Big Ten Primer: Conference Gets Nine Bids in 2021 NCAA Tournament

By David Wertheim on March 16, 2021 at 11:05 am
Luke Garza and Kofi Cockburn
Aaron Doster – USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten was clearly the best conference in college basketball this year.

And as a result, the conference received nine bids to the NCAA Tournament, which for the first time in history, will take place entirely in the state of Indiana. 

Here is a look at the nine bids and their first round matchups:

Michigan State: 11 seed, vs. UCLA

Tom Izzo and Mick Cronin will match up in a rare First Four game for both of these programs.

Izzo's Spartans started off the season just 10-9 but rallied down the stretch for three top-five wins against No. 5 Illinois, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan, all at home. While Michigan State did lose to Maryland in their first game of the Big Ten Tournament, the committee decided the Spartans’ strong wins to finish off the regular season was enough.

Aaron Henry is Michigan State's leading scorer with 15.3 points per game. He is the only Spartan currently averaging double-digit points per game. 

The Spartans will take on a UCLA team that finished 17-9, but lost their last four games to end the season, including a first-round Pac 12 Tournament loss to Oregon State. The Bruins are led by Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, averaging 14 points a game alongside some nice complementary pieces such as Tyger Campbell, Jules Bernard, and Chris Smith. 

Tipoff: Thursday, 9:57 p.m., TBS

Rutgers: 10 seed, vs. Clemson

Steve Pikiell takes Rutgers back to the Big Dance for the first time since 1991 as the Scarlet Knights earn a 10 seed and will take on Clemson.

Rutgers had an interesting season. The Scarlet Knights started 6-0 and were ranked as high as 11th before dropping six of their last seven to fall out of the rankings entirely. Ultimately, they strung enough together down the stretch and beat Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, earning an at-large bid.

The Scarlet Knights are a group that features scrappy athletic guards Jacob Young, Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy alongside scoring forward Ron Harper. 

Clemson, before a first-round loss in the ACC Tournament, had won seven of their last eight to close their regular season. Brad Brownell's group is led by foward Aamir Simms, who averages 13.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Their best win is an early-season victory over No. 2 seeded Alabama, and also featured victories over Florida State and North Carolina.

Tipoff: Friday, 9:20 p.m., TBS

Maryland: 10 Seed, vs. UConn

Mark Turgeon and Dan Hurley square off as UConn earns its first tournament berth as a member of the Big East.

Maryland started its season with a 10-10 record, but rallied down the stretch to finish 16-13, including a win in the Big Ten Tournament over Michigan State. The Terps also had some strong wins, including victories over Illinois, Wisconsin, and Purdue. 

The Terps are led by guards Eric Ayala, Daryl Morsell and leading scorer Aaron Wiggins. Hakim Hart and Donta Scott are a few complementary pieces, although Scott is a good long range shooter for his size. 

UConn brings in a group led by sophomore guard James Bouknight, averaging 19.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Fellow guard R.J. Cole also is in double figures, averaging 12.3 points per game.

Tipoff: Saturday, 7:15 p.m., CBS

Wisconsin: 9 Seed, vs. North Carolina

Normally, if you hear about Wisconsin and North Carolina facing off in the NCAA Tournament, you'd think it would happen somewhere around the Sweet 16. Not this time, though, as both schools weathered “down” years to face off in a classic 8 vs. 9 matchup.

Greg Gard's group started off 9-2 and was ranked as high as No. 6, but the Badgers lost six of their last eight before a one-point victory over Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament followed by a subsequent loss to Iowa.

The Badgers are led by a pair of redshirt seniors: guard D'Mitrik Trice, who is averaging 13.7 points per game, and Ohio State transfer Micah Potter, averaging 12.8 points per game. Fellow non-redshirt-senior Brad Davison, perhaps the Big Ten's biggest current villain, averages 9.4 points per game.

The Tar Heels on the other hand weathered a 5-4 start to finish 18-10, which includes two wins in the ACC Tournament. The group has a mixed bag of youngsters like Caleb Love and Armando Bacot alongside veterans Leaky Black, Andrew Platek and Garrison Brooks. 

Tipoff: Friday, 7:10p.m., CBS

Purdue: 4 Seed, vs. North Texas

Matt Painter does it again. The man has won with almost every style of team and this one was no different. 

Freshmen guards Mason Gillis and Jaden Ivey are a terror up top with Sasha Stefanovic, who looks like he should play in the Sunday afternoon men's rec league, splashing threes from the perimeter.

Bruiser Trevion Williams mashes inside along with 7-foot-4 behemoth Zach Edey. This is such a fun team. Although it probably isn't going to be much fun for North Texas. 

The Mean Green are already a Cinderella story, winning their conference tournament as the No. 3 seed to finish 17-9 on the year. 

Tipoff:  Friday, 7:25p.m., TNT

Iowa: 2 Seed, vs. Grand Canyon

Luka Garza, despite still being an active player, will have his number retired and for good reason: he's averaging 23.7 points (third in the country) and 8.8 rebounds and has become a bonafide star in Iowa City.

The Hawkeyes are blessed to have Garza and Iowa native Joe Wieskamp (14.7 points per game) on the roster alongside redshirt senior Jordan Bohannon and head coach Fran McCaffrey's sons, Pat and Connor. 

Iowa has some impressive wins this season including a victory over Ohio State, three wins against Wisconsin and a victory over North Carolina.

Grand Canyon, under first-year head coach Bryce Drew, won the WAC Tournament as the No. 1 seed to finish 17-6 and earn the automatic bid. 

Tipoff: Saturday, 6:25p.m., CBS

Ohio State: 2 seed, vs. Oral Roberts

Chris Holtmann's team has also had quite an interesting season. The Buckeyes fell out of the rankings in early January after an 8-3 start but rallied off 10 wins in 11 games to reach as high as No. 4 before four straight losses to end the regular season.

Ultimately, the Buckeyes turned it around and won three games in three days to reach the finals of the Big Ten Tournament, where they were bested in heartbreaking fashion by Illinois. 

The Buckeyes are led by E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington, alongside Cal transfer Justice Sueing and big man Kyle Young (whose status for the tournament remains uncertain due to a concussion). 

Ohio State has quite an impressive list of wins this season: UCLA, Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Iowa. The Buckeyes’ experience beating these tough teams will in theory be a good confidence boost heading into the tournament.

Oral Roberts, who won the Summit League tournament as the No. 4 seed, features the country's leading scorer in Max Abmas, who is averaging 24.2 points per game. While they can score, they're bad at rebounding. This will help an Ohio State team that is undersized. 

Tipoff: Friday, 3 p.m., CBS

Michigan: 1 Seed, vs. Mount St. Mary’s/Texas Southern

The Wolverines were quite the story around college basketball this season. Juwan Howard's team, in just his second campaign at the helm, finished 20-4 and won the Big Ten regular season title before falling to Ohio State in the semifinals of the tournament. 

Freshman big man Hunter Dickinson and Columbia transfer point guard Mike Smith lead the way as fresh faces joining Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner, though Livers is out indefinitely with a foot injury.

The Wolverines have wins over Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin so far this year and after starting 18-1, went 2-3 in their last five to ultimately finish with that 20-4 mark. 

Tipoff: Saturday, 3 p.m., CBS

Illinois: 1 Seed, vs. Drexel

The Illini are perhaps the hottest team among anyone heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are the biggest stars, posting almost video game numbers night after night. And there's plenty of other talent around them, including veterans Jacob Grandison and Giorgi Bezhanishvili and freshman guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo.

Easily Brad Underwood's most talented team to date at Illinois, the Illini strolled through the second half of the season, losing just one game after Jan. 16 to finish 23-6 and win the Big Ten Tournament. 

I feel bad for Drexel.

Tipoff: Friday, 1:15p.m., TBS

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