Michigan State wants to reclaim its standing as the Big Ten's top toughest defensive team while Michigan is looking to regain its status an elite squad at the Big Ten tournament. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
Chicago -- This is like that backyard barbecue with the annoying neighbors you don't really enjoy, where the beer and the barbs flow. You know, the one that ends with a wrestling match that turns suddenly, drunkenly serious.
Yep, just like that. Enough tension has gurgled all season to make this the best and bawdiest Big Ten tournament ever, the place where hype and hoops finally share the same floor. I'm not here to stir up any nonsense either. I'm just wondering if Indiana coach Tom Crean will be spotted at a Chicago eatery, angrily wagging a finger at the waiter.
"You know what you did! YOU HELPED WRECK OUR PIZZA!"
Crean is the Big Ten's new Crazy Face and Indiana is the new champ, and if anyone thinks this tournament is merely a necessary exercise to line up NCAA seeds, oh, please. Michigan comes in either furious or devastated after its 72-71 loss to Indiana, and we'll know pretty quickly when it faces No. 12 Penn State.
The No. 5 Wolverines (25-6) hope it's the start of a redemption tour, after the Nittany Lions humbling three weeks ago. The No. 3 Spartans (24-7) aim to re-stake their claim as the brawniest defensive team in a conference loaded with them.
This is the toughest the Big Ten has been, with four teams — Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State — ranked in the top 10. Michigan is sixth in the country and fifth in the Big Ten, but the conference's power must be proven in the NCAA Tournament, which it hasn't won since Michigan State in 2000.
Tom Izzo has one of his classically hardened teams, with a menacing frontline in Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix. John Beilein has young, athletic scorers, and Big Ten player of the year Trey Burke is capable of lifting them places they might not even realize.
Michigan and Michigan State never have met in the Big Ten tournament and can't meet until the championship game Sunday. And I wouldn't rule that out.
"I hope we go out with a chip on our shoulder every game and try to show we're as good a team as there is in the country," Beilein said. "When we're playing really well, we've got a very good team. When we're not, we're just like everybody else."
They need to repair their psyche after that crusher to Indiana. The Wolverines disappointed three other teams that could have grabbed a share of the title, and now arrive at the Big Ten barbecue with a sheepish look, not sure if they owe an apology or deserve a payback.
Crean livened it up with his silly, petty stunt after the victory in Ann Arbor, yelling at Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer — "You helped wreck our program!" Meyer was on the Indiana staff that got in NCAA trouble, although he was cleared of major violations. For Crean, a championship celebration apparently was the perfect time to unleash manic grudges. He has become the basketball version of Urban "Not Jeff" Meyer, brash enough and driven enough to get what he wants, unless someone is strong enough to stop him.
The Spartans bring the scowl, like the guys who show up for a pickup game and run around setting nasty picks. The United Center was sold out weeks ago, and conference officials just started selling standing-room-only tickets (flopping-room-only tickets for Indiana fans).
"I said I thought the Big Ten tournament would be better than some Final Fours," Izzo said. "It's gonna be maybe one of the craziest tournaments they've had in the whole country. Like all coaches, you worry a little bit about how many times you can go to the well."
Seeds at stake
As good as the Big Ten is, the power is bunched at the top, although No. 6 Iowa is a dangerous bubble team. Minnesota likely will make the NCAA Tournament and six others assuredly are in.
Izzo touts the regular season as a more accurate measure of a team's worthiness, and he's correct. The Spartans beat the Buckeyes in the final last year and have won it three times, including back to back in 1999-2000.
So what's at stake now? At least one No. 1 seed, possibly two. Top seeds could be huge in what's expected to be a wide-open NCAA Tournament.
There's an additional prize for the local teams — a spot in the Auburn Hills bracket March 21 and March 23. Michigan State and Michigan could play at The Palace in separate regional pods, but they'd probably have to be at least a No. 3 seed to land there. Of course, if you look that far ahead during this Big Ten bash, you're likely to get an elbow to the ear.
Best possible matchups: Indiana-Michigan in the semifinals or Indiana-Michigan State in the final. Or the way the season has gone, Penn State-Iowa in the final.
Most embarrassing moment: If the Hoosiers lose, beefed-up security trying to keep Crean from cutting down the nets anyhow.
Biggest cheer: When Northwestern scores late in a game to reach 40.
Most underrated all-Big Ten first-teamer: Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas.
Most underrated overrated player: Ohio State guard Aaron Craft.
Michigan State's most important player: Guard Keith Appling.
Michigan's most important player not named Burke: Forward Glenn Robinson III.
Player most likely to crumple to ground when bumped: Indiana center Cody Zeller
Winner of Bo Ryan annoying coach of the year award: Crean.
Who wins the darn thing: Ohio State defeats Indiana, 74-70.
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