It is 11 teams and 10 games in four days; it is single-elimination and it is everything that is beautiful about college basketball. It is a chance for the likes of Indiana and Michigan State to bury a turbulent six months of injury and error, and win a vicious war of bragging rights in the Midwest as they fight for the right to be considered one of the best 68 teams of 2011. It's a somewhat dubious honor—but a highly sought-after honor, nonetheless.
Even for the lowliest of the low, the Big Ten tournament has historically been a beacon of hope; an entire season can be rectified with a streak of ink across the lettering on those tiny horizontal bracket lines. In the tournament's 13-year history, 11, 10, 9 and 8 seeds have made the finals. That's not to say that the second weekend in March has been kind to the worst teams with any regularity; an 11 seed has wiggled through the first round only one time, and that was over a decade ago when a loaded young Illini team found their legs and won a regular season conference championship the following year.
Consequentially, both history and common sense are against this year's last-ranked Hoosiers, who have only been to the tournament finals once, despite enjoying a relative home-court advantage each of the last three years, just 45 minutes away from campus. IU is paired up with Penn State for their first-round contest on Thursday night—Penn State won their only contest this year, 69-60.
Tournament history has not been kind to the Nittany Lions either. They have never been to a final and boast the conference's second-worst overall record in the annual event, at 6-13. With a season record of 16-13, they have very little to lose and like the Hoosiers, this weekend is their "big dance."
For the top half of the conference, the stakes are just as high, in a very different way. For Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin this weekend is a prelim, a tune-up, a scrimmage and a showcase. Whatever the tournament means to them—whether it's recruiting, bragging rights, or just feverish competition, the top-seeded teams with locked-in national tournament births have traditionally not pulled any punches in preparation for the ensuing madness.
The top-seeded team has come out on top four out of the last six tournaments—and Ohio State in particular has been a monster lately, with four runs to the finals in the last five years, and two tournament titles in that time.
This year they are the conference champions, appear to have locked an overall top seed in the national tournament, and are poised for another smooth run through the conference tournament, until they get to a potential match-up with Illinois in the semi-finals.
While Ohio State has been the team to beat in the tournament the last half-decade, Illinois has had the most success overall. With six finals appearances and two championships, it is the tournament's all-time wins leader—and it's not even close. Illinois has 23 wins, and the next best is Ohio State with 14. The regular season means very little to the Illini when it comes to this tournament; they have only been the top seed twice, despite six finals appearances.
But wait -- what about Purdue?
The current five-year deal for Conseco Fieldhouse to host the tournament expires after next season, so while time is running out for the crimson and cream to take advantage of the less-than-neutral home crowd, the black and gold are looking for a second championship in three years.
It's terrifying to think of what might have been this year if not for Robbie Hummel's bum knee, but the Boilers have managed to remain an elite team on the back of JaJuan Johnson and—more recently—E'twaun Moore. Despite a surprising road-loss to Iowa on Sunday, Purdue finished the regular season with an excellent 25-6 record and runner-up honors in the conference standings.
Their bracket is much more menacing than one would expect for a second-seed. They will take on the winner of Michigan State and Iowa on Friday night, and it's difficult to trust the misfortune of an Izzo-coached team. Though MSU is playing terribly, the talent is there—and this time of year, that can be enough to get through 40 minutes and bust up some brackets.
If the Boilermakers survive the winner of MSU and Iowa, they then have to go to work the very next afternoon against a Badger team that will also be competing for a top-three national tournament seeding. The teams play very similarly, and if Purdue comes out deflated like they did in the semi-finals last year, they will be taken out of the fieldhouse and into the pasture.
The concept of a single-elimination tournament is perhaps the most prevalent reason people love college basketball, and for an unknown providential reason, the madness for the Midwest annually begins in downtown Indianapolis. It's a tremendous point of pride for the city to host the great harbinger of The Big Dance each year, but that privilege—not to mention the economic stimulus and media exposure it brings to Indianapolis—may soon be in jeopardy.
The current agreement keeps the Big Ten Men's and Women's tournaments here through 2012, and attendance at this year's tournament may be critical in determining its future location. Perhaps the recession was to blame when the attendance hit an all-time low in 2009 without a single sellout crowd—a puzzling statistic considering Purdue's appearance in the finals that year.
The numbers rebounded in 2010 with an extra 3,000 people per session, but the championship round has not sold out in Indianapolis since 2006, and Conseco Fieldhouse may be a tough sell to the Big Ten big wigs if the United Center in Chicago is able to sell an extra 20,000 tickets each year.
Or, perhaps more than a steep economic upturn, what Conseco really needs to sell seats is a serviceable team from Bloomington. The best-attended Big Ten tournament hosted in Indianapolis was in 2002, when IU went to the semi-finals, and every last seat for every single session was filled. The second-best attended tournament at the Fieldhouse was in 2006—when IU again made the semi-finals, and each of their games sold out the stadium. The last time Chicago hosted the tourney in 2007, only ten more total tickets were sold than in 2002 over the course of all 10 games.
Notable Indiana natives in this weekend's tournament:
As always, the state of Indiana is very well-represented in this tournament. Here are the neighborhood kids to cheer for.
Terone Johnson - North Central
Bubba Day- West Lafayette
Kelsey Barlow- Cathedral
Dru Anthrop- Central Catholic
D.J. Byrd- North Montgomery
JaJuan Johnson- Franklin Central
John Hart- Beech Grove
E'Twaun Moore- East Chicago
Patrick Bade- Franklin Central
Travis Carroll- Danville
Kory Barnett- Rochester
Jordan Hulls- Bloomington South
Daniel Moore- Carmel
Taylor Wayer- Bishop Chatard
Jeff Howard- Westfield
Derek Elston- Tipton
Deshaun Thomas- Bishop Luers
Zack Novak- Chesterton
Stude Douglass- Carmel
Russell Byrd- Blackhawk Christian
Reggie Hearn- Snider
Devon Archie- Vincennes CC (Indianapolis)