INDIANAPOLIS — Quite a party the Big Ten is throwing here. Records set. Big leads blown. NCAA Tournament bids saved. Lower seedings overcome.
It’s entertaining, anyway.
Illinois was the No. 1 seed, Wisconsin No. 2, Rutgers No. 4. All three were one and done. No. 3 Purdue nearly joined them in the quick hook.
Michigan took 27 minutes to build a 17-point lead on Indiana, then gave it away in seven minutes. Lost. Nebraska went up 15 on Northwestern. Lost. Ohio State went up 13 on Penn State. Lost. Michigan State went up 20 on Maryland. Nearly lost.
Neither of the top two seeds is in the semifinals. That’s never happened before. But Indiana is. A No. 9 seed hasn’t been that far in 20 years. So is Michigan State, the Spartans arriving at the tournament having lost seven of 10. “We all know it was an interesting year,” Tom Izzo was saying. Penn State, an 11 seed, made it to Friday night when Purdue finally got to play a game. Funny thing about these double-bye brackets. Nine teams were already eliminated — two-thirds of the tournament was over — before the Boilermakers, at last, took the floor. They promptly fell behind 12-2.
Johnny Davis played his first game for Wisconsin since being named Big Ten player of the year. He went 3-for-19. Iowa had 10 players make a 3-pointer against Northwestern, including a guy who had scored six points all season and banked one in. Michigan State committed seven turnovers in 2:26 against Maryland as a 20-point lead melted to two.
There were six technical fouls in the Iowa-Rutgers game — ”A zillion,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said — and two ejections, including the Scarlett Knights’ strength and conditioning man who was sitting at the end of the bench.
Can’t say it’s been boring.
But will it mean anything next week? When last we saw the Big Ten in March, it was at the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis and the conference had a train wreck. Purdue was upset by North Texas, Ohio State by Oral Roberts, Illinois by Loyola Chicago. Nine league teams were in the field, eight were gone after the first weekend.
So the question here amid all these rather startling results is if the members look ready to do better next week. The Big Ten tournament championship game will end around 5:45 p.m. Sunday. At 5:46, everyone forgets what just happened and starts looking ahead.
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Illinois? The lllini had execution issues against Indiana and the defense had trouble stopping the Hoosiers in the second half. Not to worry, said coach Brad Underwood.
“I don’t think Baylor won their conference tournament last year. I think UCLA got beat in theirs,” he said, correct on both. “I think they still found a way to make it to the Final Four. Yeah, it will be refreshing to get a couple days away. And no, we’re not playing another Big Ten team. I’m tired of this league right now. I’m tired of these guys.”
Wisconsin? The Badgers found out Friday what happens when Davis scores only 11 points, and goes 0-for-5 from three-point land. This comes on top of losing to lowly Nebraska at home when Davis was injured. Now all the state of Wisconsin — and whomever the Badgers draw next week — wonder how quickly Davis can get back to his A-game.
“Just missed shots,” he said. “It happens in the game of basketball.”
His coach didn’t sound unduly alarmed. “I’m sure getting back into a normal practice routine and getting into a rhythm will help him a lot,” Greg Gard said. “Because he was obviously working his way back from last weekend.”
Ohio State? The ugly loss to Penn State made four defeats in five games, none of them against the top tier of the conference. It wasn’t that long ago the Buckeyes were considered in the mix for the league title. Now they seem to be limping toward Selection Sunday.
“I wish I could tell you,” E.J. Liddell said when asked the problem. “If I knew I would address it with the team and we’ll try to fix it. But I just don’t know.”
Not exactly comforting words from the star on March 11.
Rutgers? Michigan? Nobody knows for absolute certain they’ll even be invited. “I can’t be any more confident,” Pikiell assured about 18-13 Rutgers’ chances to get a bid, figuring the committee will remember the four consecutive ranked opponents the Scarlet Knights beat. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery seconded the motion. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. That’s an NCAA Tournament team,”
Michigan, at 17-14, would have one of the lowest winning percentages ever for an at-large bid. It would be quite a crash landing if the Wolverines miss out, from No. 4 in the polls to the NIT.
That leaves the four survivors in Saturday’s semifinals.
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Iowa? The Hawkeyes are quickly earning membership in that coveted March TNWTP club. Team Nobody Wants To Play. They have won 10 of 12 and broken 80 in eight of the victories. The old scoring record for a game in the Big Ten tournament was 97, and Iowa passed that with more than four minutes left against Northwestern Thursday, on its way to 112.
The Hawkeyes have hit 26 3-pointers in their first two games in this tournament and Keegan Murray has gone for 26 points each day. Iowa has been so explosive, Northwestern was shooting 50 percent late in the first half of their game, and was down 26. The Hawkeyes outscored Rutgers 18-0 in bench points and 20-4 in fast break scoring.
This is the same team that treaded water during a 7-7 stretch in the middle of the schedule. “We’ve gotten knocked down and we’ve learned to get back up,” Murray said.
The bottom line on Iowa: “This is going to be a tough out for anybody,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said.
Indiana? There’s something to be said for the value of desperation. The Hoosiers came into this tournament fighting for their bubble lives, swept past Michigan and then out-gritted Illinois. “I just couldn’t get them over the hump,” head coach Mike Woodson said. “And now they’re really starting to believe. You know what I mean?”
Michigan and Illinois do.
“This was finally our chance to prove something, really,” Trayce Jackson-Davis said. “So coming into this tournament, we kind of had a chip on our shoulder.”
Three things showing through in Gainbridge Fieldhouse could make Indiana a difficult proposition next week.
The defense is back in business. Michigan and Illinois combined to shoot only 36.8 percent. During their season struggles, it was often overlooked that the Hoosiers were in the top 10 in the nation in field goal percentage defense.
Guard Xavier Johnson is playing the way seniors do when they want to keep going. In two games here, he has 30 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists, and only four turnovers.
Most of all, Jackson-Davis has been a force. He’s averaged 17 points this week... in the second half. This is in response to his critics, which have occasionally included his coach. Woodson was not gentle at halftime after a slovenly first half against Michigan. “It wasn’t pretty, I’ll tell you that,” Woodson said.
Jackson-Davis believes he is sending a message this week not only to Woodson and the NCAA selection committee, but all those doubters out there.
“There’s been a lot of talk, especially the last two years, of me not showing up at the end of the season, so I’m trying to change that narrative,” he said. “Illinois was a bully today and I think we took care of that problem.”
Michigan State? The Spartans made a mess of the last three minutes of the Maryland game, which elicited a warning from Izzo: “We played 85 percent good; 85 in this league or in this tournament or the next tournament is not good enough.”
The Spartans were better than 85 percent against Wisconsin, especially on defending Davis. “Every time he caught the ball, we just wanted to be in our gaps, have six eyes on him,” Tyson Walker said. “Every shot he took we wanted to be contested.”
And there was this number: They committed seven turnovers in 40 minutes, the same number they committed in the last 146 seconds against Maryland. Izzo called the win “a joy. A normal year, it would have just been let’s move on. But we’ve been through a lot.”
Michigan State on the move. And this is a surprise, how? “I love Indianapolis and I love March, how’s that?” Izzo said. “Maybe we’re coming together a little bit.”
Purdue? The Boilermakers fell behind Penn State by 10 points Friday night in keeping with the upset motif of the day but restored some order. Barely. They won 69-61 but were up by one with 2 ½ minutes to go. They were the only double-bye team to survive, but they’re living on the edge. This was their fourth consecutive close game and they have lost two of them.
So it’ll be Indiana-Iowa and Purdue-Michigan State Saturday, which should feel something like a road game for the Hawkeyes and Spartans. The Indianapolis crowd will be heavy with Hoosier cream and crimson and Boilermaker black and gold, with the locals sensing the possibility of something special: an Indiana-Purdue championship game.
That’d be unprecedented. But then, so is this tournament.