The Big Eleven (Men’s Basketball)

Jim Martinho

It’s tournament time.

After a month of nonconference play and two grueling months of regular season conference games, the 11 Big Ten squads will convene on the United Center this weekend to see who’s the baddest of them all.

No. 1 Wisconsin: No one was surprised by the Badgers’ run to the regular season title this season. The Badgers (22-6, 12-4 Big Ten) won seven of their last eight Big Ten games and pulled out a de facto conference championship game against Illinois on Wednesday. Guards Devin Harris and Alando Tucker will need to carry the load if leading scorer Kirk Penney hits a slump.

No. 2 Illinois: After narrowly missing their third-straight conference championship, the Fighting Illini (20-6, 10-5) will have to prove their inexperience isn’t a factor in front of what should be a partisan United Center crowd. Big Ten leading scorer Brian Cook will come to play, but freshmen Dee Brown, Deron Williams and James Augustine will have to match his effort.

No. 3 Michigan: The Wolverines (17-11, 10-5) faded at the end of the season after taking the conference by storm. Senior LaVell Blanchard and freshman phenom Daniel Horton will try to end the season on a high note — Michigan cannot advance to the NCAA tournament due to sanctions imposed before the season. If they win, the automatic bid goes to Wisconsin.

No. 4 Purdue: Another squad that couldn’t hold up to a tough second-half road schedule, Gene Keady’s Boilermakers (17-9, 9-6) have a scorer in senior guard Willie Deane (17.6 ppg) and a shut-down defender in junior guard Kenneth Lowe.

No. 5 Michigan State: The Spartans (17-11, 9-6) rebounded from a terrible first half of the conference season to get right back in contention for a tournament berth. Coach Tom Izzo will have his team ready to play: He’s 6-3 in the Big Ten Tournament, including titles in 1999 and 2000.

No. 6 Indiana: Speculations that the Hoosiers (18-10, 8-7) were better than last year’s team were squashed after five consecutive losses in the middle of the Big Ten season. But watch out if guards Tom Coverdale, Bracey Wright and Kyle Hornsby get hot from behind the arc.

No. 7 Minnesota: Still on the bubble for an NCAA bid, the Golden Gophers (16-10, 8-7) would benefit more than anybody from a strong showing. Sophomore forward Rick Rickert will have to show he can step up under the pressure of a must-win game.

No. 8 Ohio State: The Buckeyes (14-12, 7-8) will go as far as senior guard Brent Darby takes them. Darby, who averages 18.1 points per game, is a competitor who can put up as many points as anyone in the conference when his jump shot is falling.

No. 9 Iowa: Steve Alford has the best tournament mark of any coach (8-2) and has twice led the Hawkeyes (14-12, 6-9) from the lower half of the bracket to the title game. Without Luke Recker to take the team on his shoulders, backcourt mates Jeff Horner and Chauncey Leslie will have to be near-flawless.

No. 10 NU: The Cats (11-15, 3-12) will hope to avenge last season’s 72-51 debacle against Michigan in the first round. Look for junior guard Jitim Young to take charge as seniors Winston Blake, Aaron Jennings and Jason Burke fight to prolong their NU careers.

No. 11 Penn State: The Nittany Lions showed in their win over Wisconsin that they’re not a guaranteed win. The small but quick backcourt of Sharif Chambliss and Brandon Watkins can give defenders fits.

The Daily’s pick to win it all: Illinois.