The Big 10 Tournament begins next week, and fans have an idea of which teams could make the most noise. However, some of the underdogs are not to be counted out.
The fact of the matter is that in the conference tournaments that precede the big dance, teams that nobody gave a second thought tend to make themselves noticed at this point.
Just look at last year's SEC Tournament. John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats seemed to be the odds-on favorite to run the table there, but they ended up being stunned by hot-shooting Vanderbilt in the championship game.
Similarly, in last year's Big East Tourney, Louisville and Cincinnati came out of nowhere to reach the championship game, taking out powerhouses in Syracuse and Georgetown in the process.
This year's Big 10 tourney is no exception and while some teams may seem like a lock to get to the championship game, the smaller squads are definitely not to be counted out.
Granted, Ohio State is not a surprise team in the most literal sense of the word, but the fact is that Thad Matta's team has performed far better than anyone could have anticipated this season. Despite losing star big man Jared Sullinger to the NBA, the Buckeyes have gone 22-7 overall and 12-5 in conference play, ranking fourth in the Big 10.
This is because junior guard Aaron Craft and forward Deshaun Thomas have proven to be quite the tandem. Craft is not a particularly strong scorer or passer, but his defense brings the word "pesky" to a whole new level and has helped the Buckeyes win five of their last six.
Thomas, meanwhile, leads the team in scoring and rebounding with 19.8 points and 6.2 boards per game.
More importantly, all solid players aside, let's not forget that Ohio State just handily defeated the formerly top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers on March 5. Even if it was just a case of Indiana having a bad game, that's nothing to sneeze at.
That win, coupled with one Illinois took this weekend, should provide plenty of momentum for the Buckeyes once the tournament begins, even if they do have a first-round bye. If they can continue their hot streak, they'll definitely be a squad capable of taking home the trophy.
Speaking of Illinois, the Fighting Illini have shown marked improvement in John Groce's first year as head coach. Despite a weak conference mark of 8-9, the team has gone 21-10 overall and has some solid signature wins under its belt.
Granted, the Fighting Illini are not a strong rebounding squad, with leading rebounder Nnanna Egwu posting just 4.6 boards per game. Against teams that like to play tough in the paint, this could pose a problem down the stretch.
But the fact of the matter is that Illinois has already proven that they can run with the big boys, even if they aren't among the most elite of teams this year. Groce has his men playing with passion and tenacity, and that could give them a unique edge once the Big 10 Tournament begins.
Like Illinois, Tubby Smith's Minnesota Golden Gophers are not the most glamorous of teams. Their conference record of 8-9 leaves something to be desired, and the overall mark of 20-10 seems just average.
However, do not count out the Golden Gophers. This team's signature wins are highly notable, and could provide them with a good deal of momentum at their backs in the Big 10 Tournament.
Not only did Minnesota defeat Memphis on Nov. 23 and Michigan State on Dec. 31, but they also defeated Indiana on Feb. 26. Needless to say, Smith's players have a lot of fire in their bellies and will stop at nothing to bring home the win.
This passion has Minnesota ranking 18th in the nation in rebounding, with senior Trevor Mbakwe leading the team with 8.7 per game. If the defense remains strong and the offense can get hot at the right time, don't be surprised if the Golden Gophers end up pulling off more upsets en route to a long tournament run.
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