• adamzielonka

Confidence ratings entering the Big Ten Tournament

Oh, what a wondrous month March is. Teams’ fates are sealed, Cinderellas are born, other programs’ dreams come up short either before or during the NCAA Tournament. If you’re reading this, chances are you agree and you don’t need me to wax poetic about the month of college basketball that lies ahead.

But please allow me that quick, clichéd moment, because now I’m going to turn the rest of my intro’s attention to the infuriating Maryland Terrapins.

This one’s pretty simple. No matter what’s on the line, no matter how much better Maryland’s roster appears to be, bet any money you’ve got that they’ll crumble against Penn State. The Nittany Lions have taken their last four meetings against Maryland and six of the last eight, including some games that Maryland absolutely was supposed to win and yet couldn’t manage it.

For those of you who don’t know, I completed my master’s degree at Maryland and became familiar with the ins and outs of their athletic program while there. I’ve covered the Terps objectively, from student outlets to my professional career, but I must admit I lean towards wanting to see them do well in their best sports – which makes it an emotional roller coaster when I see this men’s basketball team have the peaks and valleys that it’s had of late.

To leap out to a 12-0 lead on Sunday, to establish a comfortable enough 33-23 halftime lead and grow that margin to 14 with 11 minutes to play... all on the program’s senior night, in which the likes of former walk-on and fan favorite Reese Mona got his first career start... and then to surrender that lead for the first time in the last 90 seconds and lose such a vital game is the dictionary definition of disappointment.

Mark Turgeon told reporters the loss was “devastating,” with some of his players in tears in the locker room. Fair or foul, Turgeon is going to bear the brunt of public opinion about Maryland’s two-game losing skid to end the regular season – first to Northwestern, now Penn State, neither of them tournament-caliber teams. That’s because the Turgeon era in College Park has been marked by high expectations and early postseason exits, both in the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

Maryland hasn’t won a game in the Big Ten Tournament since 2016. Read that again. Chalk it up to whatever you want – the quirks of a double-bye format, the improving strength of the conference, the loss of a 2020 edition of the tournament when the Terps would have been major contenders. The fact is it’s been upset after upset for a while now, and a faction of the fan base pins that squarely on Turgeon’s coaching. Contrast that with the women’s program, which has dominated the Big Ten since its arrival, winning four postseason titles and locking up the No. 1 seed again this year. (Check out my Washington City Paper story about the Maryland women's team when you’re done here.)

I’m no longer as confident in Maryland entering March as I was when it had a five-game winning streak going. So that’s what I’ll do today: preview the tournament by discussing and rating how confident I am in each team. My ratings will be determined on a 1-10 scale. (For the double-digit seeds, most of whom aren’t in contention for the national tournament field unless they win out and steal the Big Ten auto-bid, I’ll be grading on a curve and looking ahead to how those programs are setting themselves up for next season.)

First Round

14. Nebraska vs. 11. Penn State

Pat Chambers stepped down as Penn State’s coach just a month before the start of this season as the university was investigating allegations of misconduct and racist language used with at least one player. Couple that with the graduation of former star player Lamar Stevens, and this was supposed to be a down year for the program. Yet they finished the regular season a respectable 40th in the NET ratings with not only a sweep of Maryland, but also upset wins over Wisconsin and Virginia Tech. They’ll be returning Seth Lundy (who killed the Terps with 31 points Sunday), Myreon Jones, Myles Dread and Sam Sessoms. The Lions might be in for a bounce-back year.

Nebrasketball, on the other hand, appears to have a lot more work to do. Fred Hoiberg turned Iowa State around once upon a time, so working the same magic for Nebraska should still be within the realm of possibility. But leading scorer Teddy Allen abruptly departed the team last week, which doesn’t bode well for the rebuild in Lincoln.

Penn State confidence rating: 5

Nebraska confidence rating: 2

13. Minnesota vs. 12. Northwestern

Remember when the Golden Gophers were on the tournament bubble, with upsets of Michigan and Ohio State to bolster their resume? Those were the days, eh? How short-sighted we were back then. Now the common wisdom is that Richard Pitino will be fired after the end of this mess of a season – he even told his players last week that he believes he’ll lose his job, according to reports. Seven consecutive losses and 10 losses in their last 12 did that to him. They made it close on Saturday against Rutgers, even with Marcus Carr going scoreless for most of the game, but they failed to do anything to capitalize in overtime. No. 1 Class of 2021 prospect Chet Holmgren could still pick Minnesota to stay close to home, sure. And pigs could still sprout wings.

The Northwestern Wildcats didn’t have a terrific season themselves, but they’re at least trending in the right direction. What a strange Big Ten schedule it was for them: three straight wins (Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State, no less!), followed by a 13-game skid, followed by three more wins to end the year on a better note. Hey, on the bright side, there are no seniors on the Wildcats’ roster. The likes of Boo Buie, Pete Nance, Miller Kopp and Chase Audige will help form one of the more experienced lineups in the conference pretty soon. Thanks for playing, Northwestern. We’ll blame this one on the pandemic and presume that you’ll be stronger next year.

Minnesota confidence rating: 1

Northwestern confidence rating: 4

Second Round

9. Michigan State vs. 8. Maryland

This is why beating Penn State on senior night mattered for the Terps. As I wrote in last week’s blog, the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the Big Ten Tournament were shaping up to be either Rutgers/Maryland or Maryland/Rutgers. The order mattered a ton if you didn’t want to draw a red-hot Michigan State team and No. 1 Michigan on your side of the bracket. Had the Terps notched one final conference win Sunday, they’d have a much easier draw right now. Too bad. Though this team beat Michigan State a week ago, I’ll go out on a limb and say the Terps’ losing streak in Big Ten Tournament play will continue this year, Nostradamus that I am.

That’s because Sparty’s back. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi says Michigan State is now a lock to make the NCAA field, and with wins over Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan all in the final two weeks of the regular season, how could anyone disagree? What’s more exciting is that as long as Sparty takes care of Maryland first, the quarterfinals will feature Michigan-Michigan State for the third time in the span of a week, which would be must-see TV no matter what time of day it’s played.

Maryland confidence rating: 3

Michigan State confidence rating: 8

10. Indiana vs. 7. Rutgers

Maryland’s loss is Rutgers’ gain. The Scarlet Knights draw Indiana in their first game instead of Michigan State, and should they win, it’ll be Illinois in the following round instead of Michigan. It’s probably better for everyone this way – again, everyone except for Maryland, but the Terps are getting what they deserve. The last time these teams met, Rutgers gave the Hoosiers a head start and then pummeled them for the last 30-odd minutes. The Knights have slowed down a bit since then, with an inexplicable loss to Nebraska and a nearly-blown game to Minnesota taking some helium out of their balloon entering the postseason.

No one likes Indiana right now. There is no reason to like Indiana right now. I hope I don’t have to spend many more words on Indiana to convince you. The only way the Hoosiers steal a game in the tournament would be from Rutgers’ tendency to be wildly inconsistent, and not through anything Archie Miller is putting together at the moment. Something would have clicked for Indiana by now if it was ever meant to click at all.

Rutgers confidence rating: 6

Indiana confidence rating: 2

6. Wisconsin (vs. Nebraska or Penn State)

Excuse my use of the word “victim” here, but one of the victims of the difficulty of this year’s Big Ten is Wisconsin, which I’m sure is a perfectly capable group of players even though I haven’t personally witnessed them win a game in maybe six weeks. There are just no wins on their resume that make you say “Wow!” It’s more a classic case of beating who you’re supposed to beat and losing who you’re expect to lose to. They finished the regular season losing five of their last six, but those five were to Michigan, Iowa twice, Illinois and Purdue. Yes, D’Mitrik Trice is great and Wisconsin has the best scoring defense in the conference by a thin margin, but it’s difficult for me to see the Badgers going far the way they’ve looked recently.

Wisconsin confidence rating: 4

5. Ohio State (vs. Minnesota or Northwestern)

The bracketologists made it clear the Buckeyes had 1-seed potential in their eyes, but a few too many conference losses mean they don’t even get close to the No. 1 seed in their own conference tournament. Casual fans might have been surprised, but it’s true: Purdue finished 13-6 in the Big Ten and OSU went 12-8. Ergo, Purdue grabs the fourth seed and the final double-bye instead of a team many think can win the whole dang NCAA Tournament. Do the Buckeyes let that fuel them, or will having to play an extra game this week be less a blessing and more a curse? For my money, I still think OSU can make a deep run, and a potential OSU-Purdue quarterfinal would be intriguing, as I’m high on both teams.

Ohio State confidence interval: 8


4. Purdue (vs. Ohio State, Minnesota or Northwestern)

The commentators were hyping up the tradition of the Indiana-Purdue basketball rivalry during Saturday’s telecast, which was kind of sad. First of all, I recently learned Purdue completely dominated that series from 1901-1939, which contributes to its 123-89 margin all-time. More to the point, Indiana hasn’t beaten Purdue in five years; the Boilermakers just made it nine wins in a row. It has to infuriate Indiana when Matt Painter’s program puts together quality season after quality season and gets immediate contributions from freshmen like Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey – the latter a Canadian giant with precious little basketball background who can do things like this, and this. Purdue is officially my dark horse in the NCAA Tournament, no matter what happens in the conference tourney.

Purdue confidence rating: 7

3. Iowa (vs. Wisconsin, Nebraska or Penn State)

Luka Garza is going to win the national player of the year awards – both the Wooden and the Naismith. It’s been building up to this for more than a year, honestly. Garza was great last year and ended up in second place for the Wooden Award, and his national profile only grew over the offseason. He’s done nothing to dissuade voters from choosing him, as he finished the regular season averaging 23.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Ayo Dosunmu and maybe Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham will garner some attention, but this was always Garza’s to lose. That being said, the Hawkeyes are more than just Garza, and have proven they can win Big Ten games when Garza isn’t their leading scorer (maybe not against Michigan, but other Big Ten games, for sure). Don’t overlook them in March.

Iowa confidence rating: 6

2. Illinois (vs. Indiana or Rutgers)

Illinois has the easiest path to the Big Ten Tournament final, the way I see it. Michigan probably has to cope with Michigan State in its first game, while Illinois gets either Indiana or a shaky Rutgers? No contest. Then, the Illini could draw Iowa – and they have the pieces to contain Garza – or perhaps Wisconsin, whom they swept in their regular season series. It’s funny how hesitant I was just a week ago to consider Illinois the fourth-best team in the country. Of course they are. With Dosunmu back, black face mask and all, Illinois has reclaimed what it believes to be its rightful spot as a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed along with conference foe Michigan, and soon the fun will really begin.

Illinois confidence rating: 9

1. Michigan (vs. Michigan State or Maryland)

Similar to my short-ish blurb about Illinois, I’m not sure what is left to say about the Wolverines. Of course they didn’t want to lose to Michigan State to close the regular season, but the schedule quirk being what it was, a series split was always on the table and it was destined to be tougher to win in East Lansing. I’d be slightly more concerned about Illinois running them off the floor without Dosunmu back yet, aided by red-hot shooting from Andre Curbelo and Trent Frazier, in addition to Kofi Cockburn locking up Hunter Dickinson. If the Big Ten Tournament final ends up a Michigan-Illinois rematch, Dickinson can’t shoot 1-for-8 from the floor again. For that matter, Franz Wagner can’t go 1-for-9; it’s been abundantly clear that Michigan reaches another level when Wagner is playing well and it suffers when he’s off his game.

Michigan confidence rating: 8

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