COACH OF THE YEAR:
Head Coach Greg Gard is the clear pick. Perhaps I’m biased, but Gard has done a phenomenal job at the University of Wisconsin keeping his locker room together after facing adversity before the season even started. The team stayed supportive of the Moore family through the tragic drunk driving car crash that caused the passing of the wife and daughter of Assistant Coach Howard Moore.
The crash left Howard Moore in critical condition and unable to come back to the team for the entirety of the season. The program announced that former Badger Alando Tucker would be the interim assistant coach in Moore’s absence. Once the season got under way, Wisconsin received news the NCAA would not allow Micah Potter to play in the first half of the season due to transfer complications. Gard lost his appeal attempt with the NCAA and had to leave Potter on the bench.
Twenty games into the season, Kobe King announced his departure from the program and his decision to enter the transfer portal. A few weeks later, Kobe King announced his intent to stay in the Big Ten and transfer to the University of Nebraska — a team sitting dead last in the standings.
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Gard has had to juggle all the off-court distractions while also playing the best of the best this season. The Big Ten is a league with eight teams in the AP top-25 poll and likely will secure 10 spots in this year’s NCAA Tournament — if not eleven with the addition of Purdue.
Gard not only has his team in the mix, but they are leading the pack. The Badgers finished out the year by clinching at least a share of the Big Ten regular season conference title.
Gard’s Badgers have eight quadrant-one wins and are heading into the tournament riding an eight-game winning streak. The Badgers have secured their spot and are now preparing to make some noise once the madness begins.
The Badgers have secured their spot and are now preparing to make some noise once the madness begins. The Badgers are a team that plays for their coach, their school and their city — which is all credit to the man leading the charge, Greg Gard.
FINAL FOUR POTENTIAL:
Despite there being a loaded Big Ten conference holding eight spots in the AP top-25 poll entering the final week of the regular season, there is only one team built for a final four run. Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans are the only team who have proven their capability to matchup with anybody in the country and win big games.
Michigan State is led by senior leader Cassius Winston who has played in 140 career collegiate contests. The Detroit native is putting up huge numbers for the Spartans. Winston leads his team in points, assists and steals per game with 18.5, 5.7 and 1.2, respectively. But, what separates him from the rest is his decision making and playmaking ability as a point guard.
There is no other person you would rather have the ball coming down to the final stretch of a game, especially in the postseason. That is not to mention the supporting cast that Tom Izzo has built around Winston. Winston’s partner in crime, the six-foot eight, 245 pound forward Xavier Tillman creates matchup nightmares between bigs and guards, especially when attempting to guard the pick and roll.
Tillman is a force to be reckoned with from the paint as he dominates the glass while averaging a double-double on the season with 13.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. What truly makes Michigan State a deadly team to play against is the development of the young man that goes by the name of Rocket Watts.
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Watts has the quickest first step in the Big Ten conference with the ability to step back and knock down a three-pointer which makes him unpredictable and a true challenge to defend. The addition of Watts to the play of Winston and Tillman makes for a big-three that will give their opponents a headache when drawing up a defensive game plan.
The Spartans big-three are backed by a young and talented eleven-man rotation, so there are always fresh legs on the floor. No player on the Spartans averages over 32.5 minutes per game which allows for them to get out and run with teams but also always stay gritty on the defensive end.
The Spartans are consistently scoring just over 75 points per game while holding their opponents to just under 65 points per game. Needless to say, we all know what Tom Izzo is capable of in March. Yet, with a 1-7 success rate in his eight trips to the final four, this season raises a question — once he gets there, can he actually win another national championship?
None of the top-four teams in the league will win the Big Ten tournament this season. The Big Ten finished in such a tight race that the teams seeded five through eight are only two to three games back on the front runner in the entire league. Iowa, with arguably the best player in the league, has wound up at the No. 5 seed while the Buckeyes will be playing as the No. 7 seed riding a four-game winning streak.
There is no cookie-cutter explanation for who will come out on top this season. Some teams in the Big Ten will still be fighting for survival and a berth into the NCAA tournament. But, there are also teams in this league such as Michigan who are ranked No. 19 in the nation yet will likely be settling with the No. 8 seed in the Big Ten conference.
This might be the most unpredictable year the league has ever seen because of the enormous depth of talent on display. Get set for a dogfight down in Indy during each and every game of the Big Ten tournament. Anybody can win on any given night — it really is going to come down to who wants it more.
DARK HORSE TEAMS:
The Illinois Fighting Illini are destined to catch heat heading into the tournament. This is an energetic group with an ambition to win key contests. They have struck out in most of their big games as they are just 2-4 against the AP top-25. But in those six games, the margin of defeat is just -5.4 points per game.
The Illini are led by the sophomore guard out of Chicago, Illinois — Ayo Dosunmu. Dosunmu is pouring in 16.4 points per game while shooting the ball 48% from the field. If Illinois is serious about making a deep run in the NCAA tournament, then Dosunmu is going to have to keep making big time plays for his team.
The Illini are a young group highlighted by three sophomores who contribute significant minutes along with their breakout freshman, Kofi Cockburn. He is currently averaging 13.6 points and nine rebounds per game. Every young group needs an experienced veteran when stepping into the postseason, and that guy for the Illini is senior guard Andres Feliz.
Feliz consistently puts up respectable and efficient numbers with 10.9 points per game while dishing out three assists per contest and shooting 47% from the floor. Not only does he put up numbers, he also makes sure he puts his star players in the right positions to make big plays. He is the glue that hold the squad together and will be the X factor in an NCAA tournament run for the Illini.