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Purdue has sped past Illinois, Northwestern, and Wisconsin for first place in the Big Ten standings.
Illinois has won seven of its past ten games and remains a dangerous threat to win Big Ten Tournament due to size, physicality, and high-octane offense.
Northwestern, Nebraska, and Minnesota could be Big Ten Tournament darkhorses, as they enter March with momentum.
We are nearing the beginning of March, which will be filled with conference tournaments and the “Big Dance” shortly following their conclusion. With just a handful of Big Ten regular season games left, each team will be fighting for positioning in the conference standings and hoping that their NCAA Tournament resume will be strong enough. For the bottom of the barrel Big Ten teams this season, their only hope of playing in March Madness will be by winning the Big Ten Tournament. Will we see an unexpected champion this season, or will a favorite like Purdue or Illinois run away in the conference tournament? Find out below!
It should come as no surprise that the Purdue Boilermakers, a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament and the nation’s No. 1 team for a large portion of the 2022-23 regular season, is a favorite to win the Big Ten Tournament.
Purdue brought back nearly every player from last season’s Big Ten championship team and snagged senior guard Lance Jones in the transfer portal. Zach Edey, a 7-foot-4 center (and reigning Wooden Award winner), was the most important piece of the puzzle for the Boilers. He juggled declaring for the NBA Draft, but opted to return for his senior season.
Edey is the best player in America and he got even better in the off-season, improving his conditioning, lateral quickness, and passing ability. The rest of the Boilermakers squad followed suit, including sophomore guards Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer. Their growth on both ends of the floor has made this team a legitimate contender.
The most interesting aspect of Purdue’s growth from last season to this one has been its drastic improvement in three-point shooting. In fact, the Boilers rank first nationally in three-point percentage (40.6%, as of late February), which is exponentially better than the 32% they shot during their 2022-23 campaign.
On a neutral court, it is going to be close to impossible for any Big Ten team to knock off the Boilermakers. For one, they have more experience playing on neutral courts this season than any other team in the conference. Additionally, Purdue did not lose any of those neutral court games, which included bout against Tennessee, Gonzaga, and Marquette.
The Illinois Fighting Illini were on cruise control for most of the beginning of the season, with losses only to Tennessee and Marquette while knocking off Florida Atlantic. The Illini belonged in the top 25, especially with the play of Terrence Shannon Jr., who, despite his age, was being slotted as a likely first-round draft pick in the upcoming 2024 NBA Draft.
Shannon was suspended for a few games after being formally charged with a crime but he has since returned to the floor. The Fighting Illini’s play hardly dropped off in his absence and picked right back to where it left off upon his return.
Illinois has plenty of offensive talent outside of Shannon, too, including Coleman Hawkins, Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier, Luke Goode, Dain Dainja, Justin Harmon, and Ty Rodgers. They are a tough, hard-nosed basketball team. As a matter of fact, Illinois sits at 12th in KenPom’s adjEM as of late February, boasting a top-five offense nationally.
There is something about Northwestern’s squad this season that is dangerous. The Wildcats sit in third place in the Big Ten standings with just four regular-season games left before the conference tournament. Northwestern has beat Purdue, Illinois, and Michigan State this season, which is quite remarkable, to say the least.
The Wildcats are much poorer defensively this season than in previous ones, but they make up for it in offense. They rank 35th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric as of late February. Northwestern was the closest team to beating Purdue on its home floor, taking the Boilers to overtime. And Purdue is one of the two or three best home teams in the nation.
This team’s ability to get hot offensively is what gives them the opportunity to string together a few wins in the Big Ten Tournament. Their core of Boo Buie, the leading scorer in Northwestern’s history, Brooks Barnhizer, Ty Berry, and Ryan Langborg is a talented offensive quartet. As a matter of fact, the Wildcats rank sixth nationally in three-point percentage. While Northwestern is a non-threat inside the arc, its ability to hit tough threes makes it a tough out in a tournament environment.
Look, this team was ranked fourth in the nation in the preseason A.P. Poll for a reason. The Spartans had a successful Sweet 16 run in the 2022-23 season and brought back a boatload of players, including Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard, Malik Hall, Jaden Akins, Mady Sissoko, Tre Holloman, and Carson Cooper. Freshmen Coen Carr and Jeremy Fears Jr. are serviceable backups, too. Michigan State has as much talent top-to-bottom on its roster as nearly any team in America.
The Spartans rank in the top 20 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin despite having had such a brutally rough start to the 2023-24 campaign. Even still, they are barely hovering over .500 in Big Ten conference play, but like all Tom Izzo-coached teams, they will play their best basketball in the month of March.
One concern for Michigan State, and a reason why it has had several road bumps throughout the season, is shot selection. The Spartans rank 349th (out of 362 teams) in Rim and 3 rate (per ShotQuality), which analyzes how many possessions result in a three-pointer or a layup, as those are universally accepted as the best shots in basketball. Better shot selection overall can keep this team competitive against teams like Purdue or Illinois, especially on a neutral court in a tournament setting.
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