The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament gets underway with two games Wednesday night in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The tournament will have four games Thursday and the same number Friday as it closes toward Sunday’s championship game.
Ohio State will open tournament play Thursday night when it faces No. 10 seed Purdue.
Here’s a preview of the tournament, with thoughts from all 14 coaches.
No. 11 Indiana vs. No. 14 Nebraska
The Hoosiers swept the season series with the Cornhuskers, beating them 96-90 at home in overtime on Dec. 13 and then 82-74 on the road on Jan. 18.
“In both games they presented a lot of challenges for us, five shooters on the floor,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “They create a lot of problems with their tempo and their spacing. Being able to guard the three-point line and the dribble really stand out in trying to guard them. I thought in game two we did a much better job defensively.”
Nebraska lost 16 straight games to close the regular season, including Sunday’s 107-75 loss at Minnesota. The Cornhuskers were without Dachon Burke and Cam Mack, two key contributors who were suspended indefinitely the day before the game.
“I’m really proud of the seven that made that trip, four of which were freshmen, two of which had not played extended minutes,” coach Fred Hoibert said. “We continue to go out and compete. I’m proud of the guys who were out there fighting.”
No. 12 Minnesota vs. No. 13 Northwestern
The Golden Gophers finished 14-16 overall and 8-12 in the Big Ten, closing the year with a 107-75 home win against Nebraska on Sunday.
“Sitting at eight wins in the league, maybe in a normal year you’re sitting at 11 or 12,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “That’s how tough this league has been. There’s great players, great coaches. I can’t remember such great depth. Northwestern was one (team) where they had a lot of losses, but we could all see they were getting better and better. They’re going to be confident going into the next game.”
Minnesota swept the season series, beating the Wildcats 77-68 at home on Jan. 5 and then 83-57 on the road Feb. 23. That latter win was sandwiched by three losses on either side of the schedule for the Golden Gophers.
Northwestern comes into the tournament with two wins in its final three games to move to three Big Ten wins on the season.
“We want to go out there and compete and win,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “That being said, I thought we did a relatively good job of staying the course towards what we want to build. We saw what our roster looked like with youth and experience. Early in the year we lost Anthony Gaines, our returning starter. We tried to stay the course of being dedicated to playing our young players. Throwing them into the fire, knowing there were probably going to be some tough times along the way. We wanted to win more. We’re not happy with only having eight wins. That’s not something we were striving for. At the end of the day I think people saw growth in our young nucleus.”
No. 8 Rutgers vs. No. 9 Michigan
The Wolverines swept the season series with the Scarlet Knights. Michigan won on a neutral court 69-63 on Feb. 1 and then at Rutgers 60-52 only 18 days later.
“We have to do a lot of things better,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well, didn’t take care or the ball, turnovers were an issue, didn’t finish plays, but give them credit. They’re one of the more efficient teams in the country. We’ve got to play outstanding basketball like we had to the last two games to win in this league.”
Rutgers closed the season with consecutive wins, including a road win against Purdue. Michigan, meanwhile, lost three of its final four to finish at 19-12 overall and 10-10 in the Big Ten.
“It’s tough to beat a team just one time,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “We’re fortunate enough where we’ve played them twice. Both games were hard-fought, competitive games.”
No. 5 Iowa vs. Minnesota-Northwestern winner
The Hawkeyes swept the season series with the Golden Gophers and won the lone meeting with the Wildcats while finishing 20-11 overall and 11-9 in Big Ten play.
“It’s been an incredibly competitive year in an unbelievable conference,” coach Fran McCaffery said. “The quality of players and how competitive the games have been, I think bodes well for all of us going into the conference tournaments. “
Iowa junior Luka Garza was named Big Ten player of the year Monday after a breakout season.
“He’s a guy that, a lot of guys talk about putting their time in ― I get in the gym and grind ― but for him it’s kind of a way of life,” McCaffery said. “He works on his body. You’ve seen him become more athletic, more powerful. He works on his mind. He does some meditation stuff. So it’s in the weight room, it’s on the court in skill development and drills and then playing five-on-five. Even when he goes home or when he goes on vacation. It’s a never-ending pursuit of excellence that you don’t often see. There never seems to be any stop in his desire to be better. He never feels like he’s arrived.”
No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 10 Purdue
The Buckeyes won the lone meeting between the teams this season, a 68-52 game in Columbus on Feb. 15.
“Obviously have tremendous respect for Purdue,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “You look at their wins this year and they’ve had some phenomenal wins, most recently at Iowa where I just thought they were tremendous. They’ve got different ways they can attack you. What you expect from them is a team that really, really executes well. There’s very little separation in this league among most teams.”
The Boilermakers enter the tournament 16-15 overall, 9-11 in the Big Ten and squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Coach Matt Painter was asked if he thinks they can earn an at-large bid or if they would have to win the entire tournament to capture the automatic bid.
“I think it’s hard to really say,” he said. “I think if we would’ve won our last game, we’d have been right there. I would say with losing the last game, with the amount of losses that we have, we’d have to win four straight to go to the tournament. That has to be our mentality. You can’t get there and win a few and say that’s enough. When you’re on that bubble, you can’t think that way.”
No. 6 Penn State vs. Indiana-Nebraska winner
After winning eight straight games, the Nittany Lions lost five of their last six to close the season to finish at 21-10 overall and 11-9 in the league.
“It’s got to be fresh start,” coach Patrick Chambers said. “We definitely looked mentally and physically weary down the stretch. That Michigan State game took a lot out of us. Let’s get back to the way we were playing, fast, getting up and down the floor and really rebounding. It’s got to be a fresh start. New season. March. The NCAA Tournament. So much to be excited for. I showed a five-minute video of everything they’ve done this year. Man, we’ve had some great wins.”
They lost at Northwestern on Saturday, a game played without senior center Mike Watkins, who missed the game for an unspecified violation of team rules.
“It’s going to be day to day,” Chambers said of Watkins’ status. “We know Mike’s challenges off the floor. We’ve got to help him right now, surround him and make sure we’re doing what’s right for him off the court. He’ll be in practice today (Monday). I want to make sure he’s totally healthy before we put him in uniform.”
No. 1 seed Wisconsin
The Badgers will get the winner of the Michigan-Rutgers game. Wisconsin played them back-to-back, beating Rutgers at home 79-71 on Feb. 27 and then Michigan on the road 81-74 four days later.
“We’ve been there before in terms of being the No. 1 seed,” coach Greg Gard said. “When you get to this point in time you’re playing teams that are good. In the last two weeks we’ve played them both. Today’s an off day for us. We wanted to get guys a chance to regroup and catch their breath a little bit. We’ll split the week between the two teams, but fortunately we’ve played them both recently and they’ll be fresh in our minds.”
No. 2 seed Michigan State
The Spartans won five straight games to close the regular season and capture a share of the league title. At 22-9 overall and 14-6 in the Big Ten, Michigan State will get the winner of Ohio State-Purdue.
“It’s been the most difficult of my 25 years,” coach Tom Izzo said of the depth in the league. “I think that’s a credit to the other Big Ten teams. I think there’s so many teams that could win it. It’ll probably be the most exciting to date. I think we’ve beaten the hell out of each other.”
No. 3 seed Maryland
The Terrapins will get the winner of the game between No. 6 seed Penn State and the Indiana-Nebraska winner. Coach Mark Turgeon celebrated the fact that the Terrapins have won a share of their first league title and said he’s looking forward to a few days of practice without knowing their next opponent.
“I think it’s great that we don’t know who we’re playing so you can just focus on yourself and making your team better, which is what you need to do this time of year,” he said. “When you’re playing teams maybe a third time you’ve got to tweak things offensively to try to get some open shots. We’ll work on just making Maryland better. We’ve played these teams before. If it ends up being Penn State, we haven’t played them since December.
“You’re doing the same things. You are who you are. As a coach, I love the double bye so we can work on ourselves.”
No. 4 seed Illinois
The Fighting Illini will get the winner of Thursday’s game between Iowa and the Minnesota-Northwestern winner.
“The first few days will be about us (this week),” coach Brad Underwood said. “We’ve got to clean some things up. We’ve got to tweak a couple things that I want to work on and then we’ll touch certain areas that all three of them do through individual drills during the week.
“I think the future’s bright. We’ve gone through some of the growing pains in terms of restructuring and retooling a program. We made some strides this year and we’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re darn close.”