(SportsNetwork.com) - The 18th annual Big Ten Conference Tournament tips off on Wednesday, March 11 and runs through Sunday, March 15, with all games being played at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
The champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, although as many as five or six teams from the Big Ten could hear their names called on Selection Sunday.
The first round features a pair of games, with the initial one pitting No. 13 seed Penn State (16-15, 4-14 Big Ten) against No. 12 seed Nebraska (13-17, 5-13), and the second featuring a matchup between 14th-seeded Rutgers (10-21, 2-16) and 11th-seeded Minnesota (17-14, 6-12).
Awaiting either the Nittany Lions or Cornhuskers is No. 5 seed Iowa (21-10, 12-6), while the victor between the Scarlet Knights and Golden Gophers will take on No. 6 seed Ohio State (22-9, 11-7) in Thursday's second round.
The other two second-round tussles will see ninth-seeded Michigan (15-15, 8-10) challenging eighth-seeded Illinois (19-12, 9-9), and No. 10 seed Northwestern (15-16, 6-12) doing battle with No. 7 seed Indiana (19-12, 9-9).
The top four seeds, No. 1 Wisconsin (28-3, 16-2), No. 2 Maryland (26-5, 14-4), No. 3 Michigan State (21-10, 12-6) and No. 4 Purdue (20-11, 12-6), will all make their tournament debuts in Friday's quarterfinal round.
Rutgers are Maryland are both new to the Big Ten this season, and the two couldn't have had different experiences, with the Terrapins finishing near the top of the standings, and the Scarlet Knights dead last.
Rutgers limps into the postseason mired in a ghastly 14-game losing streak, with its last win coming in an improbable upset of Wisconsin at home back on Jan. 11. The Knights haven't really been competitive in any league they've been a part of since the late 1980s-early 90s under then head coach Bob Wenzel, when they were consistent challengers in the Atlantic 10.
Minnesota enters this event having lost five of its last six games, with three of those setbacks coming at home. The Gophers are 12-15 all-time in the Big Ten Tournament, and they have never won the championship. They've been to one title tilt, losing to Ohio State in 2010, 90-61.
Penn State began the season at 12-1, but the bulk of those victories came against questionable competition. Big Ten play offered much different results, as the Nittany Lions won just four of their 18 bouts against their league brethren. They stopped a six-game slide with a narrow win at Minnesota in Sunday's regular-season finale. PSU, which features the conference's top scorer in D.J. Newbill (20.7 ppg), is 9-17 in the Big Ten Tournament, and it too has made one title game appearance, also losing to Ohio State (2011).
Prior to the season beginning, Nebraska was touted as a team that could make some serious noise in the Big Ten, but that pipe dream never materialized as the Cornhuskers lost games early that they shouldn't have, including a stunning 74-73 home setback against Incarnate Word. The conference slate proved to be extremely difficult as well, with the squad winning only five Big Ten bouts. Nebraska is sliding along on an eight-game losing streak at the moment, and the team is seeking only its second win in its brief Big Ten Tournament history.
Northwestern began the season well enough, posting wins in 10 of its first 14 games. Big Ten play was another story, at least early on as the Wildcats lost 10 in a row against conference foes from Jan. 4 to Feb. 10. An overtime win against Iowa helped the team turn the corner as it closed the regular season with victories in five of its final seven games, albeit against several teams that finished in the bottom half of the league standings. NU is 7-17 all-time in the conference tourney, and has never reached the championship game.
Like Nebraska, Michigan was thought to be one of the top teams in the league prior to the season beginning, but the wheels fell off when the Maize and Blue suffered a shocking home loss to NJIT in early December. The Wolverines, who have an official record of 11-15 in the Big Ten Tournament and have no titles to their credit, although they did finish first in the inaugural event back in 1998 only to later have it vacated, enter the postseason having lost seven of their last nine games.
Illinois quietly had a successful season, at least in terms of overall wins and losses. The Illini split their 18 league matchups, and they enter this event having lost four of their last six games. Illinois is tied with two other teams for the most Big Ten Tournament titles with two, the last coming in 2005, and it will try to increase its record in the event which currently stands at 25-15.
Indiana finished the regular season with a winning record as well, and it too earned an even split of its 18 Big Ten bouts. Still, the Hoosiers have stumbled a bit of late, losing three in a row, and having failed to log more than one victory at a time since running off four in a row from Jan. 10-22. IU owns a 10-17 mark in the conference tourney, and has never hoisted the championship trophy. The team's only title game appearance back in 2001 resulted in a 63-61 loss to Iowa.
If Sunday's regular-season finale is any indication, Ohio State's relatively successful campaign won't result in the outcome it wants as the Buckeyes were hammered at home by Wisconsin, 72-48. Still, with 22 victories overall, half of which were earned against conference foes, OSU should be able to regroup. The Buckeyes have won more Big Ten Tournament titles (five) than any other team in the league, and their last came in 2013 in a 50-43 over Wisconsin. Ohio State, which will certainly utilize the considerable talents of Big Ten Freshman of the Year D'Angelo Russell (19.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.2 apg) moving forward, is 29-12 in the event, and it has reached the finals a total of nine times.
Iowa also flew under the radar this season, winning 21 games, and it enters the tourney as one of the hotter teams in the league as it has won six straight games and eight of its last 10 overall. The Hawkeyes, who have the Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year on the roster in Gabriel Olaseni (8.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 45 blocked shots), have a pair of Big Ten Tournament titles to their credit, the last coming in 2006, and they are an even 15-15 all-time in the event.
Purdue has won 20 games as well, and despite losses in two of its last three, the team has been on a run over the last month and a half, going 9-3 during that time. The Boilermakers, who boast having the league's Defensive Player of the Year in Rapheal Davis (11.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.7 apg), claimed their only Big Ten Tournament championship in 2009 by knocking off Ohio State, 65-61, and that was the team's only other appearance in the title tilt since losing to Michigan in the inaugural event back in 1998.
Michigan State is the defending Big Ten Tournament champion, as it dismissed bitter rival Michigan is last year's title game, 69-55. As a result, the Spartans inched close to Ohio State's conference-leading five crowns as they now have four, sporting a 22-13 record in the event all-time. MSU enters the postseason having won two in a row, and six of its last eight games overall.
As mentioned, Maryland has enjoyed a tremendous first season in the Big Ten, finishing in second place by logging 14 wins in 18 league contests. The Terps have won 26 games overall, and they come into this event riding a seven-game win streak. They won three ACC Tournament titles during their 70-plus years as member of that league. Ironically, Maryland won the 2002 National Championship by beating now Big Ten rival Indiana, 64-52.
Wisconsin is in the midst of its best campaign ever, as the team picked up its 18th regular-season title by winning 16 of its 18 Big Ten bouts. The Badgers, who are led by Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky (19.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Big Ten Coach of the Year Bo Ryan, have won three in a row and 13 of their last 14 overall, including the rout of Ohio State on Sunday. UW is two games over .500 all-time in the Big Ten Tournament (18-16), has won two trophies, the last in 2008, and has been to the finals five times.
Wisconsin is clearly the class of the conference, but that's not to say any of three or four others can't go on a run and win this thing. That said, the smart money is certainly on the Badgers and it would be something of a shocker to not see them cutting down the nets on Sunday afternoon.
Sports Network Predicted Champion: Wisconsin