CHICAGO — Nice little tournament they’re having in the Big Ten so far. But what in the name of Ethan Happ has happened to so many of the league’s biggest stars in the early rounds? Bad games, bad numbers, even bad backs.
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Wisconsin All-American and first-team All-Big Ten stalwart Happ, for instance.
His game against Nebraska Friday was a train wreck. Wisconsin committed 17 turnovers. Happ had seven of them, or just 2.5 fewer than the Badgers had been averaging as a team.Coach Greg Gard kept putting him back in, hoping for a resumption of normal Happ operations, but it got so ugly, he had to sit his star for most of crunch time, as the Badgers held off the Cornhuskers. Happ played but 20 minutes and scored only four points. Four teammates in double figures saved the game.
Or take Purdue All-American and first-teamer Carsen Edwards.
The trouble started around Groundhog Day. He's shooting under 33 percent since Feb.1, and things go especially wrong at the mere sight of a Minnesota Gopher uniform. On Feb. 3, he was 6-for-20 in a home win over Minnesota. Ten days ago, he was 7-for-31 in a loss in Minneapolis. Friday, he took 17 shots against the Gophers and missed 13 of them, the last from the corner at the buzzer that would have turned a 75-73 Minnesota lead into a Purdue victory. The league’s leading scorer was held to 11 points – 12 under his average -- with six turnovers, or two more than he had field goals. And, if you’re keeping count at home, that makes him 17-for-68 against the Gophers, or 25 percent. Egads.
“When you’ve played a lot of games like he has and you’ve seen a lot of different defenses and different people guarding you, for him it’s kind of settling into a game,” coach Matt Painter said. “And sometimes when he can’t settle into a game and somebody makes it really hard for him, now he doesn’t get into that rhythm, now he never really gets it going.”
Oh, one other thing Painter didn’t mention, but Edwards did in the locker room. He’s playing with back pain. Injury, strain, fatigue, whatever. But it hurts. “I’m fine,” he said, so maybe it’s good Purdue lost, to give him extra time off.
He has to be fine, or at least better, if the Boilermakers want to last long next week. They've been able to find a way at home through his struggles, but no NCAA Tournament games are scheduled at Mackey Arena.
Or Maryland all-Big Ten first teamer Bruno Fernando.
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Three points and one basket in the loss to Nebraska. His coach noticed something else on the stat sheet, too. “Normally he gets some offensive rebounds,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “He had zero today.”
Or Indiana’s freshman star and all-league second teamer Romeo Langford.
It was sometimes easy to miss him in the loss to Ohio State. He scored nine quiet points, went 1-for-5 from beyond the arc. Devonte Green popping them in from the next county for 26 kept the Hoosiers in the game. “He was all we had there for a while,” coach Archie Miller said
Even Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston.
His numbers were solid in the win over Ohio State Friday —18 points, seven rebounds, five assists. But notice his only 22 minutes on the court. Partly that was because he’s been banged up and partly because Tom Izzo wasn’t thrilled with his play. They had a few intense words on the bench; even players of the year get Izzo’s wrath.
The guy filling those Winston minutes for the Spartans was a freshman named Foster Loyer with a 1.4 average, who promptly scored 14 with four 3-pointers. The player cheering loudly from the bench on every one? Cassius Winston.
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“One of the things you observe, and you kind of try to find out the pulse of our team,” Izzo said, “(Winston) was his biggest cheerleader. And one time he even told me to leave him in. That shows a little bit of the quality of kid that Cassius is.”
Some all-league first teamers been immune from this flu. Lamar Stevens had 24 points for Penn State in the overtime loss to Minnesota, but needed 25 shots to do it. Minnesota banger Jordan Murphy – first team all-Big Ten with the media and second with the coaches – led the upset of Purdue with 27 points and eight rebounds. He had 15 points and 14 rebounds in the Penn State game the night before.
So Murphy has the mostly unheralded Gophers looking more and more ready to make some trouble in the NCAA Tournament. “I told them in the locker room, `You might be the least talked about team in the country,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “And that’s fine with our guys. We relish that.”
To explain why the Gophers get no buzz, Pitino mentioned Murphy. “He’s the most humble kid on the planet. Never beats his chest, never makes it about him. There’s never any type of celebration.”
Murphy's had big early rounds in the Big Ten tournament, and that’s more than you can say for many of the other top names in this league. They’re each hoping it was just an off day. This is no time for a slump. Or a bad back.