Welcome to March Madness. You see this phrase everywhere these days, and for good reason. Now that the calendar has turned to March, this begins perhaps the most exciting month of the entire year. College basketball fans all across the country revel in the fact that there is wall-to-wall hoops action for virtually the entire month, and another phrase "get your brackets ready" will soon be uttered as well. The Fighting Illini have had a roller coaster of a season, starting out the season very well, then having a lull in the middle of the season that saw them start out the Big Ten season a dismal 2-7. However, the Illini turned the season around when it counted, and since their huge win against Indiana last month, have been playing much better, although it hasn't been showing up on the scoreboard at all times. Illinois finished up the regular season on Sunday afternoon, dropping a 68-55 decision to the Ohio State Buckeyes at Value City Arena in Columbus to finish the regular season 21-11 and 8-10 in the Big Ten Conference. One might look at that league record and think it wasn't that good, but at the beginning of the season, I think everyone would have taken that. Sure, there were games that the Illini lost that they shouldn't have, but this season in the Big Ten, was anything but easy. The league was very competitive this season, and with all of the teams in the Top 25 of the country for the entire year, every night was an adventure. This week's Big Ten Tournament promises to be one of the deepest in recent memory, and who knows what will happen when the four day event is over on Selection Sunday. The tourney returns to Chicago's United Center for the first time since the 2006-07 season beginning on Thursday, and it is anybody's guess as to how it will go. Here is a quick synopsis of all 12 teams in the conference, and their seed in the tourney.
#1 Indiana (26-5, 14-4) - By far the best team top to bottom in the Big Ten this season, the Hoosiers are extremely lucky that they are regular season champs all by themselves, and they have a disastrous collapse by Michigan in the last minute of play to thank for that. Indiana is led by their center Cody Zeller and strong forwards Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford, and have some momentum going into the weekend. However, their championship was marred a little bit by the antics of head coach Tom Crean, who exchanged words with Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer after the game. It's not the first time that Crean has exhibited this activity, and judging by who his brothers-in-law are, it's not a total surprise and I am fairly confident that it won't be the last time.
#2 Ohio State (23-7, 13-5) - Coach Thad Matta has been up near the top of the Big Ten standings for the past four years, and this season was no exception, as they rode the shirttails of guard Aaron Craft and forward Deshaun Thomas. One would have thought that losing a player the caliber of Jared Sullinger would have brought the Buckeyes back down to the middle of the pack, but one would be wrong. Matta somehow had his guys regroup and once again challenge for the title. They almost pulled it off.
#3 Michigan State (24-7, 13-5) - Talk about your success stories. Spartans coach Tom Izzo has been doing this for a long time, and he knows how to get his team in position for the postseason. Michigan State is once again right up there at the top of the conference standings, and will have a bye into the quarterfinal round, a trend that has been the norm rather than the exception. Even though Draymond Green took his talents to the NBA at the end of last season, the emergence of Derrick Nix and continued quality play of Keith Appling have once again propelled the Spartans into position to challenge for yet another Big Ten Tournament title.
#4 Wisconsin (21-10, 12-6) - There are few things in this world that are guaranteed. Among them, however, is that no matter what kind of a team Bo Ryan puts on the floor, that they will be successful. The same holds true this season and Ryan has taken a bunch of unproven players and made them into a squad that grabbed the final first round bye in the tourney. Led by Jared Berggren and sharpshooting freshman guard Sam Dekker, the Badgers were a pleasant surprise in the Big Ten this season and with any luck, will continue that surprise run to a possible fantastic finish.
#5 Michigan (25-6, 12-6) - Talk about a troubling end to an otherwise great season. All Michigan had to do to gain a share of the conference title was beat Indiana in the final game of the season. It looked as if that was going to happen until the Wolverines began to miss free throws, and, ultimately, threw away the game and what turned out to be a top four seed in the tourney. Michigan must now play on the opening day of the conference tournament, and will face Penn State, a team that beat them just a couple weeks ago. Michigan is still loaded with talent, as player of the year Trey Burke will hopefully lead the Wolverines to win the tournament by winning four games in as many days.
#6 Iowa (20-11, 9-9) - The Hawkeyes are a prime example of a team that stayed steady during the regular season, took care of business on their home floor, and managed to do well enough to just narrowly miss an opportunity for a first round bye in the tourney. Roy Devyn Marble still remains one of the better players on this team, but Aaron White and Adam Woodbury certainly factored into Iowa's success this season. Coach Fran McCaffrey may not have finished in the top 5 of the conference standings, but the future bodes well for he and his program, and the thought of a top tier finish is not out of the ordinary in the near future.
#7 Purdue (15-16, 8-10) - How do you ask that the Boilermakers received a higher Big Ten Tournament seed than Minnesota and Illinois when they tied with them in the standings, yet have a worse overall record? The answer is easy. Welcome to the Big Ten. Purdue had a better head to head record against the other teams in the league, and that is why they received the higher seed. Coach Matt Painter lost quite a bit last season, and it was not a surprise that the Boilermakers struggled at times this year. An early win against Illinois in West Lafayette proved that Purdue could play with the best of the best, and led by guards D. J. Byrd and Anthony Johnson, the Boilermakers did just enough to wrest away the #7 seed from the likes of the Illini and the Gophers. Freshman A. J. Hammons had a good first season as well, which certainly didn't hurt matters any.
#8 Illinois (21-11, 8-10) - As has been previously mentioned, the Illini had a roller coaster of a season, starting out 12-0, and then stumbling out of the gate in the Big Ten to start the conference season 2-7 before making a strong late season run to finish at 8-10. First year coach John Groce was left with a decent stable of talent from former coach Bruce Weber, and Brandon Paul, D. J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey made the most of their senior year and have the Illini poised to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing the field several times over the past few seasons.
#9 Minnesota (20-11, 8-10) - The Golden Gophers are another team that have had their ups and downs this season. Minnesota started off as one of the top 10 teams in the country, came into Champaign early in the season and beat the Illini, and were looking like they were one of the top teams to beat in the Big Ten. But, the Gophers fell on hard times due to an injury to Rodney Williams, and as a result, have fallen back down to earth and will enter the Big Ten Tournament as the #9 seed opposite Illinois. Each team won on the other's floor, so on a neutral court, anything goes. Minnesota relies on their go-to guy Austin Hollins and big man inside Trevor Mbakwe, but the bigger story here may be coach Tubby Smith, who may be coaching for his job. Stay tuned.
#10 Nebraska (14-17, 5-13) - Nebraska, the newcomer (for now) to the league, is still dealing with some growing pains, and the fact that they had their first four games against the top 4 teams in the league to start the season didn't help much. New coach Tim Miles, a great addition to the Big Ten, has the Cornhuskers heading in the right direction, and with a little talent added in Lincoln, they can begin their ascent up the Big Ten standings. Nebraska relies on their star player Brandon Ubel, and Miles only plays about 7 guys in most games so depth is a serious issue. The Cornhuskers will battle Purdue on Thursday, with the winner getting the right to face #2 Ohio State in the quarterfinals on Friday.
#11 Northwestern (13-18, 4-14) - Don't blame Wildcats coach Bill Carmody if he feels that he cannot catch a break. Northwestern was finally in position to challenge for their first ever NCAA Tournament bid this year, but a series of unfortunate events decided otherwise for "Chicago's Big Ten Team". First, Drew Crawford was lost with a season ending injury, and then JerShon Cobb was an academic casualty, which set them back quite a ways. The Wildcats came into Champaign and beat the Illini earlier in the season, a game in which the Illini played quite possibly their worst game of the season, and the hero of that game, transfer from Louisville Jared Swopshire, had a monster game. Swopshire later was lost with an injury as well, and the rest pretty much speaks for itself. At this point, it is hard to fathom how Carmody will keep his job after all of this, but if he does, I guess he has a valid reason for the lack of success this year.
#12 Penn State (10-20, 2-16) - Not much good has come out of Happy Valley this year, dating back last year to all of the news surrounding the football program and the ultimate death of Joe Paterno as a result. To add insult to injury, the Nittany Lions started off the Big Ten season with 13 straight losses, before upsetting Michigan at the Bryce-Jordan Center to gain their first conference win of the season. The season probably wrote its own script early on when Penn State's best player and preseason player of the year candidate Tim Frazier was lost for the season. Head coach Patrick Chambers, himself one of the more fiery coaches in the league, did the best with what he had, and led by D. J. Newbill, found a way to win 2 games in the league. That still gave them the bottom seed in the tournament opposite Michigan, who no doubt will be looking for revenge from that earlier loss.
Time to lace 'em up and play some ball. I'm ready, are you?
The Fighting Illini women saw their Big Ten Tournament run end prematurely last Thursday, as they were defeated 58-57 by Wisconsin in the opening round at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. Illinois, who needed to win at least one game in the tournament to be considered as an at-large entrant in the NCAA Tournament, probably are on the outside looking in now, as their record stands at 16-12. Karisma Penn, who has been the mainstay of the Illini this season, was plagued with foul trouble and only scored 8 points. Ivory Crawford led the Illini in scoring with 14 points, while Amber Moore and Adrienne GodBold added 13 and 12 points, respectively. Even though it seems that the Illini will not be dancing with the big kids this season, new coach Matt Bollant definitely has the program heading in the right direction.
Not sure what is going on with the Illinois football team and its hiring of coaches, but yet another one has flown the coop after merely a month on the job. Jim Bridge, who came to Illinois from North Carolina State, lasted just 41 days and has taken the same position, which is offensive line coach, at conference rival Purdue. To fill the staff vacancy, head coach Tim Beckman has added A. J. Ricker, who came from Middle Tennessee State. Ricker had previously coached at Western Michigan, where he was the offensive line coach/run game coordinator under coach Bill Cubit, who is now the offensive coordinator at Illinois. Let's hope Ricker stays a while.