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Mike Lopresti | | February 14, 2017

Big Ten Basketball: A glass half full or half empty?

  Northwestern's center Dererk Pardon (5) goes up to defend Wisconsin's Ethan Happ (22) during Sunday's win.

Here’s the Big Ten glass. Is it half full, or half empty?

Half full: some of the best feel-good stories of the season reside in this league.

It’s hard to beat Northwestern’s Cubs-like bid for its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, after 78 years of waiting. Or Minnesota’s rebirth, going 18-7 a year after the Gophers were down to five scholarship players – “It felt like it was about three,” coach Richard Pitino was saying – and finished 8-23.

"I think the parity is better than it’s ever been since I’ve been in the league,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins was saying. “I know it’s getting a bad rap as being down. I think what you’re seeing is we may not have those superpower teams that we’ve had…but I think from 1 to 14 it’s really good.”

  Northwestern's Sanjay Lumpkin (34) has nine points, five boards and two steals in the win at Wisconsin.
Half empty: Good teams, but apparently no very, very good teams, in the view of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee. When the dry-run top 16 seeds for the tournament were released Saturday, the Big Ten had as many names listed as the Ivy League. None.

If it’s still that way in March when the brackets count, this would be only the second time in the 39-year seeding history of the tournament that the top 16 were Big Ten-less. The other was 2004.

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There are reasons the committee might be a tad suspicious of the conference at the moment.  Here’s one. Guess the Big Ten record this season against the 16 teams that were seeded. In other words, the league’s showing against the cream – at least the cream as of Feb. 11.

Try 2-20. Repeat, 2-20. And 12 of those 20 defeats were by double figures. The two victories were by Indiana over Kansas and North Carolina, and the fading Hoosiers might not even be in the tournament.

Then there were these bad days: Northeastern over Michigan State, Omaha over Iowa, Gardner-Webb over Nebraska, Florida Atlantic over Ohio State, Fort Wayne over Indiana, Winthrop over Illinois.

Still, what gets remembered is not a practice 16-seed list in February, nor unflattering results before Christmas. Next month will.

  Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein said he thinks Big Ten teams will make noise in March.
“I think the Big Ten will end up doing their work in the NCAA Tournament,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Sunday. “What everybody thought, that this league is down this year. It is not down. It’s just stronger top to bottom.”

Added Collins, “I think some great teams will emerge.”

Half full: The Big Ten has been a steady player in March, with members in the Final Four seven of the past 10 years.  And in a rather extraordinary splash of balance, six different schools have played in the national championship game since 2002.

Half empty: Fine, but the trophy drought goes on. The last national champion was Michigan State in 2000, and that’s the only Big Ten winner in 27 years. The ACC has won nine in that same period.

Any possibilities this year? To commemorate the Great Saturday Shutout, a check on who had been considered the main contenders.

Wisconsin — Many thought the Badgers should been included among the top 16 with a 21-3 record, but they have been dodging a lot of near-misses lately. Sunday, they lost at home to Northwestern – only their second defeat since Nov. 23. For a status report, nothing better than the eloquence of senior Nigel Hayes.

‘Frustration is the worst feeling. We’ve had this same conversation . . . but for some reason unfortunately, people listen more, listen to each other and coaches when we lose a game. It’s similar, experience being a great teacher. Like a rat in a box, you can push it and food comes and that teaches you a lot. Or like if you put your hand on a hot stove, same reaction, but for some reason, you really don’t touch the stove anymore.

“Apparently we have to lose in order to learn the things that we’ve already been saying. I’ve felt like we’ve lost the last six games in a row that we’ve been playing, but we won them. We kept doing those mistakes, and it finally caught up to us.”

  Indiana's Tom Crean knows his team has work to do despite two of the best nonconference wins in the land.
Maryland — The 21-4 record is impressive enough, and so is the Terrapins’ flair for pulling out close games. Nine of their victories have come by six points or less, three by one point. But check back when they’ve beaten a ranked opponent. Because they haven’t yet.

Michigan State — The Spartans had four freshmen score in double figures Saturday against Iowa, a first for the Tom Izzo era, and a sign of the youth movement they’re undergoing.  Everyone keeps waiting for one of those annual Michigan State surges, but the 15-10 Spartans are zig-zagging to the finish line. They lose three in a row, then beat Michigan and win at Nebraska, then get thrashed by 29 points at Michigan, then put down Iowa by 11.

“I figured out I’ve been lying to all of you,” Izzo said to the media after the Iowa win. “I said we have to get more consistent. We are consistent. We’re consistently turning the ball out, we’re consistently playing parts of games.

“Maybe it is just part of the process. I watched Kentucky and they just looked average. I watched Duke. Maybe it’s just the way it is. These freshman are going to take awhile.”

Purdue — If Caleb Swanigan’s double-doubles keep piling up – he has 21 in 25 games – the 20-5 Boilermakers will keep drawing more support as the Big Ten team most likely for a long ride in March. They just sent a message with victories at Indiana, Maryland and Michigan State.

RELATEDNaismith Watch — Purdue big man Swanigan takes over the top spot

Michigan — Somehow the Wolverines got to Feb. 12 without winning a road game, but they took care of that at Indiana. This 16-9 team is capable of offensive fireworks shows. Notice the 60.4 percent shooting against Michigan State, 63.3 its first Indiana game, and 14-for-26 from the 3-point line at UCLA.

  Maryland Terrapins guard Melo Trimble (2) has led his team to a 21-4 start, despite not beating a ranked foe.
Indiana — Once upon a time, the Hoosiers had beaten Kansas and North Carolina and were ranked No. 3 in the nation. Now they have 11 losses, with four road games left in their last five. Hello, NIT.

Injuries have hurt, but it goes deeper. Tom Crean used phrases such as “our maturity has got to raise” to describe Indiana on Sunday. And to explain the offensive woes against Michigan, “Some of it is ridiculous setups and cuts. It’s just absolute remedial nonsense.”

So which is it for the Big Ten?

Half full? A balanced and competitive league, where the bottom division has clearly trended upward.

Half empty? A league possibly devoid of genuine Final Four contenders.

Said Beilein, “We’ll answer that question in March.”

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