NEW YORK — The Big Ten Conference men’s basketball tournament is in uncharted waters this season, both for the University of Wisconsin and the Big Ten Conference.
Not since the inaugural Big Ten tournament in 1998 has UW found itself in a situation where it must win the conference tournament title to reach the NCAA tournament, but that’s the case this week.
And never before has the conference tournament been played in New York City, a typical Big Ten money grab that backfired so badly commissioner Jim Delany even admitted moving the tournament up one week and compressing the regular-season schedule just so the Big Ten could fit its tournament into Madison Square Garden’s schedule was a major mistake that won’t be repeated.
But the Big Ten’s problems run far deeper than Delany taking the tournament to a city that doesn’t care on a weekend when the rest of college basketball won’t either. When the conference tournament begins in earnest with ninth-seeded UW playing eighth-seeded Maryland today, the Big Ten will have only four sure-fire NCAA tournament teams — Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan — and just one bubble team — Nebraska. The other nine teams, including UW, entered the conference tournament having to win it all or go home and hope for a call from the NIT.
Indeed, UW’s current plight is symptomatic of the Big Ten’s sudden fall from grace.
“It’s been an odd year,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “We typically have six, seven, eight teams in the discussion. Now it’s four and others are trying to play their way in.”
Count UW among the teams in the latter group. An NCAA tournament participant for the past 19 years, UW’s streak is in serious jeopardy after it battled inexperience and injuries throughout the season and finished ninth in the regular-season standings. The Badgers closed out fairly strong, though, winning four of their last six games, playing No. 1 seed Michigan State down to the wire Sunday and giving themselves and their fans a slim ray of hope that they could win four in a row and earn the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA bid.
It’s been done before, including last year when eighth-seeded Michigan won four in a row to claim the title, beating No. 1 seed Purdue in the quarterfinals and No. 2 seed UW in the final.
“I think we’re playing our best basketball right now and it’s the right time to be playing it,” Gard said.
But will that be enough? The fact that so many teams are desperate should make for a competitive setting this weekend. However, the deep performance divide between the top four teams and the rest of the conference suggests that it will be hard for the second-division teams to make a long run.
If the Badgers’ late-season recovery, which included a victory over No. 3 seed Purdue, did anything, it put the rest of the league on notice. People are now calling UW the team in the field that no one wants to play.
UW is normally worried about only two things entering the Big Ten tournament: winning the title and enhancing its NCAA seed. The mindset has changed for a program that was seeded 10th in the Big Ten tournament in 1998 and hasn’t been seeded worse than sixth since.
“I think you’re always playing for the Big Ten tournament championship,” forward Aaron Moesch said. “But I’d say there’s a little bit extra knowing that if you want to keep playing into March you’re going to have to win four games. It’s a good motivator to say, ‘Hey, if we don’t win four games in a row, we’re going home. We’re probably not going to make the NIT if we don’t.’ So it’s basically all or nothing right now. I think that motivates a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds because they want to make the big dance.”
Like UW, Maryland has been a disappointment. An NCAA tournament regular, it had its own injury issues to deal with this season and dropped to the second division. The teams met once, a UW loss at Maryland that went down to the wire.
But it’s what lies beyond Maryland that lessens any optimism for UW.
Fatigue could be one potential problem in a four-day run. UW has been playing short-handed for three months and Gard is already monitoring rest spells for hard-working scoring leaders Ethan Happ and Brad Davison. Meawhile, Nate Reuvers and Aleem Ford have run into the freshman wall physically.
UW’s other problem, should it get past Maryland, is it would play Michigan State next. The supremely talented Spartans have won 12 in a row and could earn a No. 1 NCAA seed if they add the tournament title to the regular-season crown they won in Madison on Sunday.
“I think it’s obviously good that we won three of four going in and we’re playing our best ball now,” Moesch said. “I think it would be more daunting if we weren’t playing our best ball. You saw practice (Tuesday). It was energetic. It’s the best practice all year, hands down. ... I think that mood springboards you into a tournament where you know you’ve got to win four games.”
The Big Ten has placed six or seven teams in the NCAA tournament every year since 2011. That won’t happen this year, but anything can happen in the conference tournament. In an odd season like this for both UW and the Big Ten, that at least gives the Badgers some hope.