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Mike Lopresti | | March 11, 2016

March Madness: The Big Ten Tournament, a study in defeat

  Welcome to March. The Badgers lost to Nebraska for only the second time since 1991 on Thursday.

INDIANAPOLIS – Oh, the things you can learn from studying defeat.

Here at the Big Ten tournament, six teams have been sent packing in two days, each one its own example of the trials of college basketball, circa 2015-16. Want to know how tough it can be out there? The endless potholes that can rattle programs? Let’s check out 30 hours of blank stares, and long faces.

For example, want to know how quickly the good times can end this season? Here’s Iowa. Once ranked No. 3 at 16-3. Now, after losing 68-66 to Illinois. the Hawkeyes are 21-10, with six defeats in eight games, and only a week to fix the bugs before the NCAA tournament. So what’s wrong?

"Well, I think that's pretty obvious,’’ coach Fran McCaffery said, looking at a stat sheet Thursday that showed 18 turnovers and 40 percent shooting. "We're not making shots, and we’re turning the ball over. Eighteen turnovers. You can't win a tournament game turning the ball over 18 times. Can't.’’

If that sounded a tad cranky, it’s because McCaffery is.

Such as concerning the whistles that got Peter Jok – and his 29 points -- into foul trouble Thursday. "You have no idea how much I would like to describe my frustration,’’ he said. "Leave it at that.’’

Or when guard Mike Gesell was asked in a press conference what play the Hawkeyes were trying to run at the end that went awry. "None of your business what the play call was,’’ McCaffery interceded. "Period.’’

Want to know how momentum -- and $5 -- can buy you lunch this season in college basketball? On Wisconsin. The Badgers had won 11 of 13 going into the NCAA tournament. Nebraska had lost nine of 11. Guess who won their meeting Thursday night? Take your time.

Auditioning for the coaching job for two months, interim Greg Gard led the Badgers on a tear. It was announced this week the position was his. Then, Wisconsin shot 30 percent and lost to the Cornhuskers, 70-58, for only the second time since 1991.

"I'm obviously not pleased with some of the things on our end, the shot selection at times and turnovers,’’ Gard said. "If we're like this, it will be one more [game].’’

Want to know how tough it is to climb the pecking order ladder? Northwestern can answer that, of course. The Wildcats took Michigan into overtime before losing 72-70, and though the 20-12 record shows clear improvement, this will be 78 NCAA tournaments without Northwestern being invited.

Coach Chris Collins is yearning for the day his program gets what he believes is its due, including from the officials, since he was especially exercised about a possible uncalled Wolverine walk toward the finish.

"Looked like a lot of steps on the end line,’’ he said. ``You guys watched the game. Make your own determination.

"I guess our name isn't big enough yet, and that's something that we have to do for ourselves. We don't have the brand name yet, and that's something that we're going to work on. We're fighting like crazy. It's a battle. I can't even talk. It's a battle, fighting so hard. That's what I'm fighting and that's what I'm going to keep fighting. And I'm really proud of my guys. We don't have that brand name on our chest, but you know what? We play good basketball. We're a good team now. I hope people take notice of that.’’

Want to see the heart that goes into this game, and can be broken? That’s Penn State sophomore Shep Garner at the microphone Thursday night, fighting tears, voice breaking, talking about his senior teammates after he delivered a full effort – 25 points and 38 minutes – in a 79-75 loss to Ohio State.

"They taught me so much,’’ he said. "I appreciate them. They came in to practice and set the tone every day. They worked so hard. They work so hard for us. Everything that they put into this program, I just wanted to come out here and give it my best fight. Just came up short.’’

For a stark reminder of the rigors of aiming for new horizons, and the limits of patience in today’s game, that’d be dear old Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights’ 89-72 loss to Nebraska Wednesday left them 3-35 in the Big Ten their first two seasons. The telecast kept showing athletic director Patrick Hobbs in his seat, and that’s never a good sign for the head coach. Eddie Jordan was fired the next day.

Finally, in a season with little margin for error or mishap for anyone, what happens when injuries and disciplinary measures drain your roster, like a bathtub with the plug pulled? Say hello to Minnesota, which had four more cheerleaders in uniform at the Big Ten tournament than players. There were eight active Gophers, only five of them on scholarship. The point guard was a freshman walk-on. The entire starting lineup was averaging 28.8 points a game. The three players on the bench had combined for 12 points all season.

So the 85-52 loss to Illinois was not exactly a shocker.

"You have an incident where you have to make tough decisions, we did it,’’ coach Richard Pitino said of the suspension of three players at the beginning of the month. "We did it with the culture of our program in mind. We did it understanding that would make it extremely difficult to win but we felt like it was the right thing moving forward.’’

Now what?

"I think it’s going to be good for everybody to take a deep breath and get away a little bit. Because it was tough losing the amount of close games that we lost, and then to break through, and then to have the rug pulled out from under you. I think everybody saw what we were becoming.’’

Two days, six teams, and six ways things can go wrong this chaotic season. Not that there aren’t more.

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