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In bruising Big 10, 9 teams eye NCAA tourney

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GENARO C. ARMAS
March 11, 2009
— Let the postseason scramble begin in the Big Ten.

Regular-season champion Michigan State, along with Illinois and Purdue, are certain to move on to the NCAA tournament no matter what happens in the conference tourney this week in Indianapolis. To those three schools, it’s all about jockeying for the best seeding.


Five other Big Ten teams can offer persuasive arguments to get into the NCAAs. And a sixth, Northwestern, also could have a shot if the Wildcats can pull off a few upsets.


It should all make for another tense tournament weekend in Indianapolis.


“I don’t know where we are. Unless you’re just sitting up there in the Top 25, I don’t think anyone is in,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said Monday in a conference call. “I just want to make sure we take care of business.”


Sounds a lot like what many of his fellow coaches are saying.


Only 10th-place Iowa and cellar-dweller Indiana are all but out of the NCAAs — unless they somehow win the Big Ten tournament.


The Spartans, Illini and Boilermakers all received first-round Big Ten byes. They’ll know after Thursday’s opening round who they will play in Friday’s quarterfinals.


But there’s not much separation in the standings after the Spartans, who finished 15-3 in the conference, three games ahead of Illinois and Purdue.


Ohio State and Wisconsin, both 10-8, look to be in good shape, though there are no guarantees and they play each other in the quarterfinals Friday. But Ohio State has shown the ability to win road games and Wisconsin played the sixth-toughest schedule in the nation.


Resurgent Penn State, also 10-8 in conference, has four wins over Top 25 teams, but suffers from the second-worst RPI of the Big Ten bubble teams (63) and an unimpressive strength-of-schedule ranking of 95. Still, with a winning conference record and road wins at Michigan State and Illinois, one more Nittany Lions victory would strengthen a solid claim.


Michigan and Minnesota both finished 9-9 in the conference, a game behind Penn State, but given that the selection committee looks at a team’s entire season, the Gophers (41 RPI) and Wolverines (42) can make strong cases for at-large bids. Michigan’s road win at Minnesota on Saturday could prove huge for the Wolverines.


After the champion Spartans, parity ruled the league. Two games separated the second-seeded Illini and eighth-seeded Minnesota, and Northwestern was three games behind Illinois in ninth place.


“I think it’s as wide open as it’s ever been,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Legitimately, there are a ton of teams that have a chance to win it.”


Northwestern, which was 8-10 in the Big Ten, faces the most work to convert its NCAA hopes into reality.


The Wildcats lost their regular-season finale at Ohio State on Sunday — a game that would have markedly improved their chances of getting into the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. An RPI rating of 71 and a losing conference mark typically mean no at-large bid, so the Wildcats need to make a run.


They’ll play an equally hungry Minnesota team in the first round Thursday, with the winner getting Michigan State.


Northwestern coach Bill Carmody is thinking big — should his team pull off at least two wins.


“That would be two quality wins, and that would more than open the eyes of the (selection) committee,” he said.


The league balance has been interpreted by some critics as a weakness. Big Ten games are usually physical and some have turned into defensive strangleholds — a characteristic that some coaches defend as a function of how familiar each team is with its conference opponent.


The Spartans, a contender for a top seed in the NCAAs, lost at home to Northwestern and Penn State.


Wisconsin won seven of its last nine games to shake off a six-game conference losing streak in January. Badgers coach Bo Ryan was gruff when asked to address questions about the league’s strength.


“To play cheerleaders and have to defend things, that’s an insult to our intelligence,” Ryan said. “I just know what I face every day as a coach, as a teacher in this league ... I can’t deal with all the other stuff. That’s for all the other people to determine.”


Michigan streaked into conference play with early season victories over Top 10 teams UCLA and Duke, only to stumble through a midseason 2-7 stretch. The Wolverines turned it around the past few weeks with a win over Purdue, a sweep of Minnesota and another road win at Northwestern.


Coach John Beilein, whose team faces Iowa on Thursday, hopes the selection committee doesn’t forget his team’s early success — though a win in Indianapolis wouldn’t hurt, either.


“I’ve been on the bubble more than a few times. I don’t even want to look at our chances,” said Beilein, in his second year rebuilding the Michigan program following previous stops at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia.


Perhaps no team has been affected in the standings by the league balance more than Penn State.


At 21-10 on the year, they’ve notched their highest season win total since 2000-01 — the last time they made the tournament. Penn State boasts six victories against Top 50 RPI teams.


But 11 wins came against relatively weak nonconference foes. And following a dramatic, last-second victory over Illinois on Thursday, tired Penn State lost at Iowa two days later and lost a chance for a first-round bye in the conference tournament.


Penn State fell all the way to the sixth seed to set up a first-round game against Indiana in Indianapolis. Win that game and their quarterfinal opponent would be Purdue — another Indiana team.


Asked whether is team had done enough already to earn an NCAA bid, Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said, “I hope so, I really hope so ... But we’re going to try to win the Big Ten tournament ... so there isn’t any doubt that on Sunday we can all sit down have some fun with the whole thing.”



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