Illinois v Michigan State
(Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

March Madness gets started a week earlier this year as the Big Ten Conference tournament begins Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

It may be the final week of February, but “March Madness” will get underway this week with a unique experience at Madison Square Garden. For the first time, MSG will be the host of the Big Ten Tournament.

For some teams, they will have to wait a week to find out their seeds in the NCAA Tournament. For others, meanwhile, there will be plenty of scoreboard watching as they suffer through that week-long sweat while being on the bubble, hoping they have a solid enough resume to get them in.

If you look at the Big Ten this season, it has not been one of the strongest conferences. Joe Lunardi of ESPN has just four teams making the Field of 68. The only major conference with fewer projected bids right now is the Pac-12 with three.

With that being said, it is a very top-heavy league. Four teams—Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan—are ranked inside of the Top 15 in the current AP Poll. However, only three of those teams have a double-bye into the quarterfinals on Thursday. Michigan finished fifth, so they have to play on Wednesday in the second round.


Let’s take a look at some of the intriguing storylines to watch in New York City this week:

Nebraska and Penn State fighting for NCAA tournament lives

You won’t find many teams in the Big Ten on the bubble, but Nebraska and Penn State are the two schools that will be in the spotlight for that this week. The team with the best chance to make its case is Nebraska.

Due to the Cornhuskers beating the Nittany Lions on Sunday, they earned the double bye, which likely means a matchup with Michigan Thursday afternoon. At 22-9 and 13-5 in the conference, you would think that puts you right into the field, but not so fast.

Right now, Nebraska has only one win against a team that will be in the tournament (Michigan) and they have some bad losses (at St. John’s and at Illinois). But, Tim Miles’ squad has won seven of their last eight games.

On defense, the Cornhuskers allowed the fifth fewest points per game in the conference (66.5) and they have held opponents to 41.1 percent shooting (second). Their leading scorer, James Palmer Jr., averages 17.4 points per game, but he did have 26 against Maryland back on Feb. 13. If Nebraska can get another win over Michigan and maybe a win over, potentially, Michigan State in the semifinals, then their resume will look a little bit stronger.

As for Penn State, their tournament begins Wednesday night (6:30 p.m ET, Big 10 Network) against Northwestern. If they win, they will take on Ohio State in the quarterfinals. The Nittany Lions won both meetings in the regular season.

If you gave any college basketball fan a couple of guesses as to who the Big Ten’s leading scorer was, it would be tough to come up with Tony Carr, but that’s the answer. The Penn State point guard averaged 20.1 points per game in conference and has 19 or more points in four straight games. Plus, he had 30 points against the Buckeyes on Feb. 15.

In order for Penn State to make a big run, they will need a healthy Mike Watkins. The redshirt sophomore forward is the team’s leading rebounder (8.9 per game) and had to miss the Nebraska game on Sunday due to an ankle injury he suffered against Michigan.

While Penn State has the two Ohio State wins, they also have some bad conference losses to Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Maryland (all three finished below .500 in the league). Since they couldn’t complete the sweep of Nebraska on Sunday, their road to the Big Dance got a little more challenging without the automatic bid.

Rutgers back at the Garden

You have to go back to 2013 to find the last time Rutgers took part in a conference tournament at MSG when they were part of the Big East. Fast forward five years later and the Scarlet Knights will be back in NYC when they take on Minnesota Wednesday night (8 p.m ET, BTN).

It’s been a rough time for Rutgers in the Big Ten and this year wasn’t any different. They finished with the worst record in the conference as they went 3-15 for the second straight season.

For Steve Pikiell’s team, they have hung tough at home against Michigan State and Purdue, but they have only one win in the conference since Jan. 6, a 67-58 overtime win over Northwestern on Feb. 13.

Corey Sanders is Rutgers’ leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, but the Scarlet Knights did lead the conference in offensive rebounding (11.7 per game). Senior forward DeShawn Freeman has had seven or more boards in four of his last six games.

With Freeman and guard Mike Williams as the two key seniors, they will look to end their college careers on a good note. When you look at this matchup, they might have a good chance at a win on Wednesday.

While Minnesota beat Rutgers 89-67 back on December 3, the Golden Gophers were the 12th-ranked team in the country at the time. The team is a lot different now due to injuries and suspensions (one win since Jan. 16).

A familiar Big East face comes back to MSG

By far, the biggest surprise in the conference this year has been Ohio State. Back in June, the school parted ways with Thad Matta as its head coach and it left the Buckeyes trying to find his replacement quickly. They went with Butler coach Chris Holtmann and the first year has been great. The team had a 15-3 record in the league and Holtmann won Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Ohio State has been arguably the best defensive team in the conference this year as opponents have averaged only 64.9 points per game in league play. Their best player is forward Keita Bates-Diop, who won the Big Ten Player of the Year Award on Monday. The junior forward averaged 19.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game (both led the team). He has scored in double figures in four of his last five games.

Now, if we stay in the frontcourt, keep an eye on Ja’Sean Tate. It is not often you see a forward near the top of the steals category, but the senior has 32 steals this year, which is the second most on Ohio State.

The Buckeyes don’t play until Friday night (6:30 p.m ET, BTN), but there’s a chance that they could face Penn State in that game. As we mentioned earlier, Penn State beat them twice in the regular season. If they get past that game, they do have wins over the other top three seeds in Michigan State and Purdue.

Even if Ohio State doesn’t win the tournament this week, Holtmann has done a fantastic job this year and should be the frontrunner for National Coach of the Year. Not many people saw this coming.

Michigan State at center of attention

Michigan State is the top seed going into this week’s tournament after finishing the year 28-3 and 16-2 in the Big Ten. They have won 12 straight games and are currently ranked second in the country in the AP Poll (Virginia is number one).

While the Spartans didn’t play many of the top teams down the stretch outside of Purdue, they have shown great consistency as they have the fifth most rebounds per game in the country (41.1) and the most assists per game (19.9).

If you are a Knicks fan hoping for a high lottery pick this June, there are two players to watch on this team. One of them is freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who averages 3.3 blocks and 11.4 points per game. Plus, he shoots 52.4 percent from the floor and 41.6 percent from downtown. He won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

The other player is sophomore guard Miles Bridges. Bridges came back for his second season and averaged 16.8 points per game. While he has only made four threes in his last 17 attempts, he is nearly automatic from the free throw line (89.8 percent). Bridges is at the center of attention lately because he was one of the players named in the Pat Forde and Pete Thamel article on Yahoo Sports Friday as the FBI continues to investigate college basketball.

Of course, Tom Izzo has had to face many questions this year about his team, the FBI investigation, and how the campus handled sexual assault allegations. Those questions won’t be ending anytime soon if the Spartans make a run to the Final Four.

Despite what is going on off-the-court, Michigan State still has one of the better teams in the nation. The question people will have this week is can they get another win over Purdue or Ohio State to secure a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Now, it is time to make some predictions!

First Round

  • Illinois over Iowa
  • Minnesota over Rutgers

Second Round

  • Wisconsin over Maryland
  • Michigan over Illinois
  • Penn State over Northwestern
  • Indiana over Minnesota

Quarterfinals

  • Michigan State over Wisconsin
  • Michigan over Nebraska
  • Ohio State over Penn State
  • Purdue over Indiana

Semifinals

  • Michigan State over Michigan
  • Purdue over Ohio State

Final

  • Purdue over Michigan State

While the Boilermakers were not mentioned earlier in this article, they have one of the best big men in the country in Isaac Haas (14.6 points, 5.4 rebounds per game). Haas had 25 against the Spartans on February 10. Plus, Matt Painter‘s starting lineup is filled with four seniors and experience plays a big factor this time of year.

For more on the Big Ten Tournament, we spoke with Thomas Beindit from BT Powerhouse on last night’s episode of St. John’s B-Ball Breakdown on Elite Sports Radio.



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