Tribune Star Correspondent
Four times in the first six years of the Big Ten Tournament, the No. 1 seed lost its opening game.
Indiana’s hoping recent history holds to form, as the top seed has won the tournament five times in the last six seasons, including the past three years.
The Hoosiers (26-5) enter the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 1 seed for the first time, and therefore won’t have to play on the tournament’s first day. It’s the first time since 2008 that IU has drawn a first-round bye.
IU will face either Illinois or Minnesota in Friday’s first game. Not only were the Illini and Golden Gophers each ranked in the Top 10 at one point this season, they’re also the only two Big Ten teams who IU lost to away from Bloomington this season. The Hoosiers had the conference’s best road record at 7-2.
“Practice has been kind of different because we’ve been going over both teams’ plays and players,” Derek Elston said. “We don’t know exactly who to get ready for, but we keep doing what we do in practice.”
The Illini defeated the Hoosiers 74-72 when Tyler Griffey was left undefended and scored a layup at the buzzer. IU answered that loss with four straight wins, including road victories over then No. 10 Ohio State and then No. 4 Michigan State. Then Minnesota outmuscled the Hoosiers 77-73 behind a 21-point, 12-rebound performance by Trevor Mbakwe. IU has won two of three since, including Sunday’s comeback at Michigan to win the regular-season title.
But the Hoosiers have never won the Big Ten Tournament. IU has played in the championship game just once in the tournament’s 15-year history, in 2001.
“This year, to have a bye and to be able to play on Friday just shows how much hard work we’ve gone through during the season,” said Victor Oladipo, who was named Player of the Year by The Sporting News on Wednesday. “We want to accomplish so much more.”
Today’s first-round matchups:
No. 8 Illinois vs. No. 9 Minnesota: The teams split their season-series, with each winning on the other’s home court. The Illini’s 23 Big Ten Tournament wins are the most of any school. Illinois’ Brandon Paul has scored in double figures in five straight games after a mid-February slump. Minnesota’s win at Illinois was its last away from home; the Gophers have lost eight straight on the road.
No. 5 Michigan vs. No. 12 Penn State: A rematch of the Big Ten’s biggest upset of the season. The Nittany Lions had started the conference schedule 0-14, including a 79-71 loss at Michigan 10 days before upsetting the Wolverines 84-78 on Feb. 27. Penn State finished 2-16 in the conference, while Michigan still had a chance at a share of the conference title before losing to Indiana. The 84 points Penn State scored against Michigan tied for its season-best output. This is the third time the schools will meet in the Big Ten Tournament; Penn State is 2-0, winning in 2000 and 2001. The winner gets a second-round matchup with No. 4 seed Wisconsin.
No. 7 Purdue vs. No. 10 Nebraska: Purdue has yet to lose to Nebraska since the Cornhuskers entered the Big Ten, winning both regular-season matchups the last two seasons as well as a Big Ten Tournament victory last spring. In this year’s game, Nebraska trailed by 20 at one point in the second half before cutting Purdue’s lead to five. But D.J. Byrd hit two 3-pointers to help Purdue stave off the rally. No. 2 seed Ohio State awaits the winner of this game.
No. 6 Iowa vs. No. 11 Northwestern: The Hawkeyes swept the season series, winning 70-50 at Northwestern and 71-57 at home. The Wildcats enter the tournament on an eight-game losing streak, and it likely won’t end here. Iowa boasts the conference’s best field goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 38.7 percent. Northwestern is 11th in the Big Ten in field goal offense, shooting 40.2 percent. The winner will face No. 3 seed Michigan State on Friday.