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2021 Big Ten Tournament Prediction

Andre Curbelo, Illinois

The Big Ten is as loaded as it has ever been in recent memory. As many as four teams could find themselves on the 1-2 seed line from the league, with 10-11 teams in serious contention for an NCAA Tournament bid. This level of competitiveness and balance should make the Big Ten Tournament particularly important in the grand scheme of the 2021 college basketball season. I break down my predictions for this year's edition, which returns after a one-year hiatus.

First Round (Wed., March 10th)

12 Northwestern Wildcats over 

13 Minnesota Golden Gophers

Once a Top 25 team with victories over Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio State on their resume, Minnesota's 2020-21 season has completely derailed. The Gophers have lost seven straight games and enter the Big Ten Tournament without two crucial pieces, wing Gabe Kalscheur and big man Liam Robbins. There's little reason to believe they can turn it around against a Northwestern club who beat them less than two weeks ago. 

11 Penn State Nittany Lions over

14 Nebraska Cornhuskers

Even though they are just 10-13 overall, Penn State is not your typical 11 seed in the league. The Nittany Lions have proven themselves as a disciplined, tough basketball team with a multitude of wings who can score. They're a tough opening round matchup for a Nebraska team who may be playing better, but is still the worst in the conference.

Second Round (Thurs., March 11th)

9 Michigan State Spartans over

8 Maryland Terrapins

Stop me if you've heard this before: a Tom Izzo-coached team playing their best basketball at the right time in March. The suddenly scorching hot Spartans are coming off a massive win over Michigan that likely secured their NCAA Tournament bid, while Maryland is fresh off a bad loss to Penn State in a game they led most of the way.

5 Ohio State Buckeyes over

12 Northwestern Wildcats

Any hopes of a dark horse run by Northwestern will end on Day Two against Ohio State. The Buckeyes simply have too many offensive weapons for the Wildcats to hang around, from pure scorer Duane Washington Jr. to craft forward E.J. Liddell.

7 Rutgers Scarlet Knights over

10 Indiana Hoosiers

Could this be Archie Miller's last stand at Indiana? The fourth-year head coach is firmly on the hot seat as his Hoosiers have dropped to below .500 and enter postseason play with no momentum. Rutgers isn't exactly on fire either, but their veteran group of guards should be enough to overwhelm Miller and the Hoosiers.

11 Penn State Nittany Lions over

6 Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin enters the Big Ten Tournament losers of five of their last six games. Granted, all those losses have come against ranked foes, but the Badgers have really struggled to find any offensive rhythm over the last several weeks. They'll still be a tough out, but PSU has the momentum advantage, and they've already taken down the Badgers earlier on the season.

Quarterfinals (Fri., March 12th)

1 Michigan Wolverines over

9 Michigan State Spartans

Could Michigan State upset their arch-rivals twice in as many weeks? Perhaps, but I feel confident Juwan Howard will have his Wolverine team ready to go and focused here. Michigan still retains a major advantage in the post with Hunter Dickinson, assuming he is able to stay out of foul trouble.

4 Purdue Boilermakers over

5 Ohio State Buckeyes

Purdue swept the season series against Ohio State on the year and should keep on rolling here. Since mid-January, the Boilermakers have been playing as good basketball as anybody in the league, including winning six of their last seven. The combination of big men Trevion Williams and gigantic Zach Edey will be too much for OSU to handle over forty minutes.

2 Illinois Fighting Illini over

7 Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Rutgers may have the type of physical defense necessary to stymie this Illinois team, but it would be foolish to pick against the Illini at this point. Since January 16th, they've lost just one Big Ten game, a nine-point loss to a flaming hot Michigan State team. They'll still have plenty of motivations for this one as they look to secure a No. 1 seed.

3 Iowa Hawkeyes over

11 Penn State Nittany Lions

While I considered picking another upset by the Nittany Lions in the quarterfinals, they simply have no answer for likely National Player of the Year Luka Garza. An interesting development to watch will be the health of Iowa wing Joe Wieskamp, who went down with injury against Wisconsin. Wieskamp is listed as day-to-day and could be ready by Friday, but you wonder whether the Hawkeyes will risk their second-best scorer so early.

Semifinals (Sat., March 13th)

1 Michigan Wolverines over

4 Purdue Boilermakers

Michigan's skid entering the Big Ten Tournament should enable a Purdue upset to be a real possibility here, but I'm still sticking with the Wolverines. Their size and versatility on the wings is a major advantage, while Dickinson and veteran Austin Davis should be enough down low to contain Purdue's set of bigs.

2 Illinois Fighting Illini over

3 Iowa Hawkeyes

Get ready for plenty of offense when these two square off. Both teams feature two of the best scorers anywhere in the country in Ayo Dosunmu and Garza, and both teams also average over 80 PPG. The Illini's edge in momentum and questions about Wieskamp's health make Illinois the pick here.

Big Ten Championship (Sun., March 14th)

2 Illinois Fighting Illini over

1 Michigan Wolverines

With all due respect to Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State, there is little question that the top two teams in the Big Ten are Illinois and Michigan. It only feels right that they should collide in the Big Ten Championship, particularly with the debate around the regular season Big Ten Title happening at the moment. To sum it up: Michigan's lengthy COVID pause forced them to play three less league games than the Illini. That resulted in an odd scenario where Illinois had one more loss but still technically holds a half-game lead in the standings. The conference awarded UM with the league title, which may provide the extra motivation Illinois needs to take down the Wolverines, a team they beat by 23 just a week ago.

Big Ten Champion: Illinois Fighting Illini

While their season got off to a slower start than some had hoped, Illinois has been playing better than every team in the country not named Gonzaga or Baylor. They check off just about every box you could be looking for in a National Title contender, with a nice blend of experience and youth in the backcourt, an elite big man (Kofi Cockburn) and plenty of depth. It's been a decade and a half since the 2005 Fighting Illini went to the National Championship Game and came up short against UNC. This team has the talent to do much the same, except finishing the job this time around.

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