Will Indy be upset city?
The Big Ten Tournament tips off Thursday in the state capital of the Hoosier State with four first-round games. Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska earned byes, meaning Thursday's action will feature some fairly evenly matched competition. That means upsets could be more likely. But the question remains: Which of the four first-round games has the best chance at seeing an upset?
We'll start by addressing the game with the least amount of upset potential: Ohio State vs. Purdue. This 5-12 matchup isn't as exciting as the famous 5-12 matchups the NCAA tournament boasts each year, and it figures to be the least exciting of the first-round contests on Thursday. The Buckeyes are riding high following an emotional home-court victory in the regular-season finale against Michigan State, a game that saw newly minted Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Craft diving on the floor with his regular amount of intensity. That intensity level doesn't figure to be matched by the Boilermakers, losers of six straight, including their regular-season closer against Northwestern, a game that sent Purdue to last place in the conference.
But aside from that one, the first-round games could pack plenty of punch.
The most intriguing is the first game of the day, a rivalry meeting between Indiana and Illinois. Both teams finished the season strong, and both might still have NCAA tournament hopes, even if they are on life-support, making this game even more important. But we're talking upset potential here, and the Fighting Illini are the lower seed, albeit by one slot. Illinois' chances at a victory are good considering they've already topped Indiana once this season and they've been doing a terrific job limiting teams down the season's final stretch, not too far removed from that four-game streak of holding opponents under 50 points. Now, the Illini are no offensive juggernaut, and a miracle buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Jon Ekey at Iowa was all that broke a late tie and prevented a potential losing streak to end the regular season. But if the Illini can bring the defense and limit Yogi Ferrell, it could be an orange-and-blue "W" to kick off the conference tourney.
The other local team also has some upset potential, as Northwestern plays Iowa in the final first-round game Thursday night. On paper, it seems like the 11th-seeded Wildcats would be drastically overmatched, but the Hawkeyes are playing atrociously at the moment, losers of five of their last six to close out the regular season. The defense has been especially troubling, as Iowa allowed an average of 82.5 points per game over the final six contests. Northwestern snapped its own long losing streak against Purdue to finish the schedule. The Cats could be catching the Hawkeyes at just the right time, upgrading the upset chances. Still, Iowa, even with suspect defense of late, tends to play high-scoring games, something low-scoring Northwestern is generally averse to doing. The Hawkeyes outscored the Cats, 169-117, in two wins this season.
Finally, there's Minnesota and Penn State, a rematch of a game played just last weekend. The Gophers won handily, 81-63, in the Twin Cities, with five different players scoring in double figures. Minnesota will again be the favorite Thursday, and they're generally the better team. But Penn State pulled off several upsets during the regular season, led by the backcourt duo of Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill, who combined for 38 vs. the Gophers in the most recent meeting. If they both get hot, an upset is certainly not out of the question.
So it remains to be seen if Indianapolis will serve as upset city on Thursday, but with games like these, the possibilities certainly exist.