The Big Ten graded out as the top basketball conference in the country in the final regular seasno RPI numbers. And the league had the most exciting finish to its championship race. First, it seemed like a two-team race between Michigan State and Ohio State. Then the Spartans looked in control. Then Tom Izzo’s team lost its final two games, including the season finale to the Buckeyes. The teams ended up tied. And Michigan snuck in the backdoor and stole a piece of its first conference title since 1986. Now the league looks ahead to its tournament in Indianapolis starting this afternoon and what they hope will be NCAA Tournament success next week. TheSportsNotebook does a regular season wrap-up on its home conference.
I call it the home conference for reasons both literal and figurative. Since I’m a Wisconsin fan, it’s the home conference regardless of where I live, and with the site currently headquartered in the Milwaukee area, it’s literally true. What’s also literally true is that the Badgers, along with Indiana are not just NCAA locks, but possible top four seeds, giving the Big Ten a shot at 5 of the top 16 spots in the overall NCAA bracket.
Purdue had some rebuilding to do and looked in trouble at several points during the season. But Matt Painter has pulled the Boilermakers together and with a 20-11 record and projected #9 seed by ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi, it appears the Boilermakers are safe. So that puts all eyes on Northwestern. The only school from a BCS Conference to never make the NCAAs is currently right on the bubble and relying a terrific duo of John Shurna and Drew Crawford to push them to a historic bid.
Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois are all heading to the NIT unless they win the tournament, and in the case of Illinois their Februrary collapse probably marks the end of Bruce Weber’s tenure.
Nebraska and Penn State are the only teams not going anywhere, but Penn State has one of the nation’s most electric players in guard Tim Frazier. He averages 19 points, 6 assists and is second in the conference in steals. Even though his team finished 12-19, Frazier gave Lion fans their money’s worth.
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This is a tournament that looks like anybody’s to take. Ohio State has the best talent in the starting five, but the depth isn’t great. Michigan State is coming in on a down note. Michigan lacks an inside game. Wisconsin hasn’t played well in this event since winning it in 2008. But Indiana? The Hoosiers can match up down low with Cody Zeller, have good forwards with Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo and Jordan Hulls is a solid floor leader. With the local tickets at Conseco Fieldhouse presumably being purchased by Hoosier partisans, Indiana wins the tournament in front of a friendly crowd.
Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger is the player coveted by the NBA and he played up to his billing. Shurna and Crawford were each top five in scoring. But how about Frazier? I know it seems strange to pick a player from Penn State, off a 12-19 year, as Player of the Year, but think about how bad the Lions might have been without Frazier. More to the point, imagine if he played on Michigan State or Ohio State and had a lineup with the muscle inside to keep defenses off of him. Frazier would get his just due. If nothing else, he’ll get it from TheSportsNotebook with its Big Ten Player of the Year pick.
Coach of the Year has to be John Beilein at Michigan. They have the least talent of any of the top five teams and perhaps even less than Purdue and Northwestern. Yet the Wolverines will be getting some hardware for the trophy case. Beilein deserves the applause.