This year's Big Ten Tournament might be the most wide-open edition of the event ever.
Media observers and Tom Izzo alike are sharing that assessment at the dawn of championship week, though I'd put more stock in what Izzo has to say. After all, he's coached in every one of these things.
The league is deep with teams that can take home a conference-tournament title and teams that can knock off presumed favorites. Heck, even the bottom three seeds — Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers — have combined to beat every other team in the conference besides Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin, only one of which is a top-five seed.
But while this year's Big Ten Tournament is as wide open as Izzo says it is, there's still a favorite.
It might seem counterintuitive to even bother picking a favorite in a field such as this, but let's give the Purdue Boilermakers some credit. They're the No. 1 seed, but there's more than just their regular-season record that makes them the team to beat in D.C.
Unlike every other team in the league, Purdue has managed to avoid two- or three-week speedbumps, glaring stretches of the schedule filled with losing and poor play.
A lot of those teams have experienced those stretches quite recently. Take a look at the rest of the teams that earned bye's in this tournament, the Nos. 2 through 6 seeds. Wisconsin lost five of six before a double-digit win over Minnesota in the regular-season finale. Maryland lost five of seven before winning back-to-back games at the end of the regular season. Minnesota had a five-game losing streak in the middle of conference play before rattling off eight wins in a row. Michigan State went through a four-losses-in-five-games stretch earlier in the season and just finished the regular season with back-to-back losses. Northwestern, despite last week's thrilling win over Michigan and an impressive effort in a loss to Purdue, has lost six of nine entering the Big Ten Tournament.
Purdue just hasn't been through that. The Boilers' worst stretch of the season was losing two of four early in conference play. They finished the regular season with wins in eight of their final nine games. There were close calls in there, for sure, sweating out a one-point road win at Maryland, needing overtime to edge out a road win at Penn State and besting Northwestern by only four points Sunday in Evanston.
But remember that the majority of those close calls have still ended in Purdue wins, something head coach Matt Painter is pretty happy about and some experience that serves a team real well come the Madness of March.
"We've won close games before. You just want the most experience you can have," Painter said after Sunday's win over Northwestern. "As a coach you don't want close games, you want to win by 20. But the more close games you can get in that you win, that helps your guys' confidence."
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How Purdue has done that, though, is more pertinent to why it's this week's favorite.
Of course it begins with Caleb Swanigan, the newly minted Big Ten Player of the Year who leads the league in rebounding, ranks second in scoring and ranks among the league leaders in all the shooting percentages, including free-throw percentage, an important part of winning close tournament games.
Purdue's roster is loaded with talent and experience past Swanigan, too. Vincent Edwards is fresh off a 25-point performance at Northwestern. Dakota Mathias can knock down 3s and play great defense. Carsen Edwards has been explosive throughout his freshman season. Isaac Haas is a near-impossible cover coming off the bench at 7-foot-2.
But as good as some of those guards are, the plan is always to feed the guy who could be the national player of the year, and relying on a collegiate superstar is another good way to win in March.
"We're a little different because a lot of times late in games you see point guards. You see (Northwestern's Bryant) McIntosh, (Maryland's) Melo Trimble, you see guys of that nature making those plays. And we have good guards. They're steady, they can take care of it, they can shoot it. But we want to go through our horses, so we want to give those guys the basketball," Painter said. "Sometimes that's hard because other people are trying to take that away. So if they don't get the ball in those situations, now we have to go to Plan B. So we work really hard to try to stick with Plan A and be able to do those things."
And so that's why Purdue is the favorite in Washington. The Boilers have things the rest of the field just doesn't have, chiefly season-long consistency and the best player in the tournament. It doesn't mean an upset-minded team won't knock Purdue off as early as Friday. But it means that the other 13 teams will be chasing the boys from West Lafayette.