That was a very impressive 77-70 job by Michigan State at Michigan on Sunday.
With bulky and tough big man Nick Ward joining guard Joshua Langford on the MSU disabled list, and with Michigan backed by a raucous Crisler Arena crowd, this sure looked like, Advantage Wolverines.
But Tom Izzo’s Spartans played lockdown defense and Cassius Winston (27 points, eight assists) continued to make his case for Big Ten player of the year to prevail in this serious rivalry game.
But wait. There’s more. Michigan travels to Michigan State for the rematch on March 9. And if the form chart holds, the Spartans and Wolverines could see each other in Round 3 at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
In other words, there could be a rubber match. Or Sparty going for the season sweep in an instate rivalry that’s always intense. That’s good stuff for people who scoff at the notion that the NCAA tournament is all that matters.
Given the Big Ten’s depth, the conference tournament—which will be played on Wednesday, March 13, through Sunday, March, 17 at the United Center in Chicago—ought to be a dandy.
The teams that are bringing up the rear this year all have notched some eye-popping wins. And many of their losses have gone down to the wire. Teams like Illinois, Rutgers and Penn State all have shown they could be dangerous in Chicago—no matter how the seeds end up shaking out.
At the top, Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue are tracking for the top three seeds.
Maryland, Wisconsin and Iowa are settling in for the 4 through 6 seeds. One of those three will receive a double bye and start its Big Ten tournament on Friday.
Barring a shocking development, those six teams are NCAA tournament bound.
Just a hunch here, but Maryland has all the ingredients to be a surprise team when March Madness arrives. The Terrapins have an excellent inside-outside combination in Bruno Fernando and Anthony Cowan Jr. And they have a ton of skill behind their dynamic duo. Maryland is young overall, but will be relatively under the radar in contrast with Michigan State and Michigan, who will labor under a burden of expectations. And Mark Turgeon is a very sharp coach.
The bottom eight seeds are pretty much a jumble. The two teams that figure to have the most at stake in Chicago are likely bubble teams Ohio State and Minnesota. The conference tourney could be a matter of NCAA tournament life or death for them.
At the top, Michigan and Michigan State, who are tracking for No. 2 seeds, will be intent on showing well to hold their NCAA slots—and be lurking in case there’s a chance to move up.
Ohio State and Minnesota are in good shape to avoid the dreaded 11 through 14 Wednesday doubleheader. Other than that, the bottom seeds could shuffle a lot. But here’s a rough projection of how things might play out for those first two days.
12 vs. 13: Indiana vs. Penn State
11 vs. 14: Nebraska vs. Northwestern
8 vs. 9. Minnesota vs. Illinois
5 vs. 12/13 winner: Wisconsin vs. Indiana/Penn State
7 vs. 10: Ohio State vs. Rutgers
6 vs. 11/14 winner: Iowa vs. Nebraska/Northwestern
Even though the idea sounds fun—bringing everybody together for a few days—conference tournaments tend to get lost in the shuffle.
If there are dramatic and fun moments, great. Win the conference tournament? Mazel tov.
Otherwise, it’s all about NCAA tournament implications.