By Chris Emma-
(CBS) Parity has been the theme throughout a wild year of Big Ten basketball. From the top to the bottom of the standings, the league has been competitive.
See the late-season surges of Michigan and Wisconsin, the improbable five-game winning streak of Northwestern or the near-impossible run of Nebraska from the basement to likely NCAA Tournament berth.
Nebraska went into East Lansing and won. Northwestern stole a victory in Madison. Penn State beat Ohio State — twice! The Big Ten was unpredictable along an exciting slate of games. Now, it all comes to an end with 12 teams gathering in Indianapolis for the conference tournament, which begins Thursday. The season has proved that anything can happen.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State will enter as favorites to take the crown, but mayhem could ensue in a four-day run at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
With that in mind, we present the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each team in the field. Who can actually win it all?
(Teams ranked in order of seeding)
Best-case scenario: The top-seeded Wolverines continue to cruise through tough competition, speeding by the three opponents with continued stellar offensive performances. The title gives Michigan an outside shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Worst-case scenario: Finally, after hearing the mocking “USA!” chant one too many times, Wolverines star Nik Stauskas snaps on the crowd and is ejected, bringing Michigan to an early exit in the quarterfinals. That may be the only way the Wolverines aren’t playing on Saturday.
Best-case scenario: Everything clicks for Bo Ryan’s crew, as Wisconsin runs its way to the tournament title. For this to happen, Frank Kaminsky and Ben Brust must be on their game, no matter the matchup.
Worst-case scenario: The Badgers get their annual early tournament departure out of the way in the Big Ten Tournament, saving themselves for the big dance.
3.) Michigan State
Best-case scenario: Another workman-like stop in Indianapolis ends with confetti falling down on the Spartans, setting them up for a quality NCAA Tournament seed and another deep run in March.
Worst-case scenario: Iowa actually pulls out a close game against a top team, beating Michigan State in the quarterfinals. The Spartans hit their 10th loss of the year.
Best-case scenario: One of the best stories in college basketball continues on for Nebraska with the one more win it needs to secure an NCAA Tournament berth.
Worst-case scenario: Coach Tim Miles accidentally releases the Huskers’ real adjustments with his traditional halftime tweet, and Nebraska is a one-and-done in Indianapolis. It hurts the Cornhuskers’ seed on Selection Sunday.
5.) Ohio State
Best-case scenario: The Buckeyes find an offense to pair with their stout defense, stop underachieving and take home their second straight Big Ten title.
Worst-case scenario: After dispatching hapless Purdue in the first round, Ohio State continues to underachieve and bows out in the second round to Nebraska. The offense remains a serious concern entering the NCAA Tournament.
Best-case scenario: The Hawkeyes find some big-game magic and finally play to their potential, making a run to the championship game to lock up an NCAA Tournament berth. Those crushing losses they compiled would feel like a thing of the past.
Worst-case scenario: In a grind-it-out fist-round contest, Iowa doesn’t make key plays down the stretch and is handed an upset loss by Northwestern, placing it on the NCAA Tournament bubble, which would’ve been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Best-case scenario: In traditional Minnesota fashion, the Golden Gophers get a big win over Penn State, setting up nothing more than the disappointment of another second-round exit.
Worst-case scenario: The gritty Nittany Lions knock out the Gophers in the first round, ending any remaining hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth for Richard Pitino’s team.
Best-case scenario: One of the more dangerous low seeds in the Big Ten field, the Hoosiers are buoyed by strong crowd support and reel off a winning streak and make a deep run to Sunday before falling in the title game.
Worst-case scenario: Illinois plays any kind of zone defense, and Tom Crean fails to counter it … again.
Best-case scenario: Illinois puts together a full 40 minutes and beats Indiana before inevitably losing to hot-shooting Michigan in the second round.
Worst-case scenario: Reverting back to form from its seven-game slide, the Fighting Illini play sloppy, careless basketball and are knocked out by the Hoosiers in the early game of Thursday’s slate.
10.) Penn State
Best-case scenario: The Nittany Lions win a first-round game, and Bill O’Brien returns to coach the football team.
Worst-case scenario: A first-round loss ends Penn State’s season, and James Franklin is still the football coach.
Best-case scenario: The Hawkeyes’ hoop is covered in Saran Wrap, and Northwestern is able to avoid its worst Big Ten matchup.
Worst-case scenario: Another blowout loss handed by the Hawkeyes ends Chris Collins’ first season in Evanston. Hey, it’s a rebuilding year.
Best-case scenario: N/A
Worst-case scenario: Just another loss for the worst year in Purdue’s sports history.
Player of the Week
Nik Stauskas, Michigan guard – It was just another week at the office for Stauskas, who averaged 22.5 points in the Wolverines’ two games while leading his team to an outright Big Ten title.
Team of the Week
Nebraska – The most important week for Nebraska basketball in more than 20 years ended with a win at Indiana and an upset of ninth-ranked Wisconsin, which likely locked up the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998.
1.) Bubble watch
The Big Ten’s bubble became a bit smaller after an eventful final week. Now, just three teams are considered borderline for the NCAA Tournament. Let’s take a look at what each needs to accomplish still.
Iowa — The Hawkeyes’ worst nightmare is happening, as a first-round loss to Northwestern could end their NCAA Tournament hopes. Avoid that and Iowa should salvage a trip to the tournament.
Minnesota — Withstanding Penn State in the first round and pulling off the upset of second-seeded Wisconsin in the quarterfinals should be enough to get the Gophers in.
Illinois — Three wins in the Big Ten Tournament would likely be enough to get the Fighting Illini into the field of 68. Still, easier said than done.
2.) The cases for Miles and Petteway
It would be just wrong if anybody but Tim Miles took home Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, and the same goes for Terran Petteway as Player of the Year. How could you go against this story?
In just his second season, Miles turned Nebraska’s dormant basketball program into a tournament team — success that should be sustained for years. He did what seemed impossible at a football power, building up a basketball program that’s now the talk of the town in Lincoln. Miles’s Huskers were picked to finish last in the Big Ten. This has been told plenty, but it can’t be stated enough.
As for Petteway, the Texas Tech transfer ended the regular season as the Big Ten’s scoring leader, averaging 18 points per game. Hardly anyone outside of Lincoln — heck, probably many in Lincoln — had heard of Petteway before the season started. But the swingman has carried Nebraska throughout the season. After the Huskers struggled to score in recent years, the conference’s leading scorer is a key reason for his team’s success.
3.) Painter right to take blame
Here’s Purdue coach Matt Painter, after the Boilermakers’ sixth straight loss buried them in last place.
“We have to recruit a more unselfish player,” he said. “We have to recruit a tougher player. We have some of those guys in our program. Some guys, we don’t. Or, maybe this is not the place for them. That is my fault. This is not a school district. I recruited these guys. So, the position that we are in is my fault.”
These are the words of a coach who understands his seat is getting hotter. Purdue’s program has been in free-fall ever since Robbie Hummel departed West Lafayette. The struggles have hit hard this season, when an overmatched team has fallen to the Big Ten’s basement. Painter has one more year to turn it around, so he can make statements like this.
If Painter is saying the same next year, it will be a concession speech.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter@CEmmaScout.