Big Ten Tournament preview: Illinois enters as contenders, second seed in competition


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Sophomore Kofi Cockburn steps toward the basket during the game against Michigan on March 2. Michigan and Illinois are both strong contenders to win the Big Ten Tournament this year.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

On Friday, March 13,  Illinois was practicing in Indianapolis, just hours before they were set to tip off in the Big Ten Tournament. But, during that practice, the team received word that the Big Ten tournament was canceled.

Now, after a year of craziness and uncertainty, the Big Ten Tournament is scheduled to tip off in Indianapolis on Wednesday. Here’s what to watch for.

The contenders

Michigan enters the tournament as the Vegas favorites, and for good reason. The Wolverines won the Big Ten outright and have looked like the best team from the start of the season, but they have lost two of their last three down the stretch. Starting guard Eli Brooks injured his ankle on Sunday, and his status is available. If he’s out, however, that could spell trouble for the Wolverines, as they lack guard depth.

Illinois is playing the best basketball in the Big Ten right now. Three straight wins at Wisconsin, at Michigan and at Ohio State have taken them to another level. Those wins solidified the Illini as a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, meaning they don’t have much to play for in theory in Indianapolis. But, the team wants to prove they are the league’s best team after Michigan was awarded the Big Ten title despite winning fewer games. A Big Ten Tournament championship would only add to Illinois’ case.

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Iowa is another team playing better as of late, winning eight of its last nine. The Hawkeyes are pretty firmly on the two-seed line, but it’s possible an early loss by Illinois and a tournament title for Iowa could put them in the one-seed conversation. They also have an injury to monitor, as All-Big Ten wing Joe Wieskamp is “day-to-day” with an ankle injury.

Senior Da’Monte Williams passes the ball during the game against Michigan on March 2. (Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics)

Dark-horse teams

Purdue quietly snuck up on everyone this season, finishing fourth in the league. The team’s young talent quickly developed, and the Boilermakers are in the three-five seed range for the tournament. Wins against Ohio State and Michigan in the top half of the bracket could solidify Purdue’s case.

Ohio State dropped its last four games of the season but doubting Chris Holtmann seems silly. The Buckeyes still have the talent to make a run, especially if Eli Brooks is unavailable. They are hanging by a thread on the two-seed line so making it to Saturday will be crucial for them.

Michigan State has salvaged its season and has played its way into the NCAA tournament picture. With wins over Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State in the last two weeks of the season, the Spartans have shown they can beat the league’s top teams. As the saying goes, “January, February, Izzo, April,” and Tom Izzo has the Spartans playing their best ball right now.

NCAA Tournament bubble watch

The Big Ten really doesn’t have that many teams on the bubble right now. The top eight teams in the league are in pretty safely. Michigan State is listed as a “last four byes” team on ESPN’s bracketology, but even if it lost on Friday to Maryland, then the Spartans’ recent wins should be enough to get them a bid.

Maryland seemed like a lock just a week ago, but if faltered down the stretch, losing to Northwestern and Penn State — at home. The Terrapins still don’t seem like a bubble team, but a loss to Michigan State on Friday will have them sweating. Regardless, I still think they’ll get in.

Indiana seemed like a tournament lock in the middle of the season, but five straight losses down the stretch have the team at 12-14, and it seems it’ll need a miracle to get in. If favorites prevail, Indiana will have to run through a gauntlet of Rutgers, Illinois and Michigan to secure a berth.

Illinois’ path

The Illini’s path to a title isn’t easy, but nothing is in this league. They’ll play the winner of Rutgers and Indiana on Friday afternoon. They are 0-1 against Rutgers, but that loss came months ago. They did beat Indiana twice, but both games were competitive. From there, they’ll play the winner of Iowa and, presumably, Wisconsin on Saturday. Illinois beat Iowa in their lone matchup, but the Hawkeyes were without starting guard C.J. Fredrick, while Illinois beat Wisconsin twice. If the Illini make it to Sunday, they’d likely face either Purdue, Ohio State or Michigan. Purdue seems like the best matchup, but it feels like the Illini want to beat the Wolverines one more time heading into the tournament.


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