Ready for Garden party
There’s hardly a player or coach involved in the Big Ten tournament who isn’t outwardly eager about playing in Madison Square Garden.
“I think we’re all jacked up about playing at the Garden, the greatest venue in the world …’’ Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I think it’s exciting for everybody, playing at the Garden, being in New York.’’
Even Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, one of those who has been skeptical of moving the event to New York City, admitted this could be sort of fun.
“I know the kids are really excited to play in Madison Square Garden, the mecca of college basketball,’’ Izzo said, “and I think I will be too when we get there.’’
Are the fans as excited?
With the tournament being played close to 1,000 miles from much of the old, traditional Big Ten, there is some question whether the fans will embrace the venue as much as the participants.
When last year’s tournament was held in Washington D.C., the television cameras showed huge sections of empty seats for some games.
Of course, there is the possibility that Rutgers, because it is located about 40 miles from the Garden, may bring a decent number of fans although the Scarlet Knights, as the 14th seed, are likely to be out of the tournament by the Friday quarterfinals.
“Hopefully our alums and our fans will come out and being in New York will really help us,’’ Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said.
Getting off the bubble
Probably no team has more on the line in the tournament than Nebraska. The Cornhuskers, who are the No. 4 seed, are the one team considered to be on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan are considered locks to make the Big Dance and the other nine teams probably need to win the tournament to get an NCAA bid.
Nebraska, 22-9 overall and 13-5 in the Big Ten, appears to have decent NCAA credentials — no major conference team with 13 league wins has ever been left out — but all the bracketologists currently have the Cornhuskers on the outside looking in.
They probably need to win at least one game this weekend to make the tournament.
“You go through the gauntlet of the Big Ten and you go 13-5 and play at the level they have, to me that’s a team that deserves to play in the NCAA tournament,’’ Northwestern coach Chris Collins said.
“Some people are into the analytics and some are into the eye test,’’ Izzo added. “In my eye test, Nebraska is definitely an NCAA tournament team.’’
Playing for seeds
Michigan State and Purdue also have a little bit to play for this weekend. Both currently are projected to be No. 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and other bracketologists, but they could climb up to the No. 1 line if they can win the conference tournament.
Most experts project Ohio State as a No. 4 seed and Michigan as a No. 6 but obviously they also could improve their seed by winning the whole thing. Or they could damage those seeds by making an early exit.
Who else can make a run?
There is enough parity that some experts feel that more than half the teams in the league have a legitimate chance of winning the whole thing.
“We’re thrilled to have won (the regular-season championship) outright but I really feel Ohio State and Purdue are just as good,’’ Izzo said. “And I think at the end of the season, Nebraska and Michigan were playing as well as anybody so it should make for a great tournament.’’
No. 6 seed Indiana and No. 9 Wisconsin also played well late in the season and No. 7 Penn State showed its potential by beating Ohio State twice although starting center Mike Watkins’ availability is in question because of an injury. Those teams should be highly motivated by the fact that they need to win the tournament to get NCAA berths.
“That might make it more competitive,’’ Izzo added. “It’s always competitive but maybe it will be even more so because some people are playing for their tournament lives.’’