GOULD: Breaking down Big Ten basketball at tourney time

Written By BY HERB GOULD For Sun-Times Media Posted: 03/09/2014, 03:43am
Array Michigan guard Nik Stauskas (11) makes a layup while defended by Minnesota guard Daquein McNeil (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, March 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Planning to test your March Madness skills? Here’s the best advice: multiple brackets.

That’s because multiple conferences have multiple teams that are excellent candidates for everything from tournament bids to Final Four slots.

With upstarts such as the Atlantic 10 and the new American Athletic Conference elbowing usual suspects such as the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 for position, the Big Ten must roll up its sleeves to validate what has been a very good year so far.

Three for Final Four

Three Big Ten teams have the ingredients to reach the Final Four without shocking the world.

If Michigan keeps shooting the lights out and finds a little defense, there’s no reason it can’t make its second consecutive Final Four trip.

For all its troubles, if Michigan State hitches up its pants, it can keep alive coach Tom Izzo’s streak of having every four-year player appear in a Final Four.

And Wisconsin has the offense, for a change, to give coach Bo Ryan his first Final Four reward, although the defense and interior work would need to be up to snuff.

That said, if one Big Ten team gets to Dallas (ugh!) in this tough-as-nails season, it’s a good year. More than one, and commissioner Jim Delany should feel as though he has won the lottery.

The ’Eyes have it

Ohio State and Iowa give the Big Ten five NCAA tournament locks.

How long they stick around depends on whether the Buckeyes can find some offense and the Hawkeyes can find some courage. Of the two, Iowa is the bigger mystery, but it might be the better bet if it gets used to playing with pressure.

Bubble watch

Nebraska can give itself a shot at a sixth Big Ten bid if it beats Wisconsin on Sunday. Even then, it might need more at the Big Ten tournament.

NIT picking

Given the way the Badgers, who have a shot at a No. 1 NCAA seed with a strong finish, are playing, the Cornhuskers seem more likely to wind up in the NIT with Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana.

Coach of the year

Until Iowa hit the wall during a tough February stretch, a case could be made for Fran McCaffery, who had the Hawkeyes relevant for the first time in a long time.

Now, though, John Beilein is an easy pick. Despite losing big man Mitch McGary (back injury), he guided Michigan to its first outright Big Ten title since 1986.

Bo knows

Honorable mention for coach of the year goes to Ryan, who never has finished lower than fourth in 13 seasons at once-sleepy Wisconsin. The most logical honor for him? Just call the award ‘‘the Bo Ryan Big Ten coach of the year.’’

The turning point

Northwestern-Illinois is hardly a classic rivalry, but the Wildcats’ 49-43 victory Jan. 12 was pivotal. It started NU on a 5-2 run that legitimized Chris Collins’ first season and started Illinois on its descent into the Big Ten basement.

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