The 2014 Big Ten tournament will kick off Thursday at noon from Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. As always, the first four seeds will have a bye (Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan St., Nebraska), and will face the winners of the first round on Friday.
#8 Indiana vs. #9 Illinois – Thursday 12:00 PM ET
Probably the two most disappointing teams in the B1G this year, the Hoosiers (17-14, 7-11 B1G) and Fighting Illini (18-13, 7-11) will kick off the tourney in a battle of Assembly Hall occupants. Traditionally this would be a matchup between two B1G heavyweights, but after this season, tradition is broken.
The Hoosiers disappointment comes from brutal losses to the bottom bunch of the B1G. Although able to take care of most ranked opponents while at home, Indiana was a measly 3-7 against unranked opponents including a horrid loss at home to Penn State (15-16, 6-12), followed by a blowout on the road against Purdue (15-16, 5-13).
In most school’s cases, a team with as many wins over ranked opponents as the Hoosiers (4), would be a shoe in for the tournament. But with the bad losses that the Hoosiers have suffered this season, their NCAA tournament hopes look bleak.
Illinois started this season as hot as anyone. They won their first 13 of 15 and even cracked the national rankings at 23. Once gaining national recognition, the Fighting Illini folded. They went on an eight game losing streak en route to losing 10 of 11 and dropping to the bottom of the conference.
Since they’re fallout, Illinois has played well and won four of their last five, including wins over #18 Michigan State (23-8, 12-6) and #24 Iowa (20-11, 9-9). They have momentum and they can use this in the B1G tournament to salvage a lost season. Maybe they can put something together and shock us all.
Now onto the game.
The Hoosiers have the “home court” advantage in this one, with Bankers Life Fieldhouse being a short 45-minute drive out of Bloomington. This could help Indiana, but on an overall neutral court it won’t be the crowd that gets it done for the Hoosiers.
They will need big games from their three stars Yogi Ferrel, Will Sheehey and B1G Freshman of the year Noah Vonleh. In addition, Coach Tom Crean will need to step up his in game coaching and avoid consistent habits of taking out the hot player or putting in lineups that can’t even run with Division two teams.
As I tweeted earlier in the week, freshman Devin Davis will need to play a minimum of 25 minutes if the Hoosiers want to gain control of this game. Aside from Vonleh, the Hoosiers have no other legitimate low post option, but Davis has shown that given the opportunity, he can shine.
Davis averaged 8.9 minutes a game during his freshman season, leading to an average of 2.4 PPG and 2.5 RPG. Awful numbers I know.
But in his last two games, Davis has averaged 20 minutes a game, while putting up eight points a game on 80% from the floor and grabbing 4.5 boards. Davis has filled in well for Vonleh while he has suffered from a foot injury, and is a great piece to put along side Vonleh to form a formidable frontcourt.
The Fighting Illini will be led by junior guard Rayvonte Rice who leads the team in points at 15.7 per game and rebounds at 6.1 per game. Not much more firepower outside of Rice for Illinois with their next leading scorer being Tracy Abrams at 10.5 per game.
Other than splitting the season series, all factors point toward Indiana in this one. I think the Hoosiers will prevail in the opening game of the tournament with the opportunity to take on number one seed Michigan (23-7, 15-3) on Friday at noon.
#5 Ohio State vs. #12 Purdue – Thursday 2:30 PM ET
This matchup is clearly the most lopsided of the first round according to the seeds as well as overall strength of each team.
Ohio State (23-8, 10-8) has been ranked in the top five this season and was an elite team for most of the season, aside from a rough six game stretch in which they lost five games.
Along with Ross and Smith Jr. is senior leader and B1G defensive player of the year Aaron Craft. Craft’s numbers don’t stand out, but his heart and defensive toughness is what has been able push the Buckeyes through a brutal big ten.
Craft’s play has even drawn praise from some of the most respectable people among the sports world.
Attempting to fend off Ohio State will be the Purdue Boilermakers (15-16, 5-13). Purdue has been in the dump for the past few years since being in the national spotlight just years earlier.
The Boilermakers had an above average start to the season, but once they hit big ten play it all went down hill. Purdue was not able to beat one ranked opponent this year and experienced two long losing streaks along the way, including a six game skid that they are currently on.
Like the Hoosiers, Purdue has a “home court” advantage, being that they are about an hour out from Indianapolis. However, no home court advantage will help the Boilermakers in this one.
When the Buckeyes traveled to West Lafayette to take on Purdue earlier in the year, they came out with a 78-69 victory. If they can’t beat them on their own home court there is little chance they will be able to pull this one out even with the advantage.
As you can see, I am predicting Ohio State to beat Purdue with slight ease and move on to face off against the number four seed Nebraska (19-11, 11-7), whom they split their season series with, on Friday after the Michigan vs. Indiana/Illinois game.
#7 Minnesota vs. #10 Penn State Thursday 6:30 PM ET
Thinking about this game earlier, I thought this one was going to be much tougher to pick. I let some time go by and then realized that this matchup has Minnesota (19-12, 8-10) written all over it.
For starters, the Golden Gophers swept Penn State in their regular season series, including an 18-point blow out just last Sunday.
Minnesota is led by junior guard Andre Hollins, averaging 14.6 points per game. Helping ease the load for Hollins is fellow guard Deandre Mathieu. Mathieu is second on the team in scoring at 11.9 a game on 50% shooting, while leading the team in assists with 4.4 a game.
The Golden Gophers have had an inconsistent season to say the least, but they are good enough to play with anyone in this tournament and Penn State shouldn’t be a problem. As long as they can keep the high scoring backcourt of D.J Newbill (17.8) and senior leader Tim Frazier (15.5,4.4,5.5) in check, they should be able to take care of business.
This game has the potential to be the one upset of the first round due to those two guys, but I don’t see it happening that way. It may be close but in the end, Minnesota will move on to face off against the second seed Wisconsin Badgers (25-6, 12-6).
#6 Iowa vs. #11 Northwestern – Thursday 9 PM ET
Our final game of the first round features a matchup between a pleasantly surprising Iowa team and an underachieving Northwestern team (13-18, 6-12).
Iowa spent a majority of the regular season in the nation’s top 25 rankings and were even as high up as number ten at one point.
Led by senior Roy Devyn Marble, averaging 17 points per game, the Hawkeyes have been able to put together a formidable record at 20-11, and assure themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
Although their best season in eight years, Iowa is coming into the B1G tournament on a big slump. Since having their game postponed at Indiana, the Hawkeyes have lost five of their last six games, including three of those losses coming to unranked opponents.
As a result of this slump, Iowa is entering the tournament unranked.
In order for Northwestern to send the Hawkeyes home early, senior leader Drew Crawford, who is leading the team in scoring (15.5) and rebounding (6.6) will need to have a huge game.
Not only will Crawford have to carry the Wildcats on the offensive end, but he will also draw the toughest of assignment of having to shut down Marble.
Honestly, I don’t see Crawford being able to do both, and I think the Hawkeyes will take this one rather handily. They will move on to play Michigan State (23-8, 12-6), which will be a bit tougher then Iowa’s first round matchup.
Well there you have it, a complete preview of the first round of the B1G tournament with predictions included. Remember the tournament begins Thursday at noon. Don’t miss out on any of the action.
*Thanks to ESPN.com and Basketball-reference.com for all statistics