March is here, and championship week is already upon us.
As of this writing, seven teams have already punched their tickets to the NCAA Tournament. The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team has assuredly locked up its spot in the Big Dance, but the first test of March is the Big Ten Tournament.
The Badgers (23-8, 12-6 Big Ten) are the No. 2 seed, while Big Ten regular season champions Purdue are the top seed. Maryland and Minnesota, the third and fourth seeds, respectively, also clinched a double bye in the tournament until Friday’s quarterfinals.
Play begins Wednesday as last-place Rutgers takes on No. 11 Ohio State, and 13-seed Penn State plays 12-seed Nebraska. Indiana faces Iowa in the 7-10 matchup, and the Badgers will get the winner on Friday (5:30 p.m., BTN). The only other predetermined matchup is No. 8 Michigan versus No. 9 Illinois.
Here, we’ll take a quick look at the 13 other teams UW has the chance of facing in Washington, D.C., the first-time location of the tournament.
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14. Rutgers (14-17, 3-15)
Player to Watch: Corey Sanders (12.9 ppg)
So far, Rutgers’ transition to the Big Ten has not gone according to plan for the Scarlet Knights in football or men’s basketball. Rutgers has finished in the basement of the conference the first three seasons in the league and has six conference wins to show for it. (One of those came against the Wisconsin team that played for a national championship.)
Sanders, an all-Big Ten honorable mention, is really the lone bright spot for this team. His play Sunday in the Scarlet Knights’ win over Illinois ended the regular season on a good note, but recent history suggests Sanders’ and his team’s season will end Wednesday.
13. Penn State (14-17, 6-12)
Player to Watch: Tony Carr (13.2 ppg)
The Nittany Lions put up a good fight in the first half when they visited Madison, before the Badgers outscored them by 24 in the second half. Their signature win came at home against Maryland, defeated Illinois twice, but lost by 16 on the road at Nebraska.
Mike Watkins’ 8.1 rebounds per game ranks sixth in the Big Ten. Penn State has the worst rebounding margin in the league (-3.3).
12. Nebraska (12-18, 6-12)
Player to Watch: Tai Webster (17.3 ppg)
Named second-team all-Big Ten by the media, Webster leads a Nebraska team that defeated UW in the Big Ten Tournament last year. Of course, it’s no longer the same team, and frankly, not nearly as talented.
Nebraska started conference play with wins at Indiana and Maryland but fell off from there. The Cornhuskers have the second-worst scoring offense in the league (70 ppg).The winner of Nebraska-Penn State will play No. 6 Northwestern the following day.
11. Ohio State (17-14, 7-11)
Player to Watch: Jae’Sean Tate (14.2 ppg)
The Buckeyes defeated the Scarlet Knights 70-64 in Columbus earlier this season behind Kam Williams’ 23 points and Trevor Thompson’s 15 points and 13 rebounds. Tate makes 54.2 percent of his shots and chips in on the glass (6.4 rpg).
The Buckeyes have an inconsistent offense, but when the shots are falling, its bad news for opposing teams, as UW realized less than two weeks ago when Ohio State’s shooting barrage felled the Badgers.
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10. Indiana (17-14, 7-11)
Player to Watch: James Blackmon Jr. (17.0 ppg)
Injuries are the story of this team, with OG Anunoby out for the season and Blackmon missed a handful of games, yet head coach Tom Crean finds himself on the hot seat. The Hoosiers were Big Ten regular season champs a year ago, and a bottom-third finish simply doesn’t live up to expectations in the state of Indiana.
The Hoosiers’ 8.7 3-pointers per game point to their reliance on the long ball, perhaps due to their league-worst turnover margin (-3.9). Conversely, they lead the Big Ten in rebounding margin and score the second-most points per game (80.4 ppg). UW will be watching IU’s matchup against Iowa closely.
9. Illinois (18-13, 8-10)
Player to Watch: Malcom Hill (17.2 ppg)
Speaking of the hot seat, it looked like head coach John Groce alleviated some pressure from his job security, but a loss at Rutgers to end the regular season brought the magnifying glass right back. Illinois has worked its way onto the bubble and a run in the conference tournament can have the Fighting Illini playing later this month.
Hill, a senior guard, will be the one to lead his team there. He finished tied for third in the conference in points per game.
8. Michigan (20-11, 10-8)
Player to Watch: Derrick Walton Jr. (14.7 ppg)
The Wolverines possess an offense that can explode at any moment, once scoring 55 points in one half against Michigan State. They beat UW at home, too. Michigan ranks in the top five in scoring defense and offense — Purdue is the only other team to claim the same distinction.
Walton Jr. also rebounds well for a guard, adding nearly five rebounds per game.
Illinois and Michigan split the season series, with each team winning on its home court 10 days apart in January. The winner advances to play top-seeded Purdue.
7. Iowa (18-13, 10-8)
Player to Watch: Peter Jok (20.2 ppg)
Jok won the Big Ten scoring title this season, and the Hawkeyes have won four in a row, including road wins at Maryland and Wisconsin. Freshman Nicholas Baer was named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year.
Iowa still has the worst scoring defense in the Big Ten (77.1 ppg), but the Badgers offense mustered only 57 points in the back-breaking 59-57 loss at the hands of Jordan Bohannon not even a week ago. The Hawkeyes have – and executed — the blueprint to beat the Badgers. Will they have the opportunity to use it?
6. Northwestern (21-10, 10-8)
Player to Watch: Bryant McIntosh (14.6 ppg)
Many think Chris Collins deserved to be the Big Ten Coach of the Year for leading the Wildcats to likely their first NCAA Tournament appearance ever. Northwestern is definitely one of the top stories of the conference, if not the entire nation. The dramatic win over Michigan on a Derek Pardon buzzer-beater layup was one of the more drama-filled plays we’ve seen this season.
One of the best defensive teams in the league, Northwestern holds its opponents to less than 40 percent from the field and only 33.7 percent from 3-point range. McIntosh and backcourt accomplice, a now-healthy Scottie Lindsey, can give teams headaches on both sides of the court.
Assuming the Wildcats dispatch of the Ohio State-Rutgers winner, they will likely face No. 3 Maryland in the quarterfinals.
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5. Michigan State (18-13, 10-8)
Player to Watch: Miles Bridges (16.6 ppg)
Bridges, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, helped the Spartans overcome a grueling non-conference to finish a respectable fifth in the Big Ten. Michigan State won this tournament a year ago as the two seed, but its chances of repeating are slimmer than most expected to begin the season.
The Spartans come in ranked third in 3-point field goal percentage (38.1 percent) and assists per game (17.1). Bridges’ 8.4 rebounds per game ranks fifth in the Big Ten.
Michigan State will play the winner of the Nebraska-Penn State game. The Nittany Lions knocked off the Spartans in January, while the Spartans took care of the Cornhuskers in both of their meetings.
4. Minnesota (23-8, 11-7)
Player to Watch: Nate Mason (15.5 ppg)
The Gophers are the most improved team in the conference, and head coach Richard Pitino was awarded Big Ten Coach of the Year for turning the team around from just two conference wins last season to a top four seed in the tournament this year.
Minnesota’s high-powered offense is led by Mason, a first-team all-Big Ten honoree, and the Gophers average just Reggie Lynch, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, averages 3.5 blocks per game.
If Michigan State survives its tournament opener, a Michigan State-Minnesota matchup in the quarterfinals awaits. The Spartans won both of those matchups, a one-point win on the road and a 65-47 win at home.
3. Maryland (24-7, 12-6)
Player to Watch: Melo Trimble (16.9 ppg)
The Terrapins are a favorite to face the Badgers in the semifinals, given that both teams take care of their quarterfinal matchups. UW defeated the Terrapins 71-60 as the lone win in its five losses in six games stretch. That was at the Kohl Center, though, and Maryland will be the de facto home team for the tournament.
Trimble provides leadership in the backcourt, most recently drilling a game-winning 3-pointer against Michigan State on Saturday. The Terps also just went through a tough stretch, losing five of seven before the final week of the season.
Maryland has been a nice addition to the conference, finishing second, tied for third and third in the league in the first three seasons as a member of the Big Ten.
1. Purdue (25-6, 14-4)
Player to Watch: Caleb Swanigan (18.7 ppg, 12.6 rpg)
No two ways about it, Purdue was the best team in the Big Ten this season, probably more so than the two-game margin it won the league by. Swanigan is the best player in the conference, evidenced by his Big Ten Player of the Year honor.
The Boilermakers lead the conference with 80.5 points per game and are tops in field goal percentage. The 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas (12.6 ppg) is a solid rim protector, while Swanigan averages a double-double. Swanigan and Dakota Mathias are second and third, respectively, in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal percentage. Four Boilermakers shoot 3-pointers at 41 percent or better.
The last team to win the regular season and conference championship was the 2014-15 Wisconsin team, the only time it has happened in five years. If Michigan State and Minnesota do meet in the quarterfinals and Purdue disposes either Illinois or Michigan, the Boilermakers will face the winner in the semifinals.
Note: Our full Wisconsin preview will be published later this week. Also, tune into Facebook Live Thursday at 6:30 p.m. CT for the Badger Herald’s Big Ten Tournament show.