by Nick Rotunno

When: March 14-17

Where: United Center, Chicago

The best conference in all of college basketball this season, the Big Ten and its litany of high-ranked teams, will hit the hardwood at the United Center on March 14. League leader Indiana, who finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the country, is seemingly the odds-on tournament favorite. The Hoosiers are loaded, and Tom Crean has assembled a powerhouse in Bloomington.

But several formidable contenders are also in the hunt for the tourney title: an exciting Michigan squad, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans, Ohio State and Wisconsin, among others. There are plenty of storylines for this tournament, too. How will star players like Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, MSU’s Keith Appling, Michigan’s Trey Burke and OSU’s Deshaun Thomas fare? Will a team like Illinois, Minnesota or Iowa shock one of the favorites? Will an under-the-radar player, rather than a star, make a name for himself in Chicago? Who knows for sure, but we can’t wait to watch and find out.

Contenders

Indiana (25-5, 13-4) — The 25-5 Hoosiers are ranked N0. 2 in the country and have looked like a Final Four team all season. They’ll be one of the favorites when the Big Ten Tourney kicks off, and for good reason: IU averages 81.1 points per game (the third-highest average in all of Division I) and shoots nearly 50 percent from the field. With a final conference record of 14-4, the Hoosiers have staked out first place in the Big Ten standings. Forward Cody Zeller is a premier scorer and rebounder, while speedy guard Victor Oladipo plays the game with confidence and flair. Despite Michigan’s best efforts on Sunday, the Hoosiers held off the Wolverines in Ann Arbor to claim the regular season B1G title. IU isn’t invincible—the Hoosiers lost to Minnesota on February 26 and dropped a home game against Ohio State last Tuesday—but any team that hopes to knock off the Hoosiers on a neutral floor will have to play an almost perfect ballgame.

Michigan (25-5, 12-5) — Another squad that looks like a potential Final Four contestant, Michigan started the season with a 16-game winning streak. The primary strength of the No. 7 Wolverines is their talented backcourt that features guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., who are averaging 19.1 and 14.9 points per game, respectively. Shockingly, Michigan lost at Penn State on February 27, but since then the Wolverines are 2-1. When they’re hot, they can outshoot anyone in the country and on Sunday in Ann Arbor, they were one little bounce away from taking down Indiana. Singular talent on the perimeter, length, defense, competitive fire—the Wolverines have all the tools to be a legit contender.

Ohio State (22-7, 12-5) — This third contender slot could easily go to Michigan State or Wisconsin but I chose No. 14 Ohio State for two reasons: juniors Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft. Thomas, a smooth low-post operator with all the cagey moves of an experienced Big Ten forward,  is averaging 19.8 points and more than 6 rebounds per game. Craft is no slouch on offense, but his great value can be seen on the defensive side of the ball where he can lock down the other team’s best ball-handling guard. OSU just beat Indiana 67-58 last Tuesday and followed that win up with a victory over Illinois on Sunday to close out the regular season.

Sleepers

Wisconsin (20-10, 11-6) — Per usual, Wisconsin has quietly put together a strong Big Ten campaign. The No. 22 Badgers finished 12-6 in-conference, and broke a two-game losing streak with a win over Penn State on Sunday. Nobody on this team scores a ton of points, but Wisconsin natives Jared Berggren and Ben Brust both average about 11 points per. Bo Ryan always gets the most out of his teams, and while Wisconsin has struggled of late, the Badgers are a dangerous squad. You can count on deliberate offense, rugged frontcourt play and tenacious rebounding whenever Wisconsin plays ball.

Illinois (21-10, 8-9) — The Illini average more than 70 points per game, good enough for fourth in the Big Ten. They have talented guards but inconsistent defense, so you never know what you’re going to get with this team. Illinois started the season like a house on fire, and the three-point shot was its primary weapon. If the Illini warm up from three-point land, they can easily steal a game or two in this tournament.

Players to Watch

Cody Zeller, So. F, Indiana — He’s arguably the best forward in the country and a force on both ends of the floor. When Zeller is producing, Indiana plays like the top team in the Nation. He can score with a variety of pretty moves in the post.

Sam Thompson, So. F, Ohio State — The 6-7 sophomore doesn’t score a ton of points (about 7 per game), but when he does put the ball through the hoop, it’s usually spectacular. A high-flyer with great hands around the rim, Thompson is a natural showman and a sparkplug for his Buckeyes team.

Keith Appling, Jr. G, Michigan State — This super-quick junior runs the show for Tom Izzo’s Spartans. He didn’t play well in recent losses to Ohio State and Michigan, but last Thursday Appling scored 19 points and led his team to victory over Wisconsin. If he maintains a high level of play in the Big Ten tourney, Michigan State is a bona fide contender.

Mike Bruesewitz, Sr. F, Wisconsin — Energizer, agitator and rebounding specialist, the 6-6 Bruesewitz is fun to watch. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t score much but does all the little things to help his team win games.

Predicted Champion

Indiana — The Hoosiers are balanced, well-coached and defensively sound. They have star power and solid role players who can all put the ball in the basket. If Indiana plays to its potential, it should leave Chicago as the Big Ten Tournament champion. That said, this league is a real powerhouse and no team will roll over for IU just because of their No. 2 ranking. The top five teams in the conference are all ranked in the Top 25 nationally. After the last weekend of the regular season, Indiana won the conference with a record of 14-4, and Ohio State and Michigan State each finished at 13-5. Wisconsin and Michigan finished right behind at 12-6.  If that logjam atop the standings is any indication, this conference tourney will be all kinds of fun.