For the first time in NCAA Basketball history, the selection committee released their top sixteen teams pre-tournament. The results probably shocked quite a few people, especially fans in the Big Ten. Not a single team from the conference appeared in the group of sixteen teams, which left me pondering a big question: Which teams from the Big Ten even have the potential to make a run to the second weekend of the tournament?
After thinking about this over the course of a few days, I’m finally ready to make my list. In no particular order, let’s begin.
The Wisconsin Badgers sit atop the Big Ten standings at the moment with their 10-2 conference record (21-4 overall). Last week, the Badgers boasted an AP Poll ranking of seven, but still failed to make the committee’s list. They have a very average resume in terms on strength-of-schedule and quality wins, but arguing against their 21-3 record at the time is tough.
“The loss to Northwestern is a bad one but I think they’ll use it for good. This team has plenty of talent and tournament experience. I think that experience can prove to be invaluable once we get into it. Their strong defense can keep them in games which will always give them a chance to win. They’re smart with the basketball and sound on the boards so they shouldn’t beat themselves. With a strong finish to the regular season, they should spend their first weekend of the tournament in Milwaukee, which is a huge advantage. And I feel that in a single-game scenario, they can beat anybody with strong defense and smart offense.”
One of the biggest things that stands out to me about Wisconsin is their senior leadership and experience. Guard Bronson Koenig and forward Nigel Hayes have given the Badgers a massive amount of playing time over the years, including playing big roles on a Final Four team. Guard Zak Showalter also brings the Final Four experience (on a lesser level), and adds very quality three point shooting.
The Badgers have another huge playmaker at forward, Ethan Happ. The 6-foot-10 sophomore is the team’s leader in points, rebounds, blocks, and steals. Having a quality big-man is a huge key when it comes to making a tournament run, and Happ can be that guy.
Wisconsin has had a very good season to this point and if they can continue to play great defense, you cannot count them out.
The Boilermakers at this point are my pick to win the conference tournament and make the farthest run in the big dance. With a lethal combination of size and athleticism, this team can take it to anyone.
Purdue will enter the NCAA Tournament battle tested against some of the nation’s best teams. They lost very close games against both Villanova and Louisville (currently #2 and #8 in the AP Poll), and knocked off Notre Dame just before conference play began. Playing in these high profile games early in the season can help prepare teams for the post-season, and Purdue played their fair share.
As mentioned earlier, having capable big-men can propel a team to new heights. This Purdue team has two, sophomore Caleb Swanigan (6-foot-9, 250 lbs.), and junior Isaac Haas (7-foot-2, 290 lbs.). These two combine to average 31.8 points and 17.9 rebounds per game. They also play an efficient game as both big-men covert on more than 50% of their attempts.
Guard play has also been reliable for the Boilermakers. Carsen Edwards, Dakota Mathias, and P.J. Thompson all share the ball well and eliminate turnovers. Purdue shares the ball better than most teams and these guys play a huge role in that. The Boilermakers rank second in the nation with 18.8 assists per game.
My biggest concern is the depth of this Purdue team. There are only eight players giving meaningful minutes each night, which is not the most comforting fact about a basketball team. One of those players is graduate-transfer Spike Albrecht from Michigan. Albrecht averages just about 12 minutes per game, leaving the other seven guys to average over 20 minutes per game. If foul trouble or any injuries become an issue in the future, Purdue could run into some issues.
Maryland is one of the more intriguing teams on my list. They definitely aren’t as battle tested as other teams but the players that they have make them a viable contender. While there are many talented players on the Terps, this team begins and ends with Melo Trimble.
“It all revolves around Melo Trimble for the Terps, as it did for the last two years too. His shooting has regressed since his freshman year, but he still has the capability to make shots, drive in the lane and, most importantly, make clutch plays. When he’s on, everything clicks for an otherwise young Terps squad.”
Trimble leads the Terrapins with 16.6 points per game on 43% shooting. His ability to drive adds another dimension to their offense.
Trimble is joined in the backcourt by freshmen Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter. Both of these guys were ranked in the ESPN100 for the Class of 2016 and have played large roles for Maryland this year. Huerter’s length and shooting ability make him a dangerous scoring option for opposing defenses. He demands attention along the three point line which helps open things up inside.
When looking inside of the three point arc, Maryland lacks a true post player which could haunt them come March. Freshman forward Justin Jackson has been the Terrapins’ best option. The 6-foot-7 forward averages 11.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. While he may bring good scoring, he isn’t the most viable option to be the go-to rebounder for the team.
Despite not having a true rebounding big-man, I do like that everyone pitches in to rebound. If every man on the court has the same mindset, this can work, and it has so far for the Terps.
What? The Wildcats? The only power conference team to never make the NCAA Tournament? It’s true. And they might not stop just there. They have potential to make it to the second weekend! From tourney-less to Sweet 16 is possible for the Wildcats this year. This group is very well coached and gets a solid contribution from many different players.
Coach Chris Collins was brought to Evanston four years ago with hopes that he could get them to this point. Now sitting at 19-6 (8-4 in the Big Ten), the Wildcats seem to be a team that could make a solid run once March rolls around.
One of my favorite things about Northwestern this year is that they have three guys that could win you a game on any given night. Junior guards Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh, along with sophomore forward Vic Law all have that ability. These three guys make the Wildcats such a dangerous team.
Lindsey has been out for the past three games with mono, but once he is able to return, this team should be geared and ready to continue the best season in school history.
5. Michigan State
You will be hard pressed to find a more tested power conference team than the Spartans. Between all of the early season travel and brutal opponents, Michigan State sits at 15-10 and on the bubble for most bracketologists.
We have been here before, and seen what happens. Michigan State struggles at points during the season and many are ready to write them off. Coach Tom Izzo is one of the best in the game at getting his teams to reach their peak around March, and I can see it starting to happen again.
Izzo likes to keep a lot of his guys fresh and rotate them throughout the game. He has eight guys the average between 16 and 24 minutes per game. The only player that plays more is one of the best freshman in the country, Miles Bridges.
Bridges, when healthy, has been a force to reckon with. He has been one of the more complete basketball players I have seen this year. Bridges averages 16.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, and even 1.7 blocks per game. The 6-foot-7 forward displays sound ball handling, great athleticism, and even some three point shooting. I would not want to see Bridges and the Spartans standing across the court from me come March.