Paul Sullivan: The only sure thing in this week’s Big Ten tournament at the United Center is unpredictability

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CHICAGO — It was only a year ago that Boo Buie and Northwestern watched Iowa set a slew of Big Ten tournament scoring records in a 112-76 second-round rout in Indianapolis.

The Hawkeyes established marks for points, field goals (43) and 3-pointers (17) while running the Wildcats out of the building to end their season on an embarrassing note.

“That game in Indy was one of the few games I’ve ever been a part of that I saw something happen like that,” Buie recalled. “Iowa made every shot. It was a crazy game. They literally could not miss. Even one of their managers at halftime made a half-court shot.”

It’s a much different vibe for Northwestern heading into this year’s Big Ten tournament, which begins Wednesday at the United Center.

The Wildcats earned the No. 2 seed and a double bye into Friday’s quarterfinals after finishing the conference schedule 12-8 with Sunday night’s win at Rutgers. Had they lost, they would’ve dropped to the ninth seed.

The Big Ten never has had a season quite like this one, with no clear standouts aside from regular-season champion Purdue, which went 11-0 against nonconference foes and got off to a 22-1 start behind Player of the Year favorite Zach Edey. But even the Boilermakers look vulnerable now, having lost four of their final eight conference games and blowing a 24-point lead against Illinois on Sunday before surviving 76-71.

That’s why handicapping the field at the UC is next to impossible.

Even No. 14 seed Minnesota, which finished last in conference play at 2-17, ended a 12-game losing streak last week against Rutgers on a dramatic, buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Jamison Battle. If the Gophers can get past 11th-seeded Nebraska on Wednesday, they would have a shot in the second round against No. 6 seed Maryland, which finished a perfect 10-0 at home in conference play but went 1-9 on the road.

How crazy has this Big Ten season been?

The conference could get as many as 10 teams into the NCAA Tournament field despite having only two teams ranked in the final regular-season poll: No. 5 Purdue and No. 19 Indiana. That’s as many as the West Coast Conference.

Purdue and Indiana are the Big Ten tournament favorites and Michigan State and Iowa the dark horses, but only because Northwestern never has won a Big Ten tournament and has only one NCAA Tournament appearance to its credit, in 2017.

But three NU guards — seniors Buie and Chase Audige and sophomore Brooks Barnhizer — have helped turn the Wildcats from Big Ten wannabes to conference tournament contenders and a realistic threat to become March Madness media darlings. (It only seemed like every sports writer in the country graduated from the Medill School of Journalism when the Wildcats appeared in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.)

The nationally televised takedown of then-No. 1 Purdue on Feb. 12 at Welsh-Ryan Arena was an epic win for the program and proved the Boilermakers are beatable when a gritty defense puts a chokehold on the 7-foot-4 Edey in the post.

“Coming back from eight down with four minutes left, and they were No. 1 in the country and it was Super Bowl Sunday afternoon,” NU coach Chris Collins said. “It was the magnitude of everything, that signature win to initially stamp what these guys were doing.

“And then to come back that week and beat Indiana and Iowa — those three games against that level of competition really showed me a lot about who this group is, their resiliency and toughness and ability to compete against the best in our league.”

Perhaps the most head-scratching team is seventh-seeded Illinois, which takes on No. 10 seed Penn State on Thursday after losing twice to the Nittany Lions in conference play by 15 and 12 points. The Illini have quality wins over then-No. 2 Texas and then-No. 8 UCLA but also lost recently to Ohio State, the 13th seed in the Big Ten tournament.

Coach Brad Underwood, who watched his top-seeded team fall to No. 9 seed Indiana in last year’s Big Ten quarterfinals, has learned the hard way that this year’s edition can overcome adversity or blow a lead on any given day.

But as they showed in coming back from an 18-point halftime deficit to beat Northwestern, and in a 91-87 double-overtime comeback win against Michigan, and even in Sunday’s loss to Purdue, the Illini cannot be put to sleep easily.

“This team believes, and for whatever the reason, we’ve been able to do that all year,” Underwood said after the stirring win over Michigan. “Ten, 12, 14 down, whatever. Eighteen down at half? We’ve had a unique niche. This team doesn’t rattle, and we’ve got guys that can make a few plays.”

The two straws that stir the energy drink for the Illini are Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer, both transfer portal imports who have lifted the program after back-to-back NCAA Tournament flops by much-hyped teams featuring star center Kofi Cockburn. Mayer is one of the conference’s most entertaining characters and recently claimed he suffered from “caffeine poisoning” after drinking five Monster Energy drinks while playing video games.

After the wild win over Michigan in Illinois’ second-to-last regular-season game, Mayer was asked how many Monsters he drank beforehand.

“Zero Monsters,” he deadpanned while holding up a can of the energy drink. “I’m still in recovery. But it’s a great product. You just have to drink responsibly. You know what I’m saying?”

Mayer said the company “DM’d me” after his social media post on the “poisoning.” Is an NIL deal likely?

“I think we’ve got something in the works,” he said.

It’s a good time to be a college athlete with some talent and a sense of humor. And if the third time is the charm for the Illini against Penn State, it would set up a must-see Illinois-Northwestern quarterfinal Friday night at the UC.

The Wildcats seemed on the verge of sweeping the regular-season series before their second-half collapse last month in Champaign, and of course Northwestern bills itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten team.” Meanwhile, Illinois’ Chicago-area alumni always have turned out whenever the Illini play on the West Side, and the Orange Krush assuredly won’t get turned away like the student group did last month at Iowa.

So expect the unexpected this week at the United Center.

After a season like this in the Big Ten, you wouldn’t want to settle for anything less.