It's been an interesting year for the Big Ten, and that's putting it mildly.
Of the seven teams that reached the NCAA tournament, there are upstarts in Northwestern and Minnesota, a red-hot streaker in Michigan, powers that couldn't win the conference tournament in Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland and a wounded power in Michigan State — and it's easy to see every single one of them making a run or getting ousted in the first round.
Yes, it's been that kind of season in the conference, where any team can win any game and any team can lose any game.
So let's go team-by-team through the bracket and see just how far each Big Ten squad can dance in this year's tournament.
No. 4 seed in Midwest Region, No. 16 overall
Purdue was favored to win the Big Ten Tournament after winning the league championship outright during the regular season but ran into a Michigan buzzsaw that won four games in four days to win the tourney title in Washington, D.C. The Boilers went to overtime in that mighty entertaining game, so it's not like they had a poor showing by any stretch. But is Purdue playing well enough to make any significant run in a packed Midwest Region? First up are the 13th-seeded Vermont Catamounts, which enter the tournament on a 21-game winning streak. That's in the America East Conference, sure, but any win streak that long is still mighty impressive. If the Boilers get past the first round trap, it's the winner of Iowa State and Nevada in the second round before a likely date with top-seeded Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Surely, Purdue-Kansas is a game fans are rooting for, as Caleb Swanigan would be on the same court as another national player of the year candidate in Frank Mason III.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
No. 5 seed in South Region, No. 18 overall
Folks were surprised to see the Gophers grab such a high seed, though that was mostly coupled with outrage over Wisconsin getting a No. 8 seed. Minnesota has played well enough to earn that kind of recognition this season, rattling off a mighty impressive eight-game winning streak down the stretch of the regular season. The Gophers played very well on both ends of the floor during that stretch, and Reggie Lynch is a shot-blocking machine who won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. Nate Mason, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer will have to be on their games, though, with Akeem Springs out for the season after suffering an Achilles in the Big Ten Tournament. Springs is the team leader in made 3-pointers. As for the NCAA tournament road, things don't start easy with Middle Tennessee State in a dreaded 5-12 matchup. The Blue Raiders have won 10 straight and 20 of 21. Should the Gophers reach the second round, it's a likely showdown with Butler, a team some have picked to reach the Final Four. Should they reach the Sweet Sixteen, top-seeded North Carolina figures to be waiting.
No. 6 seed in West Region, No. 23 overall
Despite having a partisan crowd in its favor at the Big Ten Tournament, Maryland bowed out in the quarterfinal round, beaten by Northwestern in an entertaining game. The Terps had a lot of troubles in that game, turning the ball over 14 times, which led to 25 points for the Wildcats. Maryland also was done in by a six-minute scoreless stretch in the second half and Northwestern pulling off runs of 20-4 and 20-2. The last month and a half has been a mixed bag for the Terps, who started 20-2 but are just 4-6 since the start of February, with a 2-4 record in that stretch against tournament teams. Maryland gets an always-dangerous Xavier team in the first round and would face the winner of Florida State-Florida Gulf Coast in the second round. Should the Terps reach the Sweet Sixteen, second-seeded Duke would be waiting in what would surely be a drool-inducing matchup for Maryland fans still hating Duke from the ACC days.
No. 7 seed in Midwest Region, No. 27 overall
Michigan should be a popular March Madness pick with the incredible week it just had at the Big Ten Tournament, winning four games in four days after a horrifying aborted takeoff last Wednesday. But the feel-good nature of that story was only made possible by the fact that this team is playing exceptionally well right now. Since a Feb. 4 loss to Ohio State in Ann Arbor, Michigan is 10-2 with the two losses coming by a combined seven points: an overtime defeat at Minnesota and the crazy full-court-pass-buzzer-beater loss at Northwestern. In Washington, the Wolverines looked like world-beaters, with Derrick Walton Jr. leading the charge in a fashion that made him look like one of the best players in the country. But Zak Irvin was also terrific, as were Moe Wagner, D.J. Wilson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman on an only slightly less frequent basis. Oklahoma State is first up in the Big Dance, and the Cowboys are on a three-game losing streak, albeit those three losses coming against ranked foes Kansas and Iowa State. But prior to those three losses, Oklahoma State had won 10 of 11. The top three seeds could follow in the following three games: second round against Louisville, Sweet Sixteen against Oregon and Elite Eight against Kansas. But with Michigan as hot as it is, there's no reason why it couldn't ride the momentum deep into March.
No. 8 seed in East Region, No. 29 overall
Before their second-half shutdown Sunday against Michigan, the Badgers would've been a pretty trendy pick in this bracket. After a late-season slide that saw Wisconsin drop five of six, the Badgers scorched their opposition in the next three games, beating Minnesota by 17, Indiana by 10 and Northwestern by 26. It looked like Wisconsin finally righted the ship, and it was playing like the preseason conference favorite it was pegged as months earlier. But, again, that Michigan buzzsaw. Not to mention the Badgers went ice cold to open the second half and didn't even shoot 30 percent over the final 20 minutes in the Big Ten Tournament title game. Then came the No. 8 seed and a potential second-round matchup with the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Villanova. That's going to make an extended Wisconsin run very challenging. If Wisconsin gets by first-round foe Virginia Tech, the Wildcats present the toughest possible matchup in the Big Dance.
No. 8 seed in West Region, No. 32 overall
Making the NCAA tournament for the first time ever was the thrill of a lifetime for everyone involved with this Northwestern program. But the Cats don't sound like they'll settle for just being happy to be in the Dance. They want to make some noise, too. Certainly it's possible, especially if they play like they did in their first two Big Ten Tournament games, wins over Rutgers and Maryland in which they shot 60 percent and 55.3 percent from the field, respectively. When Northwestern combines its typically strong defense with multiple guys clicking on offense — namely Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey, who looked revitalized in Washington — it can compete with anyone. But that hasn't been something that's happened with much frequency since Lindsey's four-game absence at the start of February. The first "anyone" on the list is Vanderbilt, which has several marquee wins to its name this season, most notably beating Florida three times. If Northwestern gets out of the first round, top-seeded Gonzaga would most likely be waiting in the second round, an extremely difficult task.
Michigan State Spartans
No. 9 seed in Midwest Region, No. 35 overall
Sparty isn't used to being this far down on the tournament seeding list, and it's bad news for Tom Izzo's team. Michigan State has been pretty inconsistent this season, and after thumping Penn State in its first Big Ten Tournament game last week, it was ousted by Minnesota in an ugly game. The Spartans hung around despite horrendous shooting, but after the game Izzo went after his freshman-heavy roster's approach to the game, saying he was disappointed and didn't think his young players understood how to play in March. That's a foreboding assessment for a first-round matchup against Miami but even more worrisome for a potential second-round matchup against top-seeded Kansas. The Jayhawks were not one of the top-ranked teams in the Spartans' early season gauntlet that featured losses to Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke. The worst part about that, though, is that Kansas is ranked higher than all those teams.