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The Big Ten viewer’s guide to Men’s March Madness

Can the conference finally end its championship drought?

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s been a roller coaster of a year for the Big Ten — filled with breakout players, ups-and-downs and surprises that resulted in eight teams reaching the Big Dance (sorry Rutgers). Despite the Big Ten only having two teams above a No. 7-seed and the fact that the conference hasn’t had a national champion in over two decades, there are many teams among this group that could make a run this March. Here’s an outlook for all eight Big Ten teams that are dancing this season:

South Region

No. 8-seed Maryland Terrapins

Vs. No. 9-seed West Virginia, Thursday, Mar. 16: 11 a.m. CT on CBS

With Alabama and Arizona headlining the region, the Maryland Terrapins find themselves as the lone Big Ten team in the South Region as an 8-seed. Maryland has a first round matchup against the No. 9-seed West Virginia Mountaineers (the opening game of the Round of 64) and will be tested by a capable Big 12 team. Losing three of their last four, the Terps could easily be knocked out in their opening round if they come out similar to how they have thus far in March. That said, with wins against both Purdue and Indiana this season and a talented senior point guard, it’s difficult to pick against Jahmir Young and the Terrapins in the opening round. This win, however, should be the end of the line for Maryland, as a terrible road team all year will run into No. 1 Alabama in Birmingham.

East Region

No. 1-seed Purdue Boilermakers

Vs. No. 16-seed Texas Southern/Fairleigh Dickinson, Friday, Mar. 17: 5:45 p.m. CT on TNT

The only Big Ten team to finish in the AP Top 10 and the home of the best player in college basketball in 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, the Boilermakers find themselves in prime positions (once again) to make a run in March. Yet, after looking a bit further, it isn’t clear they’ll reach the second weekend. Although there are no easy paths in the Big Dance, Purdue’s draw does not cater to its strengths — having to face either the No. 26 overall team on KenPom in No. 9-seed FAU or a veteran Memphis team that just beat Houston to win the AAC title. If they are able to survive against either of those opponents, the Boilermakers will likely face a Duke team that is peaking at the right time or a Tennessee team that ranks above Purdue on KenPom. Prior to and even during its Big Ten Tournament Championship run, Purdue’s young guards struggled in their press breaks, a weakness that could send the Boilermakers home earlier than their seeding would suggest. Regardless of Purdue’s difficult path, their recent tournament woes or their freshman backcourt, the Boilermakers’ resume is unmatched by anyone in their conference for a reason and they still have a real shot at reaching the Final Four.

No. 7-seed Michigan State Spartans

Vs. No. 10-seed USC, Friday, Mar. 17: 11 a.m. CT on CBS

Just as everything was coming together for the Spartans, it seemed to fall apart in an instant. Michigan State came into the Big Ten Tournament having won three-of-four and looked like a team that could cut down the nets in Chicago. However, they were defeated by a subpar Ohio State team without arguably its best player, Brice Sensabaugh, in the Spartans’ opening game. Coming off this loss, the experienced team with a backcourt duo of upperclassmen in A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker will face No. 10-seed USC in the first round before a matchup against likely No. 2-seed Marquette, if they can beat the Trojans. Led by seniors Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson, the Trojans have flown relatively under the radar this year in the Pac-12, largely due to the success of UCLA and Arizona. Although their depth has been a question, USC’s Pac-12 first team duo can score in bunches and should make the first-round game a high scoring affair given Michigan State’s ability from behind the arc. The Spartans’ reliance on three-pointers makes them a difficult team to pick or count out, but it seems unlikely that they could make it to the second weekend with how inconsistent their outside shooting has proven to be this season.

Midwest Region

No. 4-seed Indiana Hoosiers

Vs. No. 13-seed Kent State, Friday, Mar. 17: 8:45 p.m. CT on TBS

Being the highest of three Big Ten teams in the Midwest region, the Indiana Hoosiers are perhaps the Big Ten’s best shot at reaching the Final Four. The Hoosiers are a No. 4-seed, and thus will face No. 13-seed Kent State in their opening round. Outside of the Golden Flashes keeping it close against Houston and Gonzaga this season, Kent State’s offensive limitations heavily hinder their chances to upset the Hoosiers. If Indiana is able to win this opening round matchup, they could face a No. 5-seed Miami team before a potential matchup against No. 1-seed Houston — two teams the Hoosiers match up well against. The Hurricanes are outside of the top 100 defensively on KenPom, primarily due to difficulties down low, which Trayce Jackson-Davis should take full advantage of. The Cougars could be without star Marcus Sasser and it is still a fair question how good they are, considering their weak strength of schedule. It’s never an easy task to reach the Final Four (even without mentioning potential Elite Eight matchups), but when combining Indiana’s path with their talent, there isn’t a team in the conference that has a better chance to cut down the nets.

No. 8-seed Iowa Hawkeyes

Vs. No. 9-seed Auburn, Thursday, Mar. 16: 5:45 p.m. CT on TNT

As you might expect for a team that is so one-dimensional, Iowa has a plethora of great wins along with multiple bad losses on its resume. According to KenPom, the Hawkeyes have a top-five offense in the country, but sit at No. 167 in defensive rating. Their opening round matchup is against the No. 9-seed Auburn Tigers, who have a much smaller discrepancy, with offensive and defensive ratings sitting in the top 50. The Tigers will have advantages in athleticism, but Kris Murray, along with the recent emergence of Tony Perkins, should give the Hawkeyes a slight edge. Iowa may have the most explosive offense in the nation, and as a result, may even have a chance against No. 1-seed Houston, if they can get hot at the right time.

No. 10-seed Penn State Nittany Lions

Vs. No. 7-seed Texas A&M, Thursday, Mar. 16: 8:45 p.m. CT on TBS

Despite the loss in the Big Ten Tournament Championship, it’s hard to argue that there’s a team hotter than the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten (winning eight of their last 10). The three-point-reliant team led by Jalen Pickett hasn’t lost by more than one possession since Feb. 11 and played their way into the tournament down the stretch. They will face No. 7-seed Texas A&M before a potential matchup against the No. 2-seed Texas Longhorns. The Aggies are a much better defensive team than the Nittany Lions, but are a significantly worse shooting team, making this an interesting contrast in styles. The Nittany Lions have been tremendous in close games as of late, so if Penn State can hit some shots early, don’t be surprised if they take down the Aggies. However, considering the defensive prowess of the Longhorns and overall talent discrepancy between the two teams, the Nittany Lions’ second-round matchup would be much less of a coin flip.

West Region

No. 7-seed Northwestern Wildcats

Vs. No. 10-seed Boise State, Thursday, Mar. 16: 6:25 p.m. CT on truTV

Given the nature of this site, there will undoubtedly be more extensive coverage of the ‘Cats’ matchup against Boise State, so I’ll keep this short. Looking solely at the first round matchup, Northwestern’s draw seems relatively favorable, avoiding the other Mountain West No. 10-seed: Utah State (No. 18 on KenPom and coming off a double-digit win against Boise State). However, the ‘Cats will still likely find themselves in a slugfest against another defensive minded team, in a game that could easily go either way. Even if they are able to win, the road will likely end for the ‘Cats at the hands of the No. 2-seed UCLA Bruins.

No. 9-seed Illinois Fighting Illini

Vs. No. 8-seed Arkansas, Thursday, Mar. 16: 3:20 p.m. CT on TBS

In what will be a battle between two preseason AP Top 25 teams, No. 9-seed Illinois will face No. 8-seed Arkansas. This could very well be a spectacle in Des Moines, Iowa (of all places), where two supremely talented teams that have been less than the sum of their parts have a chance to live up to expectations; Or, the more likely scenario based on their resumes, will be a sloppy iso-centric game with turnovers aplenty. Projected NBA lottery pick Nick Smith Jr. will duel with Terrance Shannon Jr. and the winner will be decided by whoever can get the most help outside of their stars. It’s not difficult to imagine the Illini beating the Razorbacks, but it is just as easy to imagine Illinois losing by 15. Either way, Illinois hasn’t been able to put it together all season and there’s no reason to expect they will, making the Illini’s potential chances against No. 1-seed Kansas next to none.