Big Ten Basketball Digest: Forecasting The 2011 Big Ten Tournament

A weekly series on men's basketball in the Big Ten...

Though five games remain in the regular season for the Big Ten (including a marquee rematch between Wisconsin and Ohio State), here at the digest we never find it too early to talk about post-season festivities. It's in this spirit that we look at prospective bowl games only a few weeks in to every football season, and to bracketology of the NCAA Tournament in almost every basketball season edition of the digest.

In this edition, we'll be taking a look at the upcoming Big Ten Tournament - specifically, how the tournament might play out if it were held this weekend, instead of next weekend. Next week's digest will do a preview of the Big Ten tournament with the actual seeding, as of the final season results, but, since I'm impatient, I felt like also doing this preview version.

So read on for an overview of the seeding order and hypothetical match-ups all the way to the championship game. Might there be an upset in store this year?

 

Tournament Seeding:

All eleven of the Big Ten's schools participate in the post-regular-season conference tournament, which this year will take place from Thursday, March 10 to Sunday, March 13. For the purposes of this article, though, we'll be looking at the tournament as though it was happening this weekend, which means that the seeding order is likely to change slightly, especially in the middle.

The stakes in the Big Ten Tournament can be high, as the champion gains an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament starting shortly after. Of course, for some of the teams in the conference, that automatic bid is of little consequence. The top three conference seeds - Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin - are locks for the NCAA tournament. Getting an automatic bid would mean relatively little, since they'd be in as an at-large selection anyway. Winning the tournament (or flaming out early) could affect those teams' seeding order in March Madness, so there is something at stake, but that's a less significant concern.

There are, though, several teams in the conference that would really love to play on Sunday the 13. Michigan State and Illinois are no longer the sure things they once seemed to be, and while it seems likely that they will end up with at-large bids when all is said and done, there's enough uncertainty that fans of all of those teams would certainly breathe easier if they managed to claim conference tournament champion or runner-up status.

And then there are the teams that need that status to make it to the big dance at all. Michigan, Penn State and Minnesota have flitted in and out of bubble consideration, but miiiight just squeak in if they could end up in the tournament championship (and would obviously go if they won it all). Finally, teams like Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa will only end up dancing if, by sheer dumb luck or a fortuitous asteroid, they claim the Big Ten Tournament crown.

But how realistic is any of that? Is a victory by a top seed a foregone conclusion? Pretty much yes. Since 1998, a No. 1 through No. 3 seed has won the Big Ten Tournament in every year except for 1998 and 2001. During those years, a No. 4 Michigan team and a No. 6 Iowa team took home the crown, respectively.

The news is much better from the runner-up perspective, though. In five of the years since 1998, the No. 1-3 seed has been runner-up. In four years a No. 4-6 seed lost the championship game. And in the remaining four years a No. 7-11 seed made it all the way as far as losing the final game of the tournament.

Remember that while winning the conference crown confers an automatic bid, being the runner-up isn't too shabby either. Take Ohio State for example. After the 2007-2008 regular season concluded, they were seeded 5th in the conference tournament. They then promptly lost their first tournament game. After that, they ended up in the NIT. The very next season (2008-2009 for those keeping track) they were again seeded 5th. Only this time they ended up as runners-up to eventual tournament champion No. 3 Purdue. And that year they found themselves with an invite to the Big Dance.

Does an appearance in the Big Ten Tournament championship game guarantee an at-large selection for the NCAA tournament? No, it really doesn't. But it certainly helps. It can effectively make teams look more like Cinderellas to the at-large selectors than pumpkins. Of course, this probably only happens with teams that are sort of in that mushy middle region already... teams that are, in other words, seeded 5th-8th. Still, there's a first time for anything, and it's quite possible that this could be the year that a lowly seeded runner-up uses that status to sneak into the Big Dance when everyone thought they were dead in the water weeks ago. So, without further ado, here's how the tournament would be seeded if it took place this weekend:

No. 1 Seed: OSU

It's not really a surprise that Ohio State occupies the top spot in the Big Ten Tournament conference. They are, after all, currently ranked No. 1 in the country and have a daily RPI of .6642, good for second in the country. This means that the Buckeyes, like the other seeds in the 1-5 range, will enjoy a bye for the first round of Big Ten tournament action.

No. 2 Seed: Purdue

Narrowly edging out Wisconsin, Purdue finds itself the recipient of the No. 2 seed in the tournament. They're one game back from the Buckeyes, and 1.5 ahead of the Badgers. This will also earn them a bye, and a date with the winner of the No. 7 - No. 10 seed game.

No. 3 Seed: Wisconsin

Rounding out the top three seeds the Badgers, currently ranked No. 10 in the country occupy this slot. They have a full 3.5 games on their closest competition in the Spartans, which really suggests that the top tier of the conference is on a different level from the rest of the competition.

No. 4 Seed: Michigan State

Seemingly righting the ship after losing six of eight games recently, Tom Izzo's team is just above the crowded 5-7 pack and will earn a bye for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

No. 5 Seed: Illinois

The next three teams are tied with identical in-conference records. So, the tiebreaking procedures are used. First, head-to-head records against the collective tied teams are examined. Illinois and Michigan are both 2-1 in this respect, while Penn State sits at a lowly 1-3. To break the tie between the Illini and the Wolverines, their records against the top teams in the conference are compared until one team gains an advantage. This eventually happens when games against Wisconsin are compared - the Illini are 1-1 in that respect, while Michigan, after their narrow last second loss just a week ago, is 0-2.

No. 6 Seed: Michigan

This kind of sucks for the Wolverines. As noted above, if the conference tournament were held this weekend it would take a series of tie-breakers to separate the Wolverines from Illinois. In most things, the difference between being a five seed and a six seed would be relatively minor, but in the Big Ten Tournament it can make a world of difference. Illinois will get a bye in the first round of the tourney, while Michigan has to play a game on that Thursday, against the 11th seed in the conference.

No. 7 Seed: Penn State

After the tiebreakers gone through above, the Nittany Lions find themselves as the No. 7 seed in the conference. This is just about the point in time where we get into the NIT / staying home discussion. At this point, it seems that Penn State would need to win the tournament or be the runner-up to have any chance of a bid, automatic or at-large, to the big dance.

No. 8 Seed: Northwestern

From here on out, sorry to say for Wildcat fans, it seems that only a conference tournament crown will do. Pulling off a surprise, and, unlikely, upset would give any of these 8-11 seeded teams an automatic bid, and probably a first-round exit to March Madness.

No. 9 Seed: Minnesota

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Beset with injury issues, losing players to transfer and criminal distractions, Minnesota has seen itself drop all the way down to a No. 9 seed in the conference tournament. At this point they also seem to be out of at-large NCAA tournament discussion altogether, and recent rumors suggest that Coach Tubby Smith might be lured away in the offseason by Georgia Tech.

No. 10 Seed: Indiana

Though Iowa was on a bit of an upswing in recent times, the Hoosiers find themselves at the 10 slot this time around.

No. 11 Seed: Iowa

Coming in last are the Hawkeyes. That's really all that needs to be said here.

 

First Round:

The No. 1 - No. 5 seeds are all sitting it out with a bye, so the first day of the tournament sees only three games. In trying to determine the winner of the games I've used a couple of factors. They are:

Historical Record: How well the No. X seed has performed against the No. Y seed in Big Ten Tournament history.

Head-to-Head Record: How will the two teams playing have fared against each other this season.

Recent Record: Is one team on an up or down swing?

Math and Stuff: Observations taken from staring obsessively at KenPom while in class. In other words, I use the Log5 method that Ken Pomeroy does when he predicts conference tournaments. Bill James invented this a long, long time ago. It's the type of thing that's not actually all that complicated, but can look really scary:

W%(A v. B) = W%(A)*(1 - W%(B))/(W%(A)*(1 - W%(B)) + (1 - W%(A))*W%(B))

When all is said in done in that equation, you end up with a percentile number that tells you how often Team A would win a game against Team B on a neutral floor (like in a conference tournament).

Intangibles: Have there been any recent injuries? Suspensions? Dismissals for untimely hanky panky?

There's no real method to madness in terms of weighting these factors. I just sort of go with my gut.

 

No. 8 Northwestern vs. No. 9 Minnesota:

Our first game sees the eight seed, the Northwestern Wildcats, taking on the nine seed, the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Though it seems counterintuitive, the historical record split vastly favors the Wildcats here. Across the last 13 meetings in the tournament, the No. 8 seed has defeated the No. 9 seed at a rate of 10-3.

Of course, when you look at recent happenings between these two teams, perhaps it's not all that surprising. The head-to-head record is evenly split, after Northwestern's 68-57 victory on Wednesday night. But the recent streak category also favors Northwestern. Minnesota has lost their last four games, while Northwestern has gone 3-2, ending with that aforementioned win over the Gophers.

In the math and stuff category, the Log5 formula spits out a .497 for Northwestern, which means that on a neutral floor, Northwestern would win against Minnesota 49.7% of the time. Really, might as well flip a coin on this factor.

In the intangibles category, there isn't a whole lot. The same nagging problems that have haunted both teams all year continue to exist. In fact, the biggest intangible might be something that hasn't actually occurred yet - the return of point guard Al Nolen. Nolen has been out with a broken foot for a while. There was a little bit of a frenzy earlier this week when Trevor Mbakwe tweeted that Nolen might return to play for Minnesota's last regular season game against Penn State this season... only to retract that a few hours later. Given that Nolen is still walking around with a protective boot sometimes, I'm going to go ahead and say he doesn't play this weekend. Which means he doesn't play in our hypothetical tournament.

So, when you look at everything I give the slight edge in this game to Northwestern. Minnesota's first day loss in the Big Ten Tournament caps what has been a very disappointing slide for Gopher fans.

 No. 7 Penn State vs. No. 10 Indiana:

Here we see a slightly struggling Penn State squad take on Indiana. Both of these teams would need an improbable win in the conference tournament to make it to the NCAA Tournament this year. Historically, the record slightly favors Indiana. Over the last 13 years, the No. 7 seed has gone 6-7 in the Big Ten Tournament against the No. 10 seed.

The only time these teams played each other this season was aalllll the way back in December. Penn State won that game, 69-60, so they get the edge here with a 1-0 head-to-head record.

In terms of recent games, Indiana has been all down. After that thrilling victory over Minnesota to start February, the Hoosiers have lost six straight, most recently against Ohio State. Some of those games have been closer than others, but it's still not good. The Nittany Lions have been better here, going 3-2 over their last five games, though they also recently lost to Ohio State. Penn State still has the edge

As far as Log5 goes, Penn State gets a .643, meaning they'll win this game 64.3% of the time. Again, Nittany Lions have the edge.

No major news hitting for either of the teams, so the intangibles category is a wash.

When it comes down to it, on the strength of the Log5 result and the recent record, I'm going to give this as a win to Penn State. It gets better for Indiana in years to come, but this time around, they're out of the tourney.

No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 11 Iowa

Michigan, who is justthisclose to having a NCAA at-large bid locked up, will take on the lowest seed in the conference for their first tournament game. The historical numbers strongly favor Michigan in this one. Over the last 13 years, the No. 6 seed has gone 12-1 against the No. 11 seed. Of course, the only time the 11 seed won this game, they ended up all the way in the conference championship game (Illinois in 1999) so, even though basketball has not been kind to Hawkeye fans this year, I guess there's a tiny weeny glimmer of hope out there.

In terms of the head-to-head, Michigan also gains the edge, with a 2-0 record over Iowa. Of course, that last win did take OT to produce, but, still.

Recently, Michigan also has the edge, going 3-2 over their last five game stretch. Iowa, meanwhile, has lost their last six in a row, starting with that brutal overtime loss against Wisconsin all the way back on Feb. 9.

The Log5 tells us that in this game, Michigan would have a 73.2% chance of winning. Ouch for Iowa.

Perhaps the only thing that could save Iowa it seems would be some major intangible. Unfortunately for Iowa, the Wolverines haven't suffered any devastating injuries lately, so this factor is neutral.

The Wolverines therefore have historical numbers, head-to-head, recent record, and Log5 factors all in their favor. They easily top Iowa to advance to the second round.

 

Second Round:

Now things start to get interesting. The second day of competition sees our top five seeded teams come off their byes to try to head to the semifinals. This day features four games, with Ohio State taking on Northwestern, Michigan State matching up against the Illini, Purdue having another date with Penn State, and Michigan attempting to get revenge against the Badgers.

 

No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 8 Northwestern

Though Northwestern was able to handle reeling Minnesota effectively, their last-ditch hope for the tournament just got a whole lot tougher since they get to see the Buckeyes as their second round match-up. Historically, it's not so good for the Wildcats. The No. 1 seed is 8-2 against the No. 8 seed over the last 13 years.

Things don't really look much better in the head-to-head department. Northwestern lost the only time they played Ohio State this year. Granted, it was a one point game, 58-57, a game the Wildcats really really should have won. But, it still puts OSU ahead with a 1-0 head-to-head record.

Northwestern has gone a respectable 3-2 over its last five, but Ohio State righted the slightly leaky ship and has won their last three after losing to Purdue, good for a 4-1 record over the last five games.

Unsurprisingly, the Log5 says it'll be a cold day in hell before Northwestern wins this one. The formula puts Ohio State at a 92.3% chance of pulling this one down.

Since there's no intangibles news for either team, there really isn't anything to save the Wildcats. They lose, probably badly, to a really really good Buckeye team. Hey, at least you lost to the best Northwestern. No shame in that. Really. Okay, maybe a little.

No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 5 Illinois

Oooh. It's a battle of the bubbles. In the beginning of the season, Michigan State seemed like a final four lock. Illinois was uneven, but looked to put together a strong season for a tournament bid. Now? While it seems that both teams will garner at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament this year, the seasons have been disappointing for fans of both the Spartans and the Illini.

So who wins in this battle? Well the historical record is pretty even. The No. 4 seed has a record of 7-6 against the No. 5 seed. That doesn't really tell us a whole lot.... Other than the 4th and 5th seeded teams are usually of equivalent skill.

In the head-to-head, it's also even. The teams are 1-1 against each other this year, with Michigan State owning the most recent victory, 61-57.

The teams are relatively closely matched recent record wise as well, with Michigan State going 3-2 over their last five, and Illinois going 2-3. The difference in that record is actually the game they played against each other as both teams lost to Ohio State and Purdue in their last five games.

Fortunately for us, the Log5 provides a little bit of a tie-breaker. My calculations tell me that in this game, Michigan State would have just a 39.1% chance of walking away with a victory. Though Michigan State's in-conference record has edged them over the Illini seed wise, it seems like their uneven play is reflected in the Log5.

No major intangible news for Illinois. Though there isn't any major ground-breaking news for the Spartans, Draymond Green did sustain a minor ankle injury during their most recent game against Iowa, which could easily affect the play of Michigan State.

When you put it all together, the combination of the Log5 and possible limitations on Green are enough for me to edge Illinois over Michigan State. The No. 5 seed advances this year.

No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 7 Penn State

Much like the Wildcats, Penn State has the unfortunate luck of drawing one of the top teams in the conference for their second round game. Sure they get by Indy pretty easily, but then the Boilermakers are there to stare them down and stop any NCAA Tournament hopes.

Historically, the No. 2 seed is 4-2 against the No. 7 seed over the last 13 years, favoring the Boilermakers.

The head-to-head is also in Purdue's favor, as they've beaten Penn State twice this season, for a 2-0 mark. Recently, the Boilermakers have been on an absolute tear, winning their last seven in a row. Penn State has a respectable 3-2 mark over their last five, but the edge here goes to the Boilermakers.

So what do the maths say? Well, it's sort of like with the Ohio State - Northwestern game. Purdue has about an 85.4% chance of winning this game. Granted, things don't look as bad as they did with the Wildcats, which reflects more on the disparity between Ohio State and Purdue than the disparity between the Nittany Lions and the Wildcats. But, still.

There's no major intangibles for Purdue or Penn State that could affect the players in the game, so that's a neutral factor this time around.

On the strength of their recent performance, head-to-head match-ups, and the Log5 predictions, I give this game to Purdue by a decent margin.

No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Michigan

Our last game of the second round of the tournament sees the Badgers play the Wolverines, as Michigan tries to see if they can sneak out one against Wisconsin. Do so, and they really improve their chances of clinching their at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. Even if they lose it doesn't necessarily mean they're out of the tourney, but a good showing in the Big Ten Tournament would really boost their chances. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is playing for the best seed that they can in March Madness.

Historically, the No. 3 seed is 5-7 against the No. 6 seed, which favors Michigan in this match-up.

In terms of head-to-head, however, Wisconsin wins with a 2-0 mark, including that late buzzer beater victory. Recently, the Badgers also have the better record, going 4-1 over their last five, while Michigan has gone 3-2, with one of their victories taking OT to record.

Mathematically, the Badgers also have the edge. The Log5 says that in this game, Wisconsin would have a significant edge, winning this game 81.3% of the time. Of course, as we saw recently, sometimes these games will come down to the wire even if one team is a seemingly strong favorite.

No big intangible news is on the horizon for Michigan, nor really for Wisconsin. The Badgers have had defensive woes lately, allowing 51.8% 3-pt shooting in games against Penn State, Northwestern, and Michigan. But, that's not something that has to persist, so the intangible really is a neutral factor this time around.

Though Michigan has historical record on its side, the Log5 result and Wisconsin's seeming ability to rise from the dead just when you think they're down and out nudge me to give this one to the Badgers. Of course, anything could happen, and Michigan's play recently has shown they will play even the best teams in the conference down to the wire.

 

Semi-Finals:

Well, we've got our semi-finals set, and it seems pretty predictable. With the exception of the Illini upset of the Spartans, it's all the top seeds who make it here. This isn't really that unusual for the Big Ten Tournament though. Unlike the NCAA tournament, the top seeds frequently make it to the final rounds, in fact this seeding arrangement is the exact same as the 2009 tournament (though with slightly different teams). Perhaps it's just that there's too much of a disparity in quality in the conference, but there just aren't as many Cinderella stories out of the Big Ten tournament as in the NCAAs...

No. 1 vs. No. 5 Illinois

With all that above in mind, is there really any chance for Illinois in this game against Ohio State? Well, historically it doesn't look so good. The No. 1 seed owns a 4-1 record over the No. 5 seed over the last thirteen years.

Head-to-head, it's the same story. Ohio State has a 2-0 record over Illinois this season. Recently, OSU has gone 4-1 in their last five games, while Illinois is 2-3. Of course, OSU did get to play Indiana and Penn State during that stretch, so there's an argument to be made that the recent records are misleading in this case.

Still, mathematically Illinois is also down and out. Though, it's probably a lot closer than most teams would manage against OSU. The Log5 says that in this game, OSU would win 81.6% of the time. Why do the Buckeyes generate such high percentages? Well, KenPom has overall number (which he computes using adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies) at .9798. What's that mean? That means that 97.98% of the time, the Buckeyes would beat an average Division I basketball team on a neutral court. Of course, the Illini are an above average team, which is why the percentile drops all the way down to 81.6% , but it still gives you an idea of just how good OSU really is this year.

Intangibles wise, the newswire has been quiet for both teams. We're neutral here.

Put it all together, and it looks like Ohio State would win this one. The Illini might give them a fight through it all, but the Buckeyes would probably prevail in the end. Historical record and stats are on their side, as is the head-to-head match-up. Illinois makes a decent splash in the conference tournament and locks up a NCAA bid, but there won't be any tournament crowns for them this year.

No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 3 Wisconsin

This would definitely be a good game. Though these teams have seen each other twice this season, a tournament match-up in the semi-finals for the right to go visit the Buckeyes would definitely inspire phenomenal play out of both the Boilermakers and the Badgers.

Historically, the record is split. The No. 2 seed is 2-2 vs. the No. 3 seed.

In the head-to-head, we're also split. The teams are 1-1 against each other this year, with Purdue having the most recent win, 70-62 on February 16th.

In recent play, Purdue has a slightly more impressive record, though not by much. The Boilermakers have won their last seven straight, while the Badgers are 6-1 over that same time period. The only loss the Badgers have in those seven? To Purdue.

The Log5 is also pretty tight. The Boilermakers would have a 55.9% chance of winning this game, near dead even.

In the intangibles category... no major news for either team. Purdue has probably been playing better than the Badgers recently, however. But then... well there is something else that might be useful. Across the Big Ten Tournament, over the last thirteen years, the Boilermakers own a losing record. They're just 8-12 in their Tournament match-ups. Over that same time period, Wisconsin is 14-11. The disparity in total games played reflects both byes and early exits from the tournament.

So, most of the factors in this one are dead even. The Log5 gives a slight edge to the Boilermakers, though I have this uneasy feeling when looking at the intangible of their prior Tournament play experience. As a result, I'm going to give this one to Wisconsin, but narrowly. This is a game that would come down to the waning seconds, and probably turn on which team controlled the ball last. While I put Wisconsin in the championship game, it could just as easily be Purdue.

 

Championship Game:

So it's come to this then. In our if-the-season-ended-this-weekend tournament, the championship comes down to the No. 1 seed vs. the No. 3 seed. And a re-match from the first loss that Ohio State sustained this season.

Historically, the No. 1 seed is 1-0 vs. the No. 3 seed. Quite the small sample size.

In the head-to-head, however, the advantage is to the Badgers, with their own 1-0 record. Of course, this is because the last game of the regular season in the Big Ten sees these two teams play again, on Buckeye turf. But, since our hypothetical tournament is taking place this weekend, that game doesn't exist.

Recently, the teams are about even. Wisconsin is 6-1 over their last seven games. Ohio State is 5-2.

Okay, so that's one factor in favor of the Buckeyes, one in favor of the Badgers, and one that is pretty much even, though I guess slightly in favor of Wisconsin.

What do the all knowing maths say? They give a pretty strong edge to Ohio State, but it would be the Buckeyes' biggest challenge in the tournament so far. According to the Log5, OSU would win this game 66.9% of the time.

How about the intangibles? Well, neither team has any big injury news yet. As mentioned above, the Badgers are 14-11 across their Big Ten Tournament play, but the Buckeyes are even better, at 18-11.  In the last four years of the Big Ten Tournament, the No. 1 seed has won three times. The only time that didn't happen, in 2009, the championship game was played between the No. 3 and No. 5 seeds. You have to go back to 2006 to see the No. 1 seeded team upset by a lower seed, which came in the form of the No. 2 seed that year. While it's true that OSU has struggled somewhat on the road this year, possibly forecasting trouble in a neutral venue, Wisconsin is much the same, with their best play and biggest wins coming at the Kohl Center. And the Big Ten Tournament does not happen at the Kohl Center.

Bottom line is, this is a tight game. It's not a game I'd want to gamble on.

But...

If this played out, I'd have to say congratulations to the Ohio State Buckeyes on winning the 2011 Big Ten Tournament, and welcome to our new Big Ten Tournament overlords.

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