Big Ten’s top teams still have plenty to prove
INDIANAPOLIS — Injuries to Ohio State’s Evan Turner and Purdue’s Robbie Hummel might have dimmed the Big Ten’s chances of snagging a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament — not that the teams aren’t going to try to make a run and strengthen their cases.
Turner missed six games this season with two broken bones in his lower back, and the team went 3-3 without him. He came back to be named Big Ten player of the year as the fifth-ranked Buckeyes won 14 of 17 games after his return to claim a share of the conference title.
The Buckeyes (24-7) open tournament play Friday against Michigan or Iowa. Turner considers that game part of the business he needs to handle before what many consider his inevitable jump to the NBA.
“I definitely haven’t thought about any of that stuff yet,” Turner said after Sunday’s win against Illinois. “I’m trying to just live in the moment right now with my team. We still have a couple more trophies to win.”
Ohio State and Purdue aren’t the only two teams with something to prove.
No. 11 Michigan State has suspended guard Chris Allen for at least the tournament opener, and the Spartans need their bench to step up. Illinois is trying to snap a 3-game skid. Northwestern has 19 wins and is trying to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time, and Minnesota will attempt to break into the field after a strong finish in conference play.
Purdue won 10 straight and looked like a solid contender for a No. 1 seed, but the sixth-ranked Boilermakers (26-4) lost to Michigan State on Feb. 28 in their first full game without Hummel, who is gone for the season with a knee injury.
Purdue coach Matt Painter knows that experts no longer consider his team a Final Four contender, and he’s using that to motivate his team. The Boilermakers will play Northwestern or Indiana on Friday.
“That’s the challenge I’ve given our guys and talked to our guys about,” Painter said. “There’s only one thing to do when people knock you and they don’t think you’re going to have as much success, and that’s go out and prove them wrong and win.”
NCAA selection committee chairman Dan Guerrero said Wednesday that injuries are factored into the selection process, but exactly how depends on the team and the circumstances.
“We will evaluate that team’s performance with the player and without the player,” Guerrero said. “It’s very likely that a team can be just as strong or perform in a manner that doesn’t require us to make any changes in terms of where we thought a team might be. It is something we will discuss at great length in our meetings.”
Michigan State (24-7) will be without Allen for at least one game, Friday’s matchup with the Minnesota-Penn State winner. He usually starts and is the fifth-leading scorer for the Spartans, averaging 9.1 points per game.
Coach Tom Izzo was hard on his team after the sloppy win at Purdue, but he liked the way his team bounced back in a 64-48 win over Michigan on Sunday that gave the Spartans a share of the conference title.
“Right now, we’re better than I give us credit for, but not as good as I think we can be,” Izzo said. “Somewhere in between is where we are right now. Are we going to vault forward or are we going to sink back? That will be the big key in the next couple of days.”
No. 13 Wisconsin (23-7) wants to beef up its resume for NCAA seeding. The Badgers will get their chance with a first-round matchup with Illinois, which has lost five of six heading into the tournament.
“Now, we put ourselves in a major bind,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “We’ve got to go to the tournament and do some damage if we’re going to have any chance for postseason.”
Painter believes Illinois and Minnesota should make the field of 65, and Northwestern deserves consideration. Northwestern suffered a costly loss to Indiana on Saturday, but the Wildcats have a win over Purdue and will get a rematch with the Hoosiers on Thursday.
“I think Illinois should be in,” Painter said. “A lot of the experts say they’re going to have to get a win in the tournament. From watching them and playing against them, Illinois is an NCAA tournament team, and so is Minnesota. Northwestern gives us fits. They would be a tough out in the NCAA tournament.”