- Matt Cox
(check out the Big Ten preseason preview here)
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Cassius Winston, Jr., Michigan St.
Coach of the Year: Matt Painter, Purdue
Newcomer of the Year: Ignas Brazdeikis, Fr., Michigan
Freshman of the Year: Ignas Brazdeikis, Fr., Michigan
1. Mitten State Smackdown
While Michigan State got the better of their in-state rival this season, both squads had brief stints where they looked nearly invincible. Michigan raced out to a dominant 17-0 start, winning five of its first six league games by double digits and pummeling conference co-champion Purdue by 19 in Ann Arbor. Sure, Michigan leveled off down the stretch, but Luke Yaklich’s steel-curtain defense still checked in as the second best defensive unit in the country on a per possession basis. Make no mistake about it - if Charles Matthews is able to regain form when he returns from an ankle injury, the Wolverines are in prime position to recapture that early-to-mid season magic.
Sparty capitalized on Matthews’ late season injury, somehow avoiding the Wolverines until February 24th before the rematch in East Lansing on the last day of the regular season. Yet, even before that sizzling late season surge which pushed the Spartans into a two-way tie atop the Big Ten leaderboard, MSU was putting on an offensive clinic behind the wizard that is Cassius Winston. Much like Michigan, the Spartans were a buzzsaw throughout December and January, but a slew of ill-advised injuries derailed the runaway freight train when the calendar flipped to February. Despite losing Josh Langford for the rest of the year and missing Nick Ward for the final five games of the season, Winston single-handedly uplifted the offense by turning an unproven collection of misfits into an Oscar-worthy supporting cast, thanks to his otherworldly passing and vision.
2. Boilermaker Beatdown
While Michigan and Michigan State raced out of the gates to start the year, it took the Boilers some time to get their well-oiled machine up-and-running. It’s hard to fathom that Purdue was 6-5 at one point this season and 2-2 in the Big Ten, but the accelerated maturation of a young and under-appreciated band of role players catapulted the Boilermakers into legitimate conference title contenders by mid-January. Oh, and that Carsen Edwards dude may have helped a little bit as well, a deadly trigger-man in Matt Painter’s screen-and-cut half-court offense.
3. The Basement Rises
While the heavy hitters were throwing haymakers at the top of the Big Ten standings, a couple of unsuspecting bottom-feeders picked themselves up by the bootstraps and made some serious waves down the stretch. After starting off winless in conference play, Penn State owned the month of February and miraculously avoided the opening round play-in game by winning 7 of 10 to close out the season. This 2019 rendition of the Scarlet Knights looks like the best Rutgers team in nearly two decades, much of which is attributable to the masterful work Steve Pikiell has done with the clipboard. While Illinois and Indiana each hit the turbo boosters late in the season as well, the congruent rise of Rutgers and Penn State has transformed the Big Ten into the most competitive conference in America, top to bottom.
It was a rare poor decision from soon-to-retire Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney to force the tournament into Madison Square Garden last year, but it now returns home to its roots in the Midwest in Chicago. United Center, aka ‘the house that Jordan built’ will play host to the 14-team field, which gifts the top-4 seeds an automatic berth to the quarterfinals.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
As we’ve repeated countless times on our podcast, there doesn’t appear to be a bonafide national title contender in this league. As aforementioned, there was a time when we would’ve thrown Michigan and Michigan State into that conversation, but injuries and natural regression have created a small chasm between the Big Ten’s elite - Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue - and the national elite, comprised of Virginia, Duke (pending a healthy Zion) and Gonzaga (though, Kentucky and North Carolina are starting to bang on the door).
All that said, any one of the top-5 teams in the Big Ten has the chops to crash the Final Four party in Minnesota and each will be well positioned to do so when the bracket is released next Sunday. Sparty has an outside shot at a 1-seed, but a 2-seed seems like the more realistic destination at this juncture. The Wolverines aren’t far behind but they’re closer to the 2 to 3-seed range, while Purdue lies one bend down on the S-curve in the 3 to 4-seed range. Wisconsin and Maryland round out the league’s upper echelon, both of whom are vying for a 4-seed at the moment, but are trending closer to the 5-seed range, according to bracketmatrix.com’s latest projections.
Dark Horse Team
With how strong the bottom-half of the league performed late in the season, there are handful of solid options to choose from here. The only reason I’m going with a ‘split-decision’ in both Penn State and Indiana is simply due to the fact that they avoid the treacherous opening round Wednesday draw. Even if Rutgers or Illinois can advance, they will be fighting an uphill battle with the fatigue of less than 24 hours of rest weighing on them in the subsequent round.
Let’s not kid ourselves - the Hoosiers and Nittany Lions still have to win four games in four days to cut down the nets, but the current future odds of +3300 for IU and +5000 for Penn State is certainly worth a $5 or $10 flyer.
For context, here is a breakdown of the Big Ten tournament results by seed since 1998, courtesy of a bigten.org pamphlet sourced on Wikipedia:
(12) Rutgers over (13) Nebraska
(11) Illinois over (14) Northwestern
(9) Indiana over (8) Ohio State
(5) Maryland over (12) Rutgers
(10) Penn State over (7) Minnesota
(11) Illinois over (6) Iowa
(1) Michigan State over (9) Indiana
(5) Maryland over (4) Wisconsin
(10) Penn State over (2) Purdue
(3) Michigan over (11) Illinois
(1) Michigan State over (5) Maryland
(3) Michigan over (10) Penn State
(3) Michigan over (1) Michigan State