The Big Ten has been more top-heavy than usual this season. Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan all seem to be safely in the NCAA Tournament field, regardless of this week’s outcome at MSG. But preseason tournament picks Northwestern and Minnesota have struggled badly, while surprise bubble teams Nebraska and Penn State are close, though their potential bids are up in the air. To break down the action at the world’s most famous arena, we caught up with CBS Sports Network college basketball analyst Wally Szczerbiak.
CBS Local Sports: The Big Ten tournament is underway. The conference has been mostly top-heavy this year, is there a team outside of the top four that you think can make a run at the title?
Wally Szczerbiak: Well, anything can happen in college basketball this year, we’ve seen it. So if a team can get hot, knock off one of the big dogs… Nebraska and Penn State have a lot to play for. They should be very motivated to try to bolster their resume to get into the NCAA Tournament. Those would be the two teams that I would zero in on in terms of having something to prove.
Then, obviously, Northwestern and Minnesota have been big disappointments compared to their preseason expectations. So who knows, maybe they can save their season in the Big Ten tournament by going on a run. Those would be the teams that I think have a lot to play for.
CBS Local Sports: You mentioned Penn State and Nebraska as a pair of teams on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Which team do you think needs a big run in the Big Ten tournament more?
Wally Szczerbiak: I think Nebraska is one quality win away. If they can get one more quality win to go with the regular season that they had in conference, I think they would feel pretty safe. Penn State is a little further away probably. They might need a couple of good wins in the tournament. We’ll see what they can come up with. There’s big-time opportunity, and a lot of fun can happen at MSG.
CBS Local Sports: In the end, who do you think will be playing in the final on Sunday on CBS?
Wally Szczerbiak: I would have to say Purdue and Michigan State. They’ve been the best teams all year in the conference. Ohio State has had a tremendous year, thanks to the great job that Chris Holtmann has done. But when you have to go on a run and win multiple games, on a neutral court, day after day after day, I would think that those two teams (Purdue and MSU) would have the firepower to do it.
CBS Local Sports: We touched on it in the first question, but this has been an wild year in college basketball, with no real dominant team. Which of the current top teams do you think have the best chance of heading to San Antonio?
Wally Szczerbiak: That’s a really tough question. Anything can happen this year, we’ve seen it. You want to start to trust Duke, but then you see they can’t defend at all and they’re resorting to a gimmick defense in the 2-3 zone to try to stop teams. I’m hesitant to pick them, because in an NCAA Tournament, there are a lot of good players that can dissect a zone very easily. But they are the most talented team in the country by far, so I’d probably lean in that direction.
I really like Virginia this year, because not only are they a great defensive team, which is going to keep them in games, but they’re also a much better offensive team. They have a lot more skill, a lot more firepower and a lot more efficiency on the offensive end. They’re one of my favorites as well.
CBS Local Sports: What is it specifically about Virginia’s offense this year that makes you more confident they can make a Final Four run?
Wally Szczerbiak: Guys like (De’Andre) Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, they can make plays and go on a run offensively. They can find a mismatch that they have, and Tony Bennett can ride a guy for a little bit. They can get through some lulls, where they used to have struggles offensively. I’ve seen them get down in a few games this year and do a good job of coming back.
In the past, when they dug themselves a little bit of a hole, it was tough for them to get out of their system basketball and get back into the game. That’s what I like a little bit more about this team. They have shooters, they’re efficient on offense, and they’re one of the best teams in the nation, always, on defense.
CBS Local Sports: What team do you think isn’t getting enough talk nationally as we enter March and get ready for the tournament?
Wally Szczerbiak: Nevada out of the Mountain West. That’s a pretty good league. They didn’t fair well in the non-conference as a conference so their not going to get as much respect in terms of bids. It looks like it’s going to be a one-bid league if Nevada wins the conference tournament. Nobody else really has a good enough at-large resume. But Nevada’s got a ton of talent, they’ve got some transfers from some high-major schools. That’s a team that can compete with anyone, as they showed during the non-conference, and I would definitely keep an eye on them in the bracket.
CBS Local Sports: With conference championship week nearly upon us, which one are you most looking forward to?
Wally Szczerbiak: I always love the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. It’s close to home for me. I like conferences that aren’t watered down with too many teams, and I love the way the Big East and Big 12 play the double round-robin in their conference schedule. By the end of the year, you kind of have familiarity with match-ups and coaching match-ups, since teams play each other twice, so I’m really excited for the Big East at MSG.
CBS Local Sports: Xavier has struggled to beat Villanova, can they finally overcome that obstacle in the Big East tournament?
Wally Szczerbiak: Definitely. Xavier, they seem to have a mental block when it comes to Villanova. ‘Nova has their number as far as the match-ups and also mentally. Sometimes that gets in your head when you constantly aren’t able to beat a team. It’s going to be interesting to see if Xavier can figure that out, because they’ve been tremendous against everyone else in the country other than Villanova.
But the Big East is tough. You can’t take any teams lightly. Every game in that tournament is going to be competitive the same way that every game during the regular season has been competitive. I’m just excited to see those match-ups on a neutral floor at Madison Square Garden.