The Big Ten had as good an NCAA tournament as any conference through one weekend. But now the alliterative rounds begin, and it's time to see how far the league's three teams left standing can go.
Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin will continue their respective dances this weekend, with Sweet Sixteen games being played Thursday and Friday.
Will all three reach the Elite Eight? Will all three lose in the regional semifinals? Here's a preview of the three Sweet Sixteen games.
Midwest Region: No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 3 Oregon, 6:09 p.m., Thursday
Perhaps no team in the country is on the kind of roll the Wolverines have been on. Michigan has won seven straight and 10 of its last 12 games, with those two losses — both regular-season games — coming by a combined seven points, one in overtime and one on "The Pass" in that thrilling Northwestern game. You can point to the terrifying aborted takeoff and the ensuing run through the Big Ten Tournament as the start of something special for these Wolverines, but they've been doing this for a while now. Derrick Walton Jr. has been as good as any point guard in the country, leading an offense that has been on fire. Michigan shot a jaw-dropping 63 percent from the field in a second-round win over Louisville. That a game after it hit 16 3-pointers in its first-round win over Oklahoma State. Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson clicked at the same time in the last game, and Zak Irvin is always lethal shooting the ball.
None of this is to say Oregon will be an easy task. The Ducks have won 10 of 11 and have a whopping 31 victories on the season. They needed some huge last-minute points to barely get by 11th-seeded Rhode Island in the second round, but Oregon's been mighty impressive in its own right offensively. The Ducks average nearly 80 points a game, and sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey has been lighting up the scoreboard of late, scoring 20-plus points in each of his last five games, all postseason tilts, and averaging 23.6 points a game over that stretch. Star guard Dillon Brooks is averaging 20.2 points a game over his last 14.
Hopefully the offensive fun continues and both teams score into the 90s like Michigan did in its first-round game with Oklahoma State. But the stars will determine this one, and the showdown between the guard tandems should be exciting. Michigan might be able to get an edge with its stretch bigs.
The pick: Yes, Michigan keeps rolling with Wagner and/or Wilson the difference.
Midwest Region: No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 1 Kansas, 8:39 p.m., Thursday
The Boilermakers might be getting overlooked for various reasons as they've reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010. Purdue was the hands-down class of the Big Ten during the regular season but has been overshadowed by the unexpected runs of conference-mates Michigan and Wisconsin. Not to mention the fact that a matchup with Kansas on Thursday in Kansas City is one of the least enviable outcomes in this tournament, especially after Purdue had to sweat out first-weekend wins over Vermont and Iowa State. Still, the Boilers are better suited to go head to head with the Jayhawks than most. Purdue's size will again be of value, Caleb Swanigan one of the best players in the country. The Big Ten Player of the Year could be the national player of the year, and all he's done in two tournament games is score 36 points, grab 26 rebounds, hand out 11 assists and block four shots. Vincent Edwards has also been great in two tournament games, scoring a combined 42 points and grabbing a combined 15 rebounds. With those two cooking, these Boilers can compete with anyone, and that's without mentioning the rest of this mostly veteran lineup.
Kansas, though, as anyone who watched the Jayhawks dismantle Michigan State in the second half last Sunday knows, is very, very good. Freshman star Josh Jackson has been as impressive as any player in the tournament, and he was electric against Sparty, dropping 23 points in what ended up being a 20-point beat down by the Jayhawks. That stellar performance followed a 17-point effort in the first-round win. But Jackson isn't even Kansas' best player, as Frank Mason III could be the guy to edge Swanigan for national player of the year honors. He's averaging better than 20 points a game on the season and has been remarkably consistent since the start of the tournament, scoring 22 against UC-Davis and 20 against Michigan State. And this is a Bill Self Kansas team, so obviously it's more than a two-man show.
This could be an epic clash between two really talented teams and two teams who were their conference's best all season long. Of course, Kansas is so good — and essentially playing in a home-court environment in Kansas City — that a second straight Big Ten beat down wouldn't be out of the question either.
The pick: Kansas was too good against Michigan State, and though Purdue has been a significantly better team than Michigan State this season, Kansas looks to be too good for almost anybody. Expect more eye-popping highlights from Jackson and Mason.
East Region: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Florida, 8:59 p.m., Friday
The talk of the tournament is Wisconsin after its sensational second-round upset of No. 1 overall seed Villanova. The Badgers proved the selection committee it was better than a No. 8 seed — something that ended up being a bigger problem for Villanova than it was for Wisconsin, obviously — with the two veterans of those back-to-back Final Four runs, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, powering the upset. Hayes has stepped up out of quasi-nowhere after a relatively disappointing regular season. After being pegged as the Big Ten's preseason player of the year, Hayes was inconsistent throughout much of the campaign, but he showed up with a force in his team's biggest game of the season, scoring 19 points, including the game-winning basket in the game's final seconds, a Jordan-esque game-winner. Koenig added 17 points in that game and came up with some clutch shots. What else would you expect? Momentum is certainly on the Badgers' side, with five wins in six games after that nasty late-season slide. This is the Wisconsin team we all expected at season's start, and along with Hayes and Koenig are fellow starters Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter, who were also around for those Final Four runs and have been coming up with their own mammoth plays through the first two rounds of this tournament. That veteran presence and March experience can't be overstated.
Florida hasn't been nearly as impressive as all the other teams discussed so far, just 3-3 in its last six games, two of those losses back-to-back defeats to Vanderbilt, which made a first-round exit from this tournament. But here the Gators are after wins over East Tennessee State and Virginia, big wins, too, coming by an average of 20.5 points a game. That win over Virginia was a bludgeoning of a good team, though the Cavaliers didn't come anywhere close to ready to play in that one, not even mustering 40 points, a real weak showing from a No. 5 seed. In fact, Florida's last four wins are double-digit victories over tournament teams. Prior to these two March games, the Gators beat both Arkansas and South Carolina, two teams who have had good showings in the Big Dance. The most productive player for Florida in this tournament has been Devin Robinson, who has totaled 38 points and 18 rebounds in the two wins.
As mentioned, momentum is on Wisconsin's side. The veteran experience of these long tournament runs in recent seasons is invaluable, and if Koenig and Hayes keep making those late-game plays, the Badgers seem unbeatable right now. And, after Duke went down to South Carolina last weekend, it kind of seems like Wisconsin is suddenly the favorite in the East Region.
The pick: Badgers keep Badgers-ing. Remember when we wanted to rename March "Izzo"? Maybe we should rename it "Wisconsin." This could make it three Elite Eight trips in four seasons. Why not three Final Four trips in four seasons, too?
Picking the rest
Only three games in the Sweet Sixteen feature Big Ten teams, but you probably want picks from the other five, right?
Well, here goes:
— West Region: No. 4 West Virginia over No. 1 Gonzaga
— West Region: No. 2 Arizona over No. 11 Xavier
— South Region: No. 4 Butler over No. 1 North Carolina
— South Region: No. 3 UCLA over. No. 2 Kentucky
— East Region: No. 7 South Carolina over No. 3 Baylor
This is all about value.
I can't sit here and say any of these guys on the list are going to have poor fantasy seasons or won't be worth owning on any rosters. In fact, I'd make the case all these guys should be starters on fantasy teams, even if you're in a 10-team league.
But value is important — maybe the most important aspect — in drafts and all five guys on this list are being selected way higher than I think they should be.
Charlie Blackmon, OF, Rockies
Is Charlie Blackmon really a Top 15 fantasy player?
So far this spring, he is currently being drafted ahead of Carlos Correa, the uber-hyped Trea Turner, Corey Seager and even Joey Votto.
In an incredibly deep outfield class — far and away the deepest offensive position — if you're gonna select an outfielder with your first or second pick, you want a guy with essentially zero question marks.
That's not Blackmon.
Are his power numbers for real? He's never displayed his 29-homer, 69-extra-base-hit performance in the past (including the minor leagues) and his slugging percentage jumped 102 points from 2015 to 2016.
In his defense, it's not Coors Field-driven, as he posted nearly idential home/road splits (.939 OPS at home, .926 on the road) and actually hit 17 of his 29 homers away from Denver's thin air.
But even with all of that power production, Blackmon still went from a 43-steal guy all the way down to a 17-steal player and now 30 years old, it's hard to see that number jumping back to "elite" status.
All told, to get Blackmon on your team, you'd have to draft him early in the second round and in doing so, you'd have to be absolutely positive he's going to approach 30 homers again and believe his stolen base numbers would return to an above average level.
Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers
Verlander had an absolutely fantastic 2016 season and I'm with Kate Upton — he got robbed in the AL Cy Young voting.
But will he do it again? I'm not so sure.
2016 represents Verlander's second-best strikeout season (10.0 K/9) and his only better season in that regard was all the way back in 2009, when he was a 26-year-old (10.1 K/9).
Now 34, Verlander's 2016 seems like the aberration.
From 2013-15, his average season looked like this:
11-11, 3.84 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 7.9 K/9 across 29 starts
For a guy being drafted as the No. 8 pitcher taken in drafts (and 33rd overall), those numbers won't come close to cutting it.
That means the only way Verlander supplies any value in that selection slot is if he duplicates his 2016 season, and do you really think that's likely?
He's got the talent and his velocity is trending in the right direction after a mysterious dip a few years ago, but it still doesn't seem like a very safe bet to assume Verlander will do it again.
Ian Kinsler, 2B, Tigers
I'm not trying to pick on the Tigers here, I swear.
But I've noticed how highly regarded Kinsler has been in fantasy circles this season and I've been scratching my head as to why.
Don't get me wrong, his 2016 was great — .832 OPS, 28 HRs, 14 SBs, 117 Rs — and he had some big hits in the World Baseball Classic.
But he'll turn 35 this summer and those numbers represent a huge jump from the rest of the decade.
Kinsler hasn't reached his 2016 mark in runs, homers or OPS since he was a 29-year-old in 2011 with the Texas Rangers and in the four seasons between those offensive explosions, he's averaged 96 Rs, 15 HRs, 77 RBI, 15 SBs and a .750 OPS.
History dictates it'd be a risky endeavor to pay for Kinsler's 2016 season and that's essentially what you'd need to do to secure his services for 2017 as he's ranked as the No. 8 second baseman in average draft position, going somewhere in the fifth or sixth round.
He's still a very valuable fantasy second baseman, but certainly not at that price. Wait until the eighth or ninth round or later to draft Kinsler if he falls that far, otherwise don't be the owner in your league to reach for him.
Brian Dozier, 2B, Twins
At this point, I'm not sure if Dozier is so overrated he's underrated or vice versa. Either way, he's absolutely been one of the most polarizing fantasy players this winter after posting a ridiculous second half on his way to season totals of 42 HRs, 99 RBI, 104 Rs, 18 SBs and an .886 OPS.
You know not to expect that kind of output every season. That will almost assuredly go down as Dozier's career year whenever he decides to hang 'em up.
I mean, his OPS jumped 124 points from his previous career high (.762 in 2014).
Dozier is a really nice player, a guy with some of the best pop from either middle infield spot and a solid blend of speed, on-base percentage and runs hitting atop the Twins lineup.
But that profile is not a third-round draft pick, as he's currently being selected. Don't overpay for one fantastic season.
Jean Segura, SS, Mariners
I am, apparently, picking on middle infielders in this post.
But in my mind's eye, as I thought about this post, Segura was the first name that popped in my head.
He was the No. 6 guy on ESPN's standard Player Rater after the 2016 season after hitting .319 with 102 Rs, 20 HRs, 64 RBI and 33 SBs. Make no mistake, that's a phenomenal season, especially from a shortstop.
But it won't happen again.
Absolutely everything went right for Segura last year as his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) went from ridiculously-unlucky levels in 2014-15 (.275 and .298, respectively) to a .353 BABIP and he flashed surprising power while leading the game in hits (203).
For starters, he's out of Arizona's hitter-friendly environment and now in Seattle's hitter-unfriendly environment, so don't expect him to approach 20 homers again.
As for the average, if you want to bet he'll get that lucky again, be my guest. This is still a guy who has only 118 walks in 632 big-league games and did not see a major jump in that regard in 2016 (his 5.6 percent walk rate is only a small improvement from his previous career high of 5 percent in 2014).
Segura was a guy that was barely ownable in fantasy from 2014-15 and I'd say it's just as likely he returns to that level as it is he actually earns the value required to make drafting him in the seventh or eighth round worth it.