The United Center proved to be every bit the appropriate home for the Big Ten men's basketball conference tournament this weekend. Every game on Friday, Saturday and Sunday had more than 20,000 fans in attendance - well over the arena's basketball capacity. There were NBA scouts and general managers in attendance to watch future lottery picks, and the biggest and brightest names in broadcasting from ESPN and CBS were there to call the games.
I had the opportunity to spend some time at the tournament this weekend, and, when the dust settled Sunday afternoon, I stood on the court as confetti covered the tournament's champions; the Ohio State Buckeyes defeated a (finally) overmatched Wisconsin squad that had run through Michigan and Indiana in the previous two days. The weekend provided an incredible display of competition from some of the best players in the country.
The Big Ten has been called the most dominant conference in the country, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, the conference's tournament just provided a blueprint for the opponents of each school in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Is there a school from the Big Ten that's good enough to win it all? Sure. There are probably three or four teams that could make a run to the championship.
Here's what I learned about the universities that will represent the conference in the Big Dance, and where their March Madness could come to an end.
Minnesota - The Golden Gophers are the 11 seed in the South Region, and will face a similarly underwhelming UCLA team in the first round. They lost to Illinois on a buzzer-beater on Thursday morning and were on the bubble. Against a relatively soft Illinois team, the Gophers turned the ball over 19 times. They're 4-7 since the start of February with losses to non-Tournament teams Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue. Their best bet at playing a second game in the tournament is UCLA playing a bad game (which is possible).
Illinois - The Fighting Illini are the 7 seed in the East Region, and will face a good Colorado team in the first round; frankly, the match-up makes sense but the seeds should be swapped. The problem with this Illini team is they play too much individual basketball; there's little - if any - movement and too much isolation. Proof: they had 14 assists in their two games in the conference tournament. They also go through brutal shooting slumps; they shot 25.9 percent from the field in the first half against Indiana. Colorado has a big guard in Spencer Dinwiddie (6-6, 200) who could give Brandon Paul fits. If he doesn't get off early and often, the Illini will be back in Champaign to watch the second round.
Wisconsin - After running to the conference championship game, the Badgers wound up a 5 seed in the West. The performance in the conference tournament was surprising and potentially misleading. In their wins over Michigan and Indiana and loss to Ohio State, Wisconson shot only 31 percent (18-58) from downtown after shooting just under 34 percent for the season. Wisconsin was also awful all year from the free throw line, shooting only 63.5 percent from the line as a team. They'll have problems with teams that pressure their guards and move the ball effectively into the post. Unfortunately, their first round opponent - Ole Miss - did both of those well in their upset of Florida to win the SEC Conference Championship on Sunday.
Michigan - The Wolverines were the team everyone used as the headline for the "how deep/good/excellent is the Big Ten this year" story a week ago; they were ranked sixth in the country, but were the fifth seed in their own conference tournament. Now, Michigan is the 4 seed in the South and faces the daunting draw of San Diego State and, if they get through Round One, a potential matchup with a VCU team many are picking as a Final Four team. Michigan might have the most NBA talent on their roster of any Big Ten team, but their defensive lapses could be their undoing (as was the case against Wisconsin on Friday). I'm not sure if it would be more surprising for Michigan to get bounced in the first round or to win the national title.
Michigan State - This is a classic case of a Tom Izzo team underwhelming people early in the season and making a great case for doubters, only to get their act together and turn into a championship contender by the end of the season. Sparty is the 3 seed in the Midwest, and I would argue only Indiana has an easier road to the Sweet 16 among the seven schools from the conference that got into the dance. If they can get that far, State could face games against Duke and Louisville. Louisville's pressure defense is the perfect antidote to what Izzo wants to do.
Ohio State - Ohio State is the 2 seed in the West Region (where Wisconsin was also placed). The tournament champion won a title on Sunday in spite of a mediocre day from the field; the Buckeyes were only 1-16 from three-point range. They have finally started to get secondary scoring, and Aaron Craft is one of the best defensive guards in the country. Size could present the biggest problem for the Buckeyes, and that's exactly what makes New Mexico a nightmare for Ohio State. Their three leading scorers are guards Kendall Williams (6-4) and Tony Snell (6-7) and center Alex Kirk (7-0). Craft is generously listed at only 6-2, and strong inside play has been an issue for Ohio State.
Indiana - As the 1 seed in the East, the Hoosiers have the easiest road to the Elite 8; Syracuse might present their toughest competition before playing for a Final Four berth. If you believe Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are NBA lottery picks, they'll need to play to that level for 40 minutes for the Hoosiers to get past a Miami team that could (should) have been a 1 seed in their own right.