Charboneau: MSU the team to beat at Big Ten tournament
Considering how unpredictable the regular season was in the Big Ten, trying to make any sort of educated guess on how the conference tournament will play out is no simple task.
But we’ll take a shot anyway, and I’m sure there are plenty of folks that will question how educated it happens to be.
Be that as it may, we’ll try and make heads or tails of what will take place beginning Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Quick aside here. Indianapolis is, by far, the best place for the Big Ten tournament. Chicago’s a great city, but in Indianapolis, the arena is right on the edge of a perfectly-sized downtown and the tournament is the only show in town, something that is difficult to accomplish in Chicago. Washington and New York the next two years? Not loving it, but we’ll wait before passing any judgement.
OK, back to what matters.
I’m not sure anything would shock me by the time things are wrapped up Sunday evening. But here’s a look at what to pay attention to in Indy.
This is far from a hot take, but Michigan State might be playing as well as any team in the country. The Spartans appear to be cruising toward a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — they’re the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten — and a conference tournament championship would feel pretty good after three one-point losses derailed their regular-season title hopes.
Everyone knows how good Michigan State’s seniors have been this season. Denzel Valentine might win national player of the year honors, Matt Costello averaged a double-double in conference play and Bryn Forbes is the top 3-pointer shooter in the country.
But they have history, too. The Spartans have played in the last two tournament title games with Costello and Valentine being part of the group that rolled over Michigan in 2014. Getting there for the third straight time seems like a pretty solid bet.
Anyone who told you they expected Indiana to win the regular-season Big Ten title likely is being a bit casual with the truth. Hey, maybe they’re running for president.
But considering where the Hoosiers stood in December, no one would have expected Tom Crean to get his group its second outright title in four years. But that’s just what the Hoosiers did. They took advantage of an easy early schedule and then backed it up late in the season with a pair of victories over Iowa, beating rival Purdue and trouncing Maryland on Sunday.
Yet, everyone’s picking Michigan State.
So it’s there for the Hoosiers. Sweep the Big Ten championships and people will have to stop second-guessing this group.
It wasn’t long ago Iowa was essentially being handed the conference championship, sweeping Michigan State and Purdue early in the season and having control of the title race. But the Hawkeyes lost four straight at one point and went 2-5 over their final seven games.
It was a spectacular collapse that saw Iowa go from potentially winning its first outright title since 1970 to missing out on the double-bye and being forced to play on Thursday as the No. 5 seed.
This is still a good team, however, with an outstanding player — Jarrod Uthoff — experience and a heck of a good coach in Fran McCaffery. A championship in Indy would sure be a nice way to put the misery of the past few weeks in the rearview mirror.
Dark horse — kind of
Purdue has been ranked in the top 25 all season and has its share of big victories this season, knocking off Michigan State and Maryland and nearly taking down Indiana in Bloomington.
The Boilermakers can be a matchup nightmare on the inside with 7-footers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas along with freshman Caleb Swanigan. The key for Purdue getting on a run will be the play of its guards.
The Boilermakers have been inconsistent this season, but with a defensive stopper like senior Raphael Davis, they have enough to beat anybody in the conference.
The odds of a team coming out of Wednesday and winning five straight to capture the conference title is long enough, but considering the gap from the bottom of the conference to the top, there’s not much belief that Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota or Rutgers can pull it off.
So I’m going with Penn State. The Nittany Lions locked up a bye with a win at home over Illinois on Sunday and have wins over Indiana and Iowa to their credit this season. They’ve got Brandon Taylor, a senior that hopes to go out with a bang, and Shep Garner, a guard that has a 30-point game this season and has scored in double-figures in six straight.
Winning four straight won’t be easy, but here’s my vote that Patrick Chambers could be the guy to make it happen.