LINCOLN — In a star-studded Big Ten basketball season, Michigan and coach Juwan Howard became the biggest stars of the show.
The Wolverines won the regular-season crown — despite playing three fewer games than second-place Illinois — and had the league’s best freshman in Hunter Dickinson. Howard won the Big Ten coach of the year award Tuesday, as expected.
In a preseason poll of 28 beat writers, Michigan was picked to finish sixth, and only one writer — yours truly — put UM in the top three. Nevertheless, when the Wolverines rolled into Nebraska on Christmas Day, I loved the Huskers’ chances to pull an upset. NU played well and lost by 11, but what struck me that afternoon was Michigan’s giant roster. As in, it had 17 guys.
John Beilein said he designed his rosters to be big. He always carried a lot of walk-ons, and this particular Michigan team has four senior walk-ons who Beilein believes are a big part of the team’s success.
“That scout team, they could run any offense you’d want to run, and they were like that two years ago,” Beilein said. “And there’s now four senior walk-ons on that team. You tell ‘em to run ‘Princeton,’ in 10 minutes they can run it because they’ve done it for four years.”
That’s the kind of practice look money literally can’t buy, and Michigan, which always seems so sharp in its adjustments, appears to have benefited from it.
The Wolverines are tournament co-favorites along with Illinois, but it may be harder to win Big Ten hardware than it is the NCAA trophy. Given the competitiveness of the league, a lot of teams could win the weekend.
Seven storylines — plus picks — to watch as the Big Ten takes center stage:
Izzo and Sparty rising — again: Michigan State usually finds a way to play its best basketball in March. MSU was on the wrong side of the bubble three weeks ago. Now, with wins over Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan, the Spartans are darn near a lock. They also get a first-round opponent, Maryland, that’s on the ropes after losing to Northwestern and Penn State in back-to-back games. It feels like an intense first-round tilt.
The Illini peaking: Ayo Dosunmu took a cheap shot to the face in a loss to Michigan State, but even as Dosunmu missed several games as a result, Illinois hasn’t lost since with freshmen Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo picking up the slack. Illinois has won 11 of its past 12 and generally has it all — shooting, a post presence, good defense. Its A-plus game is better than any other Big Ten team’s.
Dome factor: It’ll be a hot topic as the tournament goes on, especially if some of the sharpshooting teams struggle inside Lucas Oil Stadium. The Big Ten doesn’t normally conduct the event in a dome, but had little choice once it relocated to Indianapolis since the women’s event is in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Over/under on coaches discussing the shooting environment in postgame press conferences: four.
Hawkeyes hunting a top seed — and tournament title: Iowa seems to be a solid No. 2 seed, but it could move up to the top line by winning the title and beating Illinois and Michigan along the way. Iowa has won seven of its past eight, and two of its conference losses this season came against the Illini and Wolverines. Avenging those — while making the reasonable argument that Michigan hasn’t quite been the same team in the past two weeks — could make the selection committee’s decision interesting. Will Iowa have Joe Wieskamp available?
Hoosier blues: When Indiana beat Minnesota in mid-February, it improved to 12-9 and appeared headed for the NCAA tournament, a minimum standard for the program. IU has since lost five straight — including two to Michigan State — and needs three wins to play its way back in. Are these the final days of IU coach Archie Miller? He would have one of the league’s best rosters in 2022. Watching the Hoosiers in person this year, I was struck by two things: their skill, which was impressive, and their size, which wasn’t.
Double-digit-seed run: The winner of the Nebraska-Penn State game — the Nittany Lions have the slight edge in Round 3 — gets a crack at No. 6 seed Wisconsin, which is 3-7 in its past 10 games. Lots of good losses — two to Iowa, two to Illinois, one each to Michigan, Purdue and Penn State — but the Badgers, safely in the NCAAs, are ripe to be upset.
The speculation game: Richard Pitino is almost certainly done at Minnesota, so the Gophers’ opening-round game will be spent with BTN analysts recapping and probably overpraising Pitino’s eight years in Minneapolis, where he’s won just 36% of his league games. A recent Minneapolis Star Tribune piece mentioned Utah State coach Craig Smith — who worked for Tim Miles at NU — as a potential replacement. Minnesota is a good job in a city full of talent. Meanwhile at Penn State, interim Jim Ferry will likely be replaced, too, but you’ll hear the network stump for him as a full-time option. Don’t count on it.
Picking the games
Northwestern over Minnesota
Penn State over Nebraska
Maryland over Michigan State
Indiana over Rutgers
Ohio State over Northwestern
Penn State over Wisconsin
Michigan over Maryland
Purdue over Ohio State
Illinois over Indiana
Iowa over Penn State
Purdue over Michigan
Illinois over Iowa
Illinois over Purdue