It’s a strange NCAA tournament for the Big Ten. Usually there is a hefty presence from the conference on the tournament bracket, but this was a down year for the league.
That’s resulted in just four teams making the 2018 NCAA tournament, the fewest Big Ten teams in the tournament since 2008.
However, sometimes quality matters over quantity and certainly the four teams that made it to the Big Dance are quality teams. You’ve got the B1G tournament champion Michigan Wolverines, the regular season champs in the Michigan State Spartans and two teams that spent plenty of time in the Top 25 this year — the Ohio State Buckeyes and Purdue Boilermakers.
All four have an opportunity to do some damage in the tournament and end a 19-year drought since Michigan State last won a title back in 2000. But, which teams should you be buying or selling to make it to San Antonio and cut down the nets while One Shining Moment is playing on our television screens?
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Let’s assess what the chances are for all four teams in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Seed: No. 3 in West Bracket
1st Rd Matchup: vs. No. 14 Montana (March 15 @ 9:50pm ET on TBS)
Reason to Buy: Is there a hotter team coming out of the Big Ten than the Michigan Wolverines? That’s highly doubtful for the B1G tourney champs and winners of nine straight. Included in that nine-game win stake are wins over the other three Big Ten teams in the tournament — Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue. Two of those wins were back-to-back to win the B1G tourney title.
When it comes to the NCAA tournament momentum can matter a lot and few teams have more of it entering this year’s tournament than the Wolverines have. It doesn’t hurt that they have a roster that gives opposing teams fits and are seeing its best players playing their best basketball right now either.
Moe Wagner has been his best down the stretch, so have guards Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and few teams have the firepower off the bench that Duncan Robinson can provide. While the traditional big man doesn’t exist on this roster, Michigan has gotten
Reason to Sell: While it’s undeniable that Michigan comes in hot, what will a week off do to the confidence and chemistry this team is playing with? Ironically, one of the strongest arguments for past B1G tourney champions was just how hot they were and the short turnaround to maintain momentum.
Another big reason to sell is the bracket Michigan finds itself in. The Wolverines are one of five teams that all have a great argument to make as the strongest team in the West bracket, and that’s a problem if you ask me. Michigan must navigate potential matchups with an underrated Houston, then North Carolina and potentially a winner of Xavier-Gonzaga.
I’m also not sold that this new-found defensive prowess is a long-term thing for a John Beilein-coached team. Let’s see if I’m wrong, but earlier this season this was a team giving up 86 points to UNC and 70-plus points in six of its seven losses this year on the whole. All it takes is one off day/night and things can flip quickly in the NCAA tournament.
Verdict: This is a dangerous team in a loaded bracket and I would fully buy this team going deep in to the tournament…but, that potential Sweet 16 matchup with North Carolina scares me away from buying this team as the one to go the furthest out of the Big Ten crop. UNC does own a 15-point win over Michigan already this season and is like looking in a mirror — only with better talent. I’m selling Michigan as the team that goes the furthest, but make sure your bracket has the Wolverines getting out of the first weekend at the very least.
Michigan State Spartans
Seed: No. 3 seed in the Midwest
1st Rd Matchup: vs. No. 14 Bucknell (March 16 at 7:10pm ET on CBS)
Reason to Buy: Tom Izzo in March. It’s usually like clock-work to bet on his teams to go deep and watch it unfold before your very eyes. With a team full of talent like Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward, it’s no wonder the Big Ten regular season champs are a high seed in the Midwest region. Give me that talent and coaching in a tournament setting nearly any day of the week.
Reason to Sell: At least that is what the Spartans on paper feel like. The reality of this MSU team is they are the team with the least momentum coming from the Big Ten in the 2018 NCAA tournament. Getting to the Big Ten tournament semi-finals was nice, but it took a huge battle and a three-point victory against the worst Wisconsin team in 20 years to get there and once it ran in to Michigan it was not pretty at all.
That’s been the trend for the Spartans as of late — struggling.
Verdict: It’s easy to the see the struggles and say sell this team as a Final Four contender, especially with names like Kansas and Duke also in the region…but I actually like the fact that there was a week off for this team. Look for Izzo to get the ship righted and for MSU to live up to its regular season dominance and make a run to the Elite Eight at a bare minimum…as long as it uses the week off wisely. If not, this could be the first B1G team to flame out.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Seed: No. 5 (West Region)
1st Rd Matchup: vs. South Dakota State (March 15 @ 4pm ET on TNT)
Reason to Buy: Few teams have been as consistent as the Buckeyes were for a large part of the 2017-18 season. OSU went in to February 18-5 and 9-1 in Big Ten play. Sure, things have slowed down a bit, but this is a team that has the players to make a deep run when they put it all together. OSU has wins over both Michigan State and Purdue in Big Ten play and is very familiar with the other top seeds in the West bracket.
Of the top four seeds in the West bracket, OSU has faced every one but No. 1 seed Xavier so far this season. Sure, the Buckeyes have lost to all three of the higher seeds it has faced (North Carolina, Michigan and Gonzaga), but few teams enter this tournament with the intimate knowledge of the other top seeds that the Buckeyes have. That can be a huge help in a short-turnaround scenario like the NCAA tournament provides. You have to like the experience factor for the Buckeyes.
We haven’t even gotten to perhaps the best individual player in the West bracket, if not the entire tournament — Keita Bates-Diop. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and is shooting 48.4 percent from the field.
Reason to Sell: The Buckeyes are part of the four dreaded 5-12 games in the NCAA tournament. It’s almost an annual tradition that some 12-seed beats a 5-seed and ruins brackets. Ohio State also has limped a bit to the finish line after looking like the team that would run away with the Big Ten regular season championship. After a 9-0 start to conference play, the Buckeyes lost three of the final nine games of the regular season and were dumped out of the B1G tourney by Penn State.
There’s also the fact that South Dakota State has one of the more intriguing forwards in 6-9 Mike Daum. He’s got legit NBA talent and was third in the country in scoring, averaging 23.8 points per game. He’s also averaged a double-double on the season. Oh, and did we mention the top 4 seeds in this bracket are Xavier, North Carolina, Michigan and Gonzaga too? That’s one loaded field to have to navigate no matter what happens in the West bracket.
Verdict: Keita Bates-Diop was once a lock for National Player of the Year awards and Chris Holtman has done a bang up job getting this team back to the NCAA tournament so quickly. OSU has enough fire power to survive the Jackrabbits in the first matchup, but it sure is going to be fun to watch Bates-Diop vs. Baum in the post.
More than anything though, OSU is in perhaps the most loaded bracket in the NCAA tournament, and a potential round of 32 matchup with Gonzaga doesn’t look good. I mean, the Zags beat down OSU by 27 points in November, in case you think games back then don’t matter.
Get by that matchup and there’s still the potential of seeing Xavier and still further Michigan or North Carolina. Those are not fun matchups for the Buckeyes or most teams in this tournament. I’m not a fan of the bracket for the Buckeyes, and seeing them get to the Sweet 16 would be a major win in my book.
Seed: No. 2 in East region
1st Rd Matchup: No. 15 Cal-State Fullerton (March 16 at 12:40pm ET on truTV)
Reason to Buy: What’s better than one 7-footer? Purdue has two of them. That’s a good building block to work with heading in to the NCAA tournament. Senior Isaac Haas and freshman Matt Haarms have been dangerous all season long, averaging just a shade over 19 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
That’s to say nothing of two of the best non-big men in the Big Ten this season — Vincent Edwards and Carsen Edwards. Few teams in this tournament have four better players on the court at any given time than Purdue does.
Purdue has also shown it can win big games outside of the Big Ten, something few of the other four teams can say. A win over then No. 2 Arizona in November was huge and arguably the best win of any Big Ten team in non-conference play this season.
Reason to Sell: As much as Michigan State seems to always find a way to surprise in March, Purdue has a long history of disappointing in the NCAA tournament like no other Big Ten team has. Painter’s teams have only been to the Sweet 16 three teams in his previous 12 years as head coach.
That’s it for the Boilermakers “success” in the NCAA tournament. What makes this year’s team any different? It’s hard to really come up with an answer for that dilemma, other than to say this is virtually the same team that went to the Sweet 16 last year (minus Caleb Swanigan) and it lived up to expectations throughout the 2017-18 season.
For some reason, things just have never clicked enough for Painter’s teams to do damage to anyone but themselves in March. Add in the fact that lately both Haas and Haarms have had trouble staying out of foul trouble and suddenly the biggest (pun intended) advantage Purdue has in the tourney could fade away.
A lot of things have to go right for Purdue to beat the better teams in its path if you ask me.
Verdict: For all the history that suggests the Boilermakers find ways to disappoint in the NCAA tournament, this team feels different. It has the talent to certainly go deep and it has the bracket that suggests the same. The path is clearest for Purdue, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them heading to San Antonio because of it.
Our Pick to Go the Farthest: Purdue
Guard play wins you championships in the NCAA tournament, that has been the case for most of the last 20 years. Of the four Big Ten teams in the mix, it’s hard to argue that Purdue doesn’t have the best grouping of guards. Carsen Edwards is perhaps the best of the B1G crop.
Add in the twin towers up front and there are few teams that can compete with the inside-out game that the Boilermakers can play. As long as Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms stay out of foul trouble, few teams can deal with what Purdue can bring to the table.
It’s also hard to see the East region and not like what you see in the bracket for the Boilers. Villanova, Texas Tech and Wichita State aren’t exactly the scariest of seeds to potentially see en route to a Final Four berth if you’re Purdue.
The combination of what Purdue brings to the table and its road to a potential Final Four give me the confidence that they are the pick to finally realize the potential that has been there the past two years for Matt Painter’s crew.