games of the regular season, prides itself on playing some of the stingiest defense around, as the 59.1 ppg the team allows on average ranks it first in the Big Ten and seventh in the country. The Buckeyes are a decent offensive club, as a pair of double-digit scorers in LaQuinton Ross (14.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. (11.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) help it put up an even 70 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of .451 overall and .334 from 3-point range. Aaron Craft (9.5 ppg, 4.6 apg, 79 steals) does a little bit of everything for OSU, and was named the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts.
The Buckeyes are 27-11 all-time in the Big Ten Tournament, and as mentioned lead the league with five titles, the most recent of which occurred last year when Craft was named the tournament MVP.
Penn State and Minnesota will duke it out in the third game of the opening round, less than a week after the teams met in the regular-season finale. The seventh-seeded Golden Gophers won that game on the road, 81-63, to earn the sweep of the season series.
The triumph over the Nittany Lions not withstanding, Minnesota has been wildly inconsistent since the start of conference play. The Gophers finished the campaign at 19-12 overall, but they went just 8-10 against their Big Ten brethren, last stringing together consecutive wins from Jan. 5-8 when they topped Purdue and Penn State. The team features three double-digit scorers, with Andre Hollins and his 14.6 ppg leading the way. Collectively, the club musters up 72.0 ppg while allowing 67.7 ppg. Minnesota is one of the better free-throw shooting teams in the conference (.748), while also pacing the league in steals (236).
Neither Minnesota nor Penn State has won this tournament before, although both have appeared in one championship game -- the Gophers falling to Ohio State in 2010, and the Lions losing to the Buckeyes a year later.
Penn State, which picked up the No. 10 seed in this event, has one of the most dynamic backcourts in the country, as D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier combine to net more than 33 ppg, with the former adding 4.9 rpg to his stat line, and the latter a league-leading 171 assists to his. Newbill's 17.8 ppg nearly earned him the Big Ten scoring title, an honor he just missed out on as Nebraska's Terran Petteway tallied 18.0 ppg. As a team, PSU has the same scoring average as Minnesota, but the Lions are surrendering more than 71 ppg to rank 11th in the 12-team conference. Penn State is last in the league in defending the 3- point shot (.348).
The final opening-round bout pits No. 6 seed Iowa against 11th-seeded Northwestern. The teams met only once during the regular season, with the Hawkeyes prevailing on the road in an 82-70 final on Feb. 15.
Iowa has two Big Ten Tournament titles to its credit (2001, 2006), logging a 15-14 record all-time in the event, while Northwestern has yet to hoist the trophy and owns a miserable 6-16 mark in the tourney all-time.
The Hawkeyes posted a solid 20-11 campaign, but went a disappointing 9-9 in the Big Ten. Iowa had actually begun conference play with a 4-1 mark, but losses in eight of its final 13 games tarnished its overall effort and left the team scuffling as it prepares for this postseason gathering. The Hawkeyes lost back-to-back games to Michigan State and Illinois to close out the slate, and it will be imperative for guys like Roy Devyn Marble (17.0 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Aaron White (13.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) to lead by example if coach Fran McCaffery's club has any shot at surviving past day one.
Northwestern has had a rough season, its first with new head coach Chris Collins at the helm, as the team went 13-18 overall and won only half as many Big Ten bouts as it lost (6-12). The Wildcats, who have one of the top-10 scorers in the conference on the roster in Drew Crawford (15.5 ppg), are producing a league-low 59.5 ppg, but they have stood tall on defense for the most part, ranking third in the conference in yielding only 63.3 ppg. The 'Cats are the worst shooting team in the Big Ten both overall (.392) and from beyond the arc (.299), while also bringing up the rear in rebounding margin (-4.1) and steals (135).
Awaiting the winner of the Indiana/Illinois matchup is regular-season champion, Michigan. The Wolverines boast several standout performers, although according to both the league's coaches and the media, Nik Stauskas was the best in the league as he was recently tabbed the Big Ten Player of the Year. Stauskas finished the regular season averaging 17.0 ppg, doing terrific work from long range (.447), as well as the charity stripe (.822). In fact, the whole team was spot on from the foul line, converting a league-best 76.3 percent of its chances. Stauskas gets support from double-digit scorers Caris LeVert (13.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Glenn Robinson III (12.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg), and they all have the confidence of the media's pick for conference Coach of the Year, John Beilein.
Michigan won the very first Big Ten Tournament title back in 1998, but later had it taken away due to NCAA sanctions. The Wolverines are just 9-14 all-time in the event, and that '98 appearance was the only time they reached the championship game.
The winner of the Ohio State/Purdue tussle moves on to face No. 4 seed Nebraska on Friday, as the Cornhuskers proved to be one of the real surprises in the Big Ten this season. Tim Miles, who was picked by his fellow mentors as the conference's Coach of the Year, led Nebraska to a 19-11 record, which included an 11-7 league ledger. The Huskers, who as mentioned a bit earlier, have the league's top scorer on the roster (Terran Petteway, 18.0 ppg), are riding a wave of momentum, as they have won three straight and eight of their last nine games overall. As a team, Nebraska generates only 67.0 ppg, but permits a mere 64.7 ppg. A relative newcomer to these proceedings, Nebraska is 1-2 in the Big Ten Tournament.
No. 2 seed Wisconsin awaits the winner of the Minnesota/Penn State matchup, as the Badgers go in search of their third tournament title, and first since 2008. UW, which owns a 17-15 record all-time in the event, went an impressive 25-6 on the year, winning twice as many Big Ten games as it lost (12-6). Coach Bo Ryan's club, long known for its defensive prowess, actually employed more of an offensive approach this year as it averaged 73.2 ppg to rank fourth in the conference. The Badgers still play well with their backs to the basket (64.2 ppg, also fourth in the league), although their average field goal allowance (.431) has them ranked 11th. Frank Kaminsky (13.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) spearheads a balanced attack that features four double-digit scorers.
Michigan State picked up the third seed, and as a result drew the final spot in Friday's quarterfinal round, as it will take on the winner of the Iowa/Northwestern matchup. Tom Izzo's Spartans held the No. 1 ranking in the nation at one point early in the campaign, but losses in seven of their final 12 games cost them a shot at the Big Ten regular-season title, and an even higher seed in this tourney. MSU too has one of the top scorers in the conference in Gary Harris (17.5 ppg), and he gets considerable help from Adreian Payne (16.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Keith Appling (12.8 ppg, 4.8 apg). Despite the pitfalls they faced late, the Spartans own significant advantages in both scoring (+10.4) rebounding (+4.6).
Michigan State is second in the league with three tournament titles, and its most recent came in 2012. The Spartans' other two crowns were won in back-to- back years (1999-2000), and they are hoping to improve their 19-13 record in the event with a few more wins.