By CLIFF BRUNT, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has never seen anything like this.
He says he can't remember a Big Ten season where the top of the league was so balanced and the bottom-tier teams were so competitive. Not since he became a head coach, not since he joined the Michigan State staff in 1986. He believes the Big Ten is the nation's best conference.
"I don't think there's any question, and you'll get arguments until the cows come home about what conference is the best, this and that, I still say, you look top to bottom, and if it isn't the best, this year is the best of the 27 years I've been here," Izzo said.
It also means that the Big Ten tournament, which begins Thursday at Banker's Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, is one of the most unpredictable ever.
"In years past, you would say, these two teams and maybe a surprise here and there," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "This year, I really wouldn't know what to say. Anybody could beat anybody. I think all the way down, there could be some upsets. It's going to be a fun tournament."
Izzo hopes the balance doesn't work against the conference.
"We've all beaten up each other," he said. "Usually, there's a couple teams at the bottom that might not have a win in a year like this. I hope it doesn't hurt us."
Michigan State has earned the top seed as part of a three-way split for the regular-season conference crown. Michigan is the No. 2 seed and Ohio State is No. 3. Those teams earned byes and will play their first games on Friday.
Play begins Thursday when No. 8 seed Iowa faces No. 9 Illinois, followed by No. 5 Indiana against No. 12 Penn State. The evening matchups are No. 7 Northwestern against No. 10 Minnesota and No. 6 Purdue vs. No. 11 Nebraska. The semifinals are Saturday and the championship is Sunday.
Michigan State's road this week and beyond will be tougher because forward Branden Dawson has torn the ACL in his left knee. The freshman averages 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Of course, Izzo's teams have been tournament tough for years, and perhaps his list of accomplishments — he's been to six Final Fours and won a national championship — perhaps pushes the Spartans into a favored role.
While Izzo is proven, Michigan is going through a resurgence. Michigan's John Beilein said the effort that went into fighting for the regular-season title should help the Wolverines prepare for the tournament.
"We're going to have to have a mentality of sticking to things, and having a right mental approach because of everything that was at stake during that time that you're trying to be a champion."
Ohio State's Thad Matta has chosen not to look ahead.
"The one thing we've always done in going into these tournaments is take it one game at a time, because you won't know who you're playing until we get there," he said. "We never go in talking about trying to win a conference championship. We always go in with the same approach."
While Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State are nearly certain to make the NCAA tournament field, Northwestern (18-12) likely needs at least two wins to qualify for the first time ever.
"I think these guys know the history better than I do, almost," Carmody said. "I just look at it game by game. They probably talk about that amongst themselves."
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