The Big Ten tourney: It’s time to play

Tim Klobuchar

Starting today, the Big Ten will finally get the chance to see the pre-party to the Big Dance that it’s been missing all these years — and find out whether it was worth the wait.
The first-ever Big Ten tournament opens today at the United Center in Chicago, with the Gophers and Northwestern getting the honor of playing the first game at 1 p.m..
Postseason conference tournaments had been a way of life for Illinois’ Lon Kruger, Wisconsin’s Dick Bennett and Northwestern’s Kevin O’Neill, who all spent significant time coaching in other conferences before joining the Big Ten.
Every Big Ten coach except Minnesota’s Clem Haskins and Indiana’s Bob Knight voted in favor of the tournament, but already Purdue’s Gene Keady has said he wouldn’t vote for it now because his team has had a successful season (24-6) and wants to move on to the NCAAs.
The No. 1 reason the curmudgeonly coaches, particularly Haskins, are reluctant to budge on the issue is that there is no plan to use some of the sizable revenue ($250,000 to $450,000 per year per school) to bring players’ parents to the games and pay for their tickets and lodging.
Now that everyone has been dragged into the tournament, however, they’ll be trying to take advantage of what the tournament has to offer: exposure, redemption (the winner gets the conference’s automatic NCAA bid) and the means to acquire toughness for the NCAA tourney, in hopes of lifting the Big Ten’s sagging national reputation.
Here’s a quick look at what to watch for in the next four days:

Favorites: (1) Michigan State, (3) Purdue.
The Spartans, led by Big Ten Player of the Year Mateen Cleaves, were the surprise team in the conference this year, sharing the regular-season title with Illinois. Cleaves (15.6 points per game, 7.6 assists per game) is the engineer on offense, while Michigan State’s defense (third in scoring) and rebounding (first) frustrate opponents even more. As the No. 1 seed, the Spartans also have the most to lose in NCAA seeding if they bow out early.
“If I figured we’d be champions or co-champions every year, I probably wouldn’t vote for (the tournament),” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s not fair in that respect.”
The Boilermakers, while probably the most talented overall team in the conference, have been prone to take the occasional day off. They’ll also still likely be without ace marksman Jaraan Cornell, whose ankle injury has been agonizingly slow to heal.
Still, Purdue has Chad Austin, who has experience carrying a team, and a strong inside game with center Brad Miller. Plus, the Boilermakers have the psychological edge of beating the Spartans in East Lansing, Mich., on the last day of the regular season in a 99-96 overtime thriller.
Look for Purdue over Michigan State, 82-75, in the championship game.

Don’t be surprised: (2) Illinois, (4) Michigan.
Even Michael Jordan had trouble shooting in the United Center when he first started playing there. Fortunately for the Illini, they’ve played a few games there this year, which might bode well for this perimeter-oriented team. Illinois’ pesky defense was the best in the Big Ten this year, but the team runs into a potential roadblock in the semifinals when it will likely meet Purdue, the conference’s best offensive team and a team that’s beaten it twice this season.
As usual, the Wolverines have one of the most talented starting fives in the conference. They also probably don’t have enough depth to win three games in three days.

Players to watch: Chad Austin, Purdue — The preseason pick for conference player of the year had a somewhat disappointing year (15.8 points per game in the Big Ten), but he didn’t have to be spectacular because of the help he got. With Cornell out, Austin might be ready to take over again.
Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State — A devastating open-court player, Cleaves might even be more effective on the bigger court of the United Center.
Kevin Turner, Illinois — The senior All-Big Ten pick (18.6 points per game in the conference) is the key to the Illini’s outside game.
Louis Bullock/Robert Traylor, Michigan — Bullock was even better from the outside than Turner this year, leading the Big Ten in three-point percentage (48.1 percent). As the 6-8, 300-pound Traylor showed in the Wolverines’ upset over Duke earlier this year, he’s capable of dominating a game.

Coach to watch: The Big Ten made a decision — sort of — on whether to suspend the combustible Knight, who was ejected from a Feb. 24 game against Illinois by referee Ted Valentine and later launched into a verbal assault on the official.
Commissioner Jim Delany said the conference has decided what action to take, but won’t make it public until Indiana has a chance to accept or appeal the findings. The school will have three business days — ending Monday, the day after the Big Ten tournament concludes — to arrive at a decision. In the meantime, Knight is free to coach, which doesn’t surprise him.
“It’s impossible for me to believe, that in view of all that took place in that situation, and what has been done with other ejections of coaches this year that there is any conceivable reason for me to think that I would not be coaching,” Knight said prior to the ruling.

NCAA implications: Because of their high Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranking, which helps determine if and where a team is seeded in the NCAA tournament, four teams are almost assured of a spot in the big tourney. They are Michigan State (9th), Purdue (12th), Michigan (14th) and Illinois (23rd).
Indiana, unless it loses to the hapless Buckeyes, will probably be in despite an unspectacular 18-10 regular season record because of its No. 22 ranking in the RPI.
“There’s no doubt that we should have six teams in,” Northwestern coach Kevin O’Neill said. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t have six.”
The reason is that Iowa, despite a 20-9 record, is just 66th in the RPI because of a weak schedule that included Division II team Puerto Rico-Mayaguez. If the Hawkeyes lose to Michigan in the first round Friday, they’ll be NIT-bound.
The fatigue factor: Even the top teams would have to play games on three consecutive days to win the tournament. If a lower-seeded team sneaks through, it would be four. Bennett said his past experience has taught him that the quality of basketball improves through the tournament. Other coaches, like Haskins, are worried about their teams wearing down should they advance.
Then there’s Knight.
“The only people in all of athletics capable of going four days in a row are referees,” Knight said. “These guys have got to be the most superbly conditioned athletic participants in the entire world to be able to work a basketball game six nights a week in six different locations. I just don’t think players are nearly as well-conditioned to do that as referees.”
Gophers note: Coach Clem Haskins said center Kyle Sanden, who didn’t play Saturday because of a blow to the head, will play today. Forward Rob Schoenrock, however, is only 50-50 because of a sprained ankle suffered two weeks ago.