• adamzielonka

After Michigan-Ohio State instant classic, Big Ten has a fascinating finish ahead

When we as a sports-consuming nation are denied an Ohio State-Michigan football game, it’s only fair that the consolation prize is a basketball classic between the two titans a few months later. After all, this game was destined to be much more competitive than if the Wolverines tried to take on the Buckeyes on the gridiron in 2020.


Jokes aside, Michigan’s 92-87 win over Ohio State not only earned the program rivalry bragging rights, it cemented the Wolverines’ place as the best team in the Big Ten and one of the elites in the country. I watched the whole game. Then, I followed it up by watching Maryland-Rutgers and Iowa-Penn State. I caught Indiana-Michigan State Saturday, Rutgers-Michigan before that...


It’s hard not to binge on Big Ten basketball this year. Apologies to the Big 12, which thinks it has a case to make, but this is the best conference in men’s college basketball right now, by far.


In any year, a clash between classic rivals both ranked in the top 5 would be the game of the year, and again, Sunday’s game lived up to its billing. I still can’t get over this sweet play from Columbia grad transfer Mike Smith to 7-foot-2 freshman and DeMatha product Hunter Dickinson:

Though Michigan and Ohio State won’t play again in the regular season, there’s more where that came from.


If Michigan and Ohio State are considered the very best in the league, right behind them are Illinois and Iowa. Either team would have a comfortable lead in pretty much any other conference in the land. They boast the season’s brightest stars – Luka Garza on Iowa, Ayo Dosunmu on Illinois. They still could find a way to land a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, though the path is tougher for Iowa.


All the same, the Big Ten’s four best teams are about to mix it up, with massive implications for postseason seeding. Both Michigan and Ohio State will play both Illinois and Iowa again before the season is through. Here’s the schedule of these top-flight matchups:


- Feb. 25: Iowa at Michigan

- Feb. 28: Iowa at Ohio State

- March 2: Illinois at Michigan

- March 6: Illinois at Ohio State


You can think of it like a preliminary seeding round for the Big Ten Tournament, especially since Michigan and Ohio State get to stay home. If the home teams hold steady, they’ll remain on a higher plane and further divide the tiers of Big Ten contenders. If Iowa and/or Illinois pull off an upset or two, certain resumes will get shaken up. Illinois could force its way onto the 1 line of the national tournament, especially if they land a big blow against OSU. Iowa would have more work to do than that; Garza would probably need to carry them to the conference tourney championship.


In summation: Michigan-Ohio State was terrific, but it’s definitely not time to stop paying attention to Big Ten hoops.


To wrap up, I picked three other games I’m most curious about heading down the stretch, then wrote a piece about each of the league’s NCAA Tournament contenders – the Big Ten’s “big 10,” so to speak, excluding Penn State, Northwestern, Nebraska and 10th-place Michigan State, even though Sparty’s tournament chances aren’t down to zero at this point.


Three other games that will impact seeding the most:


1. Indiana at Rutgers, Feb. 24

One team’s resume is going to take a hit here. Either the Scarlet Knights lose their third in a row, their fourth out of five and their second straight at the RAC, or the Hoosiers allow Rutgers to complete the season sweep and erase arguably their most winnable remaining game off the board. Indiana can’t fall flat in this game when Michigan, a Michigan State rematch and the Purdue rivalry game all loom.


2. Wisconsin at Purdue, March 2

Who’s the real fifth-best team in the conference behind the four discussed above? On paper, it’s the Badgers, who are No. 14 on KenPom.com and the only other Big Ten team still ranked. Right behind them are the easy-to-sleep-on Boilermakers, who have gone 8-3 in the past six weeks with only one loss by more than three points, a blowout to Michigan. A Quad 1 win over Wisconsin might pull Purdue even with the Badgers in terms of seeding, maybe on the 5 line. The Boilermakers’ Jaden Ivey is a fun one to watch.


3. Michigan-Michigan State, back-to-back on March 4 and 7

It’s not cheating for me to put a pair of games into one slot, because, well, I don’t have to report to an editor here. The Spartans also must face Illinois and Ohio State before concluding with this double-dose of their in-state rival. In other words, Tom Izzo’s crew has plenty of opportunities to improve their resume before tournament time. At the very least, a sweep of Michigan could spoil the Wolverines’ shot at a 1 seed, improbable as it sounds at this point. Never count out an Izzo-coached team.


Michigan

NET: 3

Remaining opponents: vs. IOWA, at IND, vs. ILL, vs. MSU, at MSU


Because the Wolverines had a 23-day pause from all athletic activities due to a COVID-19 outbreak in their department, and this was just their third game back, some people were picturing the Buckeyes overpowering them and proving them to be frauds. Like this guy. When a team is 15-1 (now 16-1) on the season, referring to that one loss as a reason to doubt its legitimacy is pretty lame.


Still can’t get over that Mike Smith-to-Hunter Dickinson play I embedded above. I love the constitution of this roster, from the starters down to a guy like Chaundee Brown, who transferred from Wake Forest to play a role for Michigan, providing points, defense and seniority off the bench. He scored 15 against the Buckeyes with three 3-pointers.


My best guess: 1 seed, national title contender


Ohio State

NET: 7

Remaining opponents: at MSU, vs. IOWA, vs. ILL


If I were an AP voter, I wouldn’t move Ohio State down a single peg from their No. 4 ranking this week despite the loss to Michigan. I’d probably go Gonzaga, Michigan, Baylor, Ohio State and Illinois for my top 5. (I’m not saying it’s Baylor’s fault for not playing for a couple weeks, but truly, I’m of the “What have you done for me lately?” mentality.)


I saw last season’s Ohio State team lose to Maryland with pretty much this roster plus Kaleb Wesson, a dominant inside force. Of course, Maryland’s team was much better at the time too, but to me it shows the growth of the Buckeyes’ guards and wings. Duane Washington isn’t going to go for 30 every game, as he did Sunday against Michigan, but you can imagine him being the sort of ice-in-his-veins performer during March that wills his team to the next round. That’s to say nothing of forward E.J. Liddell, who was a killer Sunday too.


My best guess: 1 seed, national title contender


Illinois

NET: 4

Remaining opponents: at MSU, vs. NEB, at WIS, at MICH, at OSU


This is a bit of pandemic-era bad luck. Due to some postponements and schedule reshuffling, four of the Illini’s five remaining games are on the road – at Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, no less. But since this is a pandemic, it’s not like you’re entering packed gym after packed gym; winning on the road isn’t as daunting a task.


Outside Garza, Ayo Dosunmu might be the most complete player in the league and perhaps the country. Dosunmu posted 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Minnesota for his second triple-double in two weeks. Going for 21-12-12 against Wisconsin on Feb. 6 is honestly the better performance, given the tougher competition. And when the Illini were faltering against last-place Nebraska, Dosunmu put them on his back by scoring their last 10 points of the second half and first five points of overtime. Nobody in or out of the Big 10 should want to face Dosunmu in March, especially given the other top talents around him.


My best guess: 2 seed, Final Four contender


Iowa

NET: 5

Remaining opponents: at MICH, at OSU, vs. NEB, vs. WIS


It’s crazy to think that the team with the Wooden Award favorite has almost become an also-ran in its own conference. No doubt Garza is special (for those not in the know, he’s averaging 24.7 points, 8.5 boards and 1.6 blocks per game), and it’s good that he doesn’t always have to lead the Hawkeyes in scoring for them to have a chance to win. Can they overcome that 1-4 patch from a few weeks ago, which included a season sweep at the hands of Indiana? The way I see it, this team doesn’t need to be a 1 seed as long as they’re on top of their game come March; they’re strong enough to reach the Final Four without receiving the easiest path there.


My best guess: 3 seed, Final Four contender


Wisconsin

NET: 20

Remaining opponents: at NW, vs. ILL, at PUR, at IOWA


I’m not very high on the Badgers, but that’s partly because I’ve watched them less than many other teams in this league. They emerged from a tough part of their schedule with their share of cuts and bruises – losses to Michigan (twice), Ohio State, Penn State (gulp), Illinois and Iowa. They certainly don’t belong near that top tier we discussed earlier. The X-factor during the tournament will be their experience: Wisconsin starts four seniors in D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, Aleem Ford and Nate Reuvers, and could start five if it wanted to by putting Micah Potter back in the lineup.


My best guess: 5 seed, Sweet 16 contender


Purdue

NET: 28

Remaining opponents: at PSU, vs. WIS, vs. IND


Look, Purdue basketball isn’t a national brand, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t get the hype it often deserves. I think the Boilermakers’ resume is fascinating: ranked 17th by KenPom.com, No. 28 in NET with a 4-7 Quad 1 record and 5-0 Quad 2 record. They upset Ohio State and swept Michigan State. That said, their record is speckled with some weird early-season non-con losses and a recent defeat to Minnesota that won’t look great to the selection committee. Can this be a dark horse candidate for the Big Ten Tournament?


My best guess: 6 seed, Sweet 16 contender


Rutgers

NET: 31

Remaining opponents: vs. IND, at NEB, at MINN


This Jersey boy is not happy to say that the Scarlet Knights’ stock is falling once again. I look at its loss to Michigan optimistically – the Knights were in that game at the start; they weren’t out of it at the end; they limited their turnovers to just three against a far more talented team. If just two more 3-pointers had fallen earlier in the game (they started 1-for-10 from deep), think how close it could have gotten.


Then Sunday came and they looked weak against Maryland. The Terps are a good but flawed team, and Rutgers easily handled them earlier in the season. The rematch at least should have been closer than it turned out to be. Poor games from Myles Johnson, Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell doomed them. With the season winding down, they can’t have that happen again – they can’t give the committee any excuse to doubt putting them in the field where they belong. Because when Rutgers is firing on all cylinders, it’s a top 25 team.


My best guess: 7 seed, Sweet 16 contender (if the draw is good)


Maryland

NET: 30

Remaining opponents: vs. MSU, at NW, vs. PSU


On the other side of that game, oh Maryland, my Maryland. Not only did Aaron Wiggins notch a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, all five starters scored in double figures. Maybe the solution to facing Rutgers center Myles Johnson’s defense is simply not to employ a big who will try to get in his face and challenge him. What I’m saying is, Maryland’s four-guard offense is working.


The analytics like Maryland. I like Maryland. I’d rather have last year’s team that featured Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith, to be sure, but the Terps have coalesced at the right time and ought to make the field of 68.


My best guess: 10 seed, could win a game


Indiana

NET: 52

Remaining opponents: at RUT, vs. MICH, at MSU, at PUR


As my friend Dylan Sinn of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette said, Indiana’s tournament hopes took a hit when they let Saturday’s game against Michigan State get away after leading by 13 early on. Trayce Jackson-Davis went insane with 34 points and fellow forward Race Thompson managed seven steals, but the Hoosiers’ backcourt let them down. Saturday’s broadcasters mentioned that Coach Archie Miller said his team is at its best when it gets two guards playing well at the same time. Someone needs to step up and help guard Armaan Franklin in that department.


Sinn tweeted that the Hoosiers’ chances for a bid dipped below 50-50 with the loss. That’s why Wednesday’s game against Rutgers is so crucial for them; they’re catching Rutgers at the right time and might be doomed if they lose. Ultimately, I think the Hoosiers will grab that win, and their resume is more impressive than the team listed below them here, so my gut says they’ll sneak into the field.


My best guess: Last Four In


Minnesota

NET: 60

Remaining opponents: vs. NW, at NEB, at PSU, vs. RUT


Minnesota’s soft remaining schedule is a blessing and a curse, I think. The Golden Gophers have lost six of their last eight; they’re 4-10 against Quad 1 and 1-0(?) against Quad 2; both NET and KenPom.com rate them behind the likes of Penn State. Minnesota is capable of beating its upcoming slate of the three worst teams in the conference, but if it does, would that even be enough to impress the committee much? Meanwhile, just one more loss would do them infinite harm. Unless the Gophers go deep in the Big Ten Tournament, I feel like they’ll end up on the cutting room floor.


My best guess: First Four Out

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