Big Ten tourney expected to be wild

Michael Dougherty

If this year’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament at the United Center in Chicago is anything like last year’s, expect the unexpected.
The No. 23 Gophers entered last year’s inaugural tourney as the No. 8 seed with a 13-14 record. But a 64-56 win over ninth-seeded Northwestern and an impressive 76-73 upset on No. 1 Michigan State allowed Minnesota to move above the .500 mark needed for an NIT bid.
Minnesota (17-9, 8-8 in the Big Ten) won five straight games in the NIT to bring home their second NIT title in the ’90s and reach the 20-win mark for the sixth-straight season.
Another unexpected occurrence was the breakthrough performance by Jason Stanford, who scored a career-high eight points in the upset of the Spartans. He followed that up with an eight-point, nine-rebound game in the Gophers’ 85-69 loss to eventual-champ Michigan in the semi-finals.
This year, however, Minnesota heads into Chicago with higher expectations. A first-round matchup with conference doormat Illinois (11-17, 3-13) on Thursday night should result in an easy victory that would move the No. 23 Gophers into the second round against third-seeded Indiana on Friday night at 9 p.m.

The match-ups:
Northwestern vs. Penn State
The tournament begins with a 1 p.m. Thursday Northwestern-Penn State game. Northwestern (14-12, 6-10) heads into the game with a six-game losing streak, while the Lions (5-11, 13-13) come in playing their best basketball of the season.
“Penn State is the hottest basketball team in the conference, believe me,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said.
Second-year Wildcats coach Kevin O’Neill said his team is tired, and made a declaration that is the antithesis of Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III guarantee.
“I don’t plan on us winning four games. We ain’t winning four games,” O’Neill said of the four wins it would take to lock up an automatic NCAA bid.
Northwestern beat the Lions twice in the regular season, a 62-60 overtime win at home and a 73-63 win at Penn State.
Northwestern already has a NIT bid locked up, but with one win, the Lions could lock up an NIT bid of their own.
Purdue vs. Michigan
The seventh-seeded Boilermakers (19-11, 7-9) head into the tournament with coach Gene Keady publicly questioning the heart of some of his players and admitting that his team is struggling.
Keady’s wife Pat told her husband last week she thinks some of his players are eager for the season to end so they can attend the women’s Final Four with their girlfriends.
Boilermakers forward Brian Cardinal is dating Danielle Bird, the top reserve for the No. 1 Purdue women’s basketball team. And forward Mike Robinson is engaged to starting forward Michelle Duhart.
Both 10th-seeded Michigan (11-18, 5-11, and the Big Ten tournament defending champ) and Purdue ended the regular season by losing four of five, but Michigan upset Wisconsin on Saturday 51-39 in Madison during senior day.
“It’s a fresh start,” Keady said of the Big Ten tournament. “We’re not playing very well right now, and we know Michigan is vastly improved over the first time we played them.”
The Boilermakers won the only game these two played at Purdue 81-71 on Jan. 23.
Wisconsin vs. Iowa
The contest between the fourth-seeded Badgers and fifth-seeded Hawkeyes might be the most even match of the tournament.
The 20th-ranked Hawkeyes will use out-going coach Tom Davis as inspiration to make a post-season run that starts with the Big Ten tourney.
Davis’ contract was not renewed by the school, ending his 13-year tenure with the Hawkeyes (18-7, 9-7).
Wisconsin (21-8, 9-7) will try to rebound from the disappointing 51-39 loss at home to Michigan. The Badgers are an overachieving bunch who play great defense and make few mistakes.
“We would like to be coming into this tournament in a more upbeat situation,” Badgers coach Dick Bennett said. “We’ve struggled through much of February.”
Iowa, meanwhile, was 13-1 before losing to the Gophers on Jan. 16. Since then they have gone 5-6.
No. 1 seed Michigan State
The No. 2 Spartans (26-4) are rolling along chewing teams up and spitting them out. They have won 15 in a row and are considered the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten tournament and go to the Final Four.
About the Spartans, Bennett said: “It’s really a remarkable accomplishment (going 15-1 in the Big Ten), when you consider how well most teams in this conference play at home.”
Indiana coach Bob Knight added: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time when there were as many different teams that were capable of beating each other at any given time, with the exception of Michigan State, who is clearly above everyone else.”
Spartans point guard Mateen Cleaves was just named Big Ten Player of the Year for the second-straight year, and teammate Morris Peterson joined Cleaves on the all-Big Ten first team.
The Spartans play the winner of the Northwestern-Penn State game, and if Michigan State wins that, they go on to face the winner of the Wisconsin-Iowa game. The Badgers gave Michigan State its only loss in early January when they won 66-51 at Madison.
No. 2 seed Ohio State
Ohio State (22-7, 12-4) is ranked 11th, and is trying to continue its remarkable turnaround from a team that went 1-15 in the Big Ten last year.
Led by point guard Scoonie Penn and guard Michael Redd, the Buckeyes are an explosive team with a good shot at knocking off Michigan State for the Big Ten tourney title.
The Buckeyes play the winner of the Purdue-Michigan game. Assuming they win that game, Ohio State would then face the winner of the Indiana-Gophers game (assuming Minnesota beats Illinois).
Ohio State dropped its last game at Penn State 98-85 in overtime on Saturday. Buckeyes coach Jim O’Brien said that loss should spark his team.
“This gives us an opportunity to get (our players) attention in a big way,” O’Brien said. “There is a fine line with our team, and we need a lot of things to go right for us to continue to play as well as we have.”
No. 3 seed Indiana
The No. 17 Hoosiers (22-9, 9-7) vaulted from sixth in the Big Ten to third last weekend, thanks to their win over Iowa and to Wisconsin’s loss to Michigan.
Indiana will probably face the Gophers on Friday, assuming Minnesota beats Illinois. The Gophers beat the Hoosiers 90-83 in overtime on Jan. 26.
In that game, Indiana center Kirk Haston scored 24 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. But Haston was injured last weekend, and Knight said his status is up in the air.