The Big Ten has ample right to stake a claim as the best conference in the country this year. Night in and night out, it seemed that even the conference’s best teams had trouble winning on the road. Heck, Rutgers is considered a safe bet for the NCAA Tournament field, and they won just two games away from home all year. That is a testament to how much of a grind the Big Ten conference was this year. The team that emerges as Big Ten tournament champion will certainly have earned it. The question is, will the teams that make the championship have anything left in the tank for the NCAA Tournament?
Here is a breakdown of all the favorites, dark horses, and longshots to win the Big Ten tournament (odds courtesy of FanDuel).
Michigan State (+320)
As the saying goes, “January, February, Izzo, April…” Michigan State has to feel awfully good about themselves as they head into postseason play. They were buried in the conference standings for much of the year, but a closing stretch in which they won six of their last seven games earned them a share of the regular-season conference championship. The Spartans feel like a team that is peaking at the right time.
Michigan State was the preseason No. 1 team in the AP Poll for a reason. They are tough, experienced, and fundamentally sound. Led by a great inside-outside combination of Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, they are good enough to win a national championship.
The issue for Michigan State in a conference tournament format where they need to win three games in three days is their depth. Winston plays 89% of the team’s minutes, and Tillman is not far behind at 73%. They are so reliant on these two stars that they may be too gassed to put forth a championship effort on three consecutive days.
The Terrapins stumbled to the finish line of the regular season, as they lost three of their last five games. However, this stretch was preceded by an impressive nine-game winning streak that included victories at Illinois and Michigan State. The biggest problem for Maryland over the last five games has been their inconsistent defense. The Terrapins are just sixth-best in the conference in terms of effective field goal percentage defense, per KenPom.
If Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman are not the best 1-2 combination in the Big Ten, then it has to be Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith. Between them, they average 31.8 points per game. However, for Maryland to make a serious push for a conference tournament championship, they will need more production from guys like Aaron Wiggins, Darryl Morsell, and Eric Ayala.
Of all the major conference tournaments, perhaps the most surprising the Wisconsin Badgers are perhaps the most surprising No. 1 seed. Wisconsin is red-hot, coming into the tournament on an eight-game winning streak. Their biggest wins in this stretch include Ohio State and at Michigan. For his efforts in helping the Badgers earn a share of the regular-season championship, coach Greg Gard was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Wisconsin plays at the slowest tempo of all Big Ten teams. While this has been a recipe for success lately, it is also a dangerous one since their games are usually closer. In addition, if Wisconsin were to fall behind in games, I am not so sure they are comfortable having to play at a quicker pace. One positive is that they benefit from the easier top half of the bracket.
Ohio State (+900)
Ohio State ended the season in impressive fashion, beating three ranked teams in four games before losing at Michigan State. The Buckeyes do a little of everything well. They are best in the Big Ten in three-point percentage and free throw percentage. They also take care of the defensive glass, allowing the fewest percentage of opponents’ offensive rebounds in the conference.
Depth is a concern for Ohio State, as three starters (CJ Walker, Luther Muhammad, Kaleb Wesson) each play more than 80% of the team’s minutes. In addition, they have a gauntlet to go through before the championship round. If seeding held, they would face Michigan State and Maryland before having to play for the title.
It may surprise some that the No. 9 seed Michigan Wolverines have the fifth-best odds to win the Big Ten tournament. However, one must recognize their draw as a key factor. Michigan has to win four games in four days compared to the top four seeds who only have to win three. However, the Wolverines have the benefit of Michigan State and Maryland being on the other half of the draw. In addition, Rutgers (Michigan’s first-round opponent) has struggled to win games away from home all year.
The Wolverines do not come into the tournament in the best form. They ended the regular season by losing three of their last four games. However, they are built better than most to withstand the grind of a conference tournament, as seven players average at least 19 minutes per game. Michigan ranks in the top 30 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Their most impressive metric is how well they take care of the ball. They rank 11th in the country in turnover percentage, committing turnovers on just 15.3% of their possessions.
Illinois (+1100), Iowa (+1100), Penn State (+1400), Rutgers (+2400), Purdue (+3600)
In most conference tournaments, the “dark horses” are not legitimate championship threats. However, with how talented and deep the Big Ten is, it would not be shocking if any of these teams won the conference tournament. The best bet of this bunch is Illinois. They are the only team from this group who has a “double-bye.” In addition, they get an easier path to the championship by avoiding Michigan State and Maryland until the finals. In the quarterfinals, they will likely draw Iowa, whom they split two regular-season meetings with this year.
Indiana (+4500), Minnesota (+6500), Nebraska (+20000), Northwestern (+20000)
With how likely the dark horses in the Big Ten are to win the Big Ten tournament, it makes it even more unlikely that any of these longshots have what it takes.