The only sure thing heading into the Big Ten tournament, which begins Wednesday in Indianapolis, is that no team will leave Lucas Oil Stadium unbruised.
If the NCAA Tournament promises intrigue and unpredictability during this pandemic-driven season, the Big Ten’s wealth of depth and championship contenders makes the conference tournament the next-best thing — five days of bruising, physical play pitting many of the best teams in college basketball.
With one day left in the regular season and Selection Sunday a week away, the Big Ten has five teams in the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll, including four of the top 10; has two No. 1 seeds, Michigan and Illinois, in the latest USA TODAY Sports bracketology; another two No. 2 seeds, Iowa and Ohio State; and as many as nine teams either solidly in or on the verge of securing a place in the 68-team field.
No. 10 Ohio State to cap the regular season. No. 8 Iowa has firepower on offense and, in center Luka Garza, the league’s best player.
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The Buckeyes will be motivated to capture one of the top eight seeds after dropping four consecutive games to end the regular season, a sour close to what had been a rebound year under coach Chris Holtmann. No. 23 Purdue has won five in a row, the longest active streak in the Big Ten. Maryland, Rutgers and Michigan State will be playing to lock in bids, with the Spartans aiming to avoid missing the tournament for the first time since 1997.
This level of competitiveness might tear the Big Ten apart. Michigan or Illinois could be bounced early and head into the NCAA Tournament on a low note. The Spartans or Scarlet Knights could lose in the opening round and drop out of tournament contention.
But fighting through college basketball’s toughest conference could also yield a champion ready to make a run at the whole thing.
Connecticut came out of that loaded Big East in 2011 to win the national championship. A year later, the Big East sent nine teams in the tournament and had one, Louisville, reach the Final Four. The ACC also had nine teams in the 2017 tournament, with North Carolina winning it all. The ACC in 2018 sent nine teams and had two, Duke and Florida State, reach the Elite Eight.
The conference has the added benefit of playing in Indianapolis, which hosts every round of this year’s tournament. Not having to leave the area and travel lowers the risk of contracting COVID-19, for one, while remaining in place would give the conference champion time to rest and recover before the tournament begins the following Friday.
For the winner of the Big Ten, the grind of Indianapolis is the best preparation for the NCAA Tournament. How better to get ready for a run at the national championship than surviving the gauntlet presented by the nation’s best conference?
Follow columnist Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg