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Spoilers to Boilers could emerge in Big Ten tournament

Associated Press • Mar 6, 2017 at 12:44 AM

The Big Ten isn't the best conference in college basketball this season, but that hardly means it hasn't been a compelling season.

For the last three months, there have been plenty of ups and downs, a few breakout performances and plenty of unpredictable outcomes. It might not have produced a large group of national title contenders, but there's a handful with a shot and an even bigger group that is convinced it can make some noise.

It begins Wednesday as the Big Ten tournament tips off at the Verizon Center in Washington with a pair of games, and really gets rolling on Thursday with four more.

If the regular season is any indication, predicting what might happen over four days in the nation's capital will be difficult, but one thing seems certain — nothing is guaranteed.

The favorite

Purdue was the regular-season champion and there's little doubt the Boilermakers will be the favorites once they finally tip off at noon Friday, having lost just once in the final nine games of the regular season.

There were some hiccups along the way early in the regular season, but the Boilermakers are hitting their stride late and with the top player in the conference — forward Caleb Swanigan — pushing to be national player of the year, it seems a conference tournament title will be next.

Combined with 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas and one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the Big Ten, Purdue presents a matchup nightmare for nearly every team in the Big Ten. It hardly guarantees a title for the Boilermakers, but it's hard to believe any team is in better position, as it will take three more wins to win another championship and enter the NCAA Tournament with plenty of momentum.

The contenders

While Purdue is playing well, it's not the only team that enters the conference tournament on a roll. Minnesota won eight straight before losing the finale at Wisconsin, and might be playing as well as any team in the Big Ten, while Maryland shook off a late three-game skid to win its final two regular-season games with three freshmen led by junior Melo Trimble.

Both have a legitimate shot at bringing home the championship, while Wisconsin has faltered down the stretch but closed with a win and has the benefit of two seniors — Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes — who know all about winning in March. That means there's plenty of teams near the top of the standings that could be cutting the nets Sunday.

Who's next

In any tournament, there's always a chance a team comes deeper in the pack to make a run. The Big Ten tournament likely will be no different as several teams have put together strings of solid play this season that could result in a run in Washington. Northwestern was on fire early in conference play, but has faltered late. However, with Scottie Lindsey back to 100 percent, he and Vic Law could get rolling with guard Bryant McIntosh in time to create some problems for teams near the top of the bracket,

Iowa also has been rolling late behind Peter Jok, the conference's leading scorer, while Illinois won four of its last five behind senior Malcolm Hill, who has been at his best down the stretch. Other teams could win a game or two, but Northwestern and Iowa have the best shot at getting to Sunday.

Hometown hopes

Michigan and Michigan State fall firmly into the same category as Northwestern and Iowa as a pair of teams that have what it takes to make things happen this week if it all comes together. Michigan has been especially solid down the stretch behind senior guard Derrick Walton Jr., as well as the emergence of sophomore big man Moritz Wagner. The wild card for the Wolverines could be senior guard Zak Irvin. If he gets rolling, the Wolverines could as well, not only this week but beyond.

Michigan State has been up and down all season, but has the young talent that keeps the Spartans in nearly every game they play. If they win their opener they could play a Minnesota team they've beaten twice. Getting three wins against one team in a year is tough, but things would get even tougher in the semifinals if Purdue gets through. However, the Spartans are playing with confidence, the only question is whether that will make a difference this week.

Stars could shine

Swanigan should run away with Big Ten Player of the Year honors after recording 25 double-doubles during the regular season. He was second in the conference in scoring at 18.7 a game and led the league in rebounding by grabbing 12.6 a game. He'll have the chance to stand out again this week in Washington, but will have plenty of company.

Hayes and Koenig got Wisconsin a late win and have shown they have the ability to win games on their own late in games while Trimble has been as clutch as any player in the conference. Look for some other names with a chance to stand out this week too, including Wagner and Walton at Michigan, freshman Miles Bridges for Michigan State, Jok at Iowa and Hill for Illinois.

And from deep in the bracket, keep an eye on Indiana's James Blackmon Jr. and Nebraska's Tai Webster, two players who could spark an unexpected run for their teams.

Big Ten tournament

At Verizon Center, Washington

Wednesday

No. 12 Nebraska vs. No. 13 Penn State, 4:30 p.m., ESPN2

No. 11 Ohio State vs. No. 14 Rutgers, 7 p.m., BTN

Thursday

No. 8 Michigan vs. No. 9 Illinois, noon, BTN

No. 5 Michigan State vs. 12-13 winner, 2:30 p.m., BTN

No. 7 Iowa vs. No. 10 Indiana, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2

No. 6 Northwestern vs. 11-14 winner, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Friday

No. 1 Purdue vs. Michigan-Illinois winner, noon, ESPN

No. 4 Minnesota vs. 5-11/12 winner, 2:30 p.m., ESPN

No. 2 Wisconsin vs. 7-10 winner, 6:30 p.m., BTN

No. 3 Maryland vs. 6-11/14 winner, BTN

Saturday

Semifinals, 1 and 3:30 p.m., CBS

Sunday

Championship, 3 p.m., CBS

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