By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - These 11 teams have something in common heading into the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament: Maryland, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana.
Any one of them could win the championship, and it wouldn’t be a shock, at least to me
The only three conference teams that don’t inspire that level of confidence are Minnesota, Northwestern and Nebraska.
But even a mini-run by the Gophers wouldn’t shock me.
I’ve been covering this conference since the early 1990s, and have seen plenty of parity, but it’s hard to remember a season with this much parity, and with so many competitive teams that are capable of defeating each other.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was asked on Tuesday if this is one of the toughest brackets he’s seen during his 10 years on the job.
“Oh, it's by far the best since I've been in the league,” McCaffery said. “When you think about what happened over the year and the quality of teams, the number of teams we're getting in and the number of really good players, it stands to reason. And that's why it will be a great tournament for people to watch.”
That level of parity, combined with the impact from the 3-point, makes it hard to single out one, two or even three teams as the favorites.
Regular-season champions Maryland, Michigan State and Wisconsin, obviously, would be as safe of picks as any because each off three are more than capable of winning three games in a row on a neutral court.
And so is Iowa, although, it’ll take four victories in four days for Iowa to win the tournament as a No. 5 seed.
“I think this team is really ready to start playing for championships, and will really lock in and use the tournament time as a motivating factor,” said senior forward Ryan Kriener. “I think we’re ready to lock in and try to make a run here.”
The only thing that would surprise me is if Iowa didn’t win its game on Thursday, which will be played against the winner of Wednesday’s opening-round game between Minnesota and Northwestern at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Iowa then would face Illinois in the quarterfinals on Friday in what could be described as the Hatfields and McCoys, considering both teams don’t like each other, according to Illinois guard Ayo Dosumnu, and proved it during their two hotly contested and highly emotional regular-season games in which they split, with the home team winning both games.
My gut feeling right now is that Iowa would win the grudge match on a neutral court.
Maybe it’s because I’m looking through the lens of an Iowa media member, but I think it has more to do with Luka Garza’s presence, and with the fact that Iowa has multiple shooters who can get hot at any time, especially from 3-point range.
And speaking of the 3-point shot, it will without question impact the Big Ten Tournament, and the upcoming NCAA Tournament, perhaps more than any other part of the game.
Iowa is stocked with 3-point shooters, from Garza to C.J. Fredrick to Joe Wieskamp to Ryan Kriener to Bakari Evelyn to Connor McCaffery, and even freshman point guard Joe Toussaint, they’re all more than capable of making 3-point shots.
What Iowa needs to avoid is getting crushed on the boards, and having defensive lapses because that would increase the pressure to make 3-point shots. And that’s when a team often starts pressing.
The Iowa players also can’t lose on the hustle plays, which happened during the 77-68 loss at home to Purdue on Senior Day earlier this month.
Iowa is talented, but not talented enough to win while being outhustled.
It’ll be interesting to see if the games in the conference tournament are officiated any differently than the regular season where teams were allowed to be physical, perhaps too physical for Fran McCaffery’s liking.
He voiced his concerns about the physical play on Tuesday, especially in regard to how teams are defending against Wieskamp and Fredrick.
“It's across the board,” McCaffery said. “And it has to stop.”
Wieskamp said Tuesday that he and Fredrick are getting used to the physical play and learning how to adjust to it.
"It's tough for sure, and obviously, it's frustrating, " said Wieskamp, who scored seven or fewer points in three of the last six regular-season games. "But that's just the way the Big Ten is playing us. They really are focused on C.J. and I, and on our cuts. They're up into our space.
"But just from watching film and playing against it, I think we're going to continue to get better in handling that."