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Mike Lopresti | | January 6, 2023

What happened in 5 days of riding the 'roller coaster' that is Big Ten men's basketball

Arizona climbs back to No. 2 in Andy Katz's first Power 36 of 2023

Well, that didn’t take long for the Big Ten season to reach a full boil, did it? Consider the first five days in January.

The losing coach from Indiana said the winning coach from Iowa should have been thrown out of the (bleeping) game.

Purdue, the No. 1 team in the nation, was knocked off once and nearly twice, saved by a late 3-pointer from a freshman who was 0-for-6 with four turnovers in the first half.

The Rutgers defense held Maryland 23 points under its average, three days after holding Purdue 13 points beneath its average and a month after holding Indiana 39 points under its average. We may have spotted a trend here.

Iowa spent the week in comeback mode. The Hawkeyes were down 18 at halftime to Penn State, closed to within two, but lost. They were down 28-7 to Indiana, rallied and won.

Wisconsin had a 15-point gap cut to one in seven minutes in the second half against Minnesota but escaped 63-60, partly because of 13 steals. The two neighbors have now played 210 times and after Wednesday the Badgers lead 106-104. If you think that’s even, when Purdue edged Ohio State the next night, it left that series 92-92. The Boilermakers’ three most recent wins over the Buckeyes have come by 3, 3 and 2 points.

Illinois, one of the pre-season conference favorites, was outscored 24-4 in a second-half surge by Northwestern, the team picked to finish 13th. The Illini, who went 31-9 the past two years in the Big Ten, are now 0-3. The Wildcats, 26-71 in Big Ten play the past five years, have already beaten Illinois and Michigan State.

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Iowa, who earlier this season scored only 50 points the entire game to lose to Nebraska, put up 51 in the second half to come from 21 points behind and beat Indiana. It was the second largest Hawkeyes comeback in 36 years. They got 30 points from Kris Murray, who four days earlier had 32 against Penn State. So now he’s leading (actually co-leading) the conference in scoring, just like his brother Keegan did last season.

Michigan couldn’t beat Central Michigan at home but three days later could squash Maryland by 35 points.

And so it goes in the Big Ten.

“You can get yourself on a roller coaster if you want,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said of the Boilermakers’ up-and-down week. “I’m not a big fan of roller coasters.”

In that case, he might be in the wrong conference, if this week was any indication. His own team survived a game Thursday night at Ohio State with nine lead changes in the final eight minutes.

All the coaches know the harsh and unpredictable winter coming. Listen to Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell after the Scarlet Knights knocked off the top-ranked Boilermakers, just as they did last season, becoming only the eighth program in history to beat an Associated Press No. 1 in back-to-back years, the second to accomplish it as an unranked team, the first to do it against the same opponent.

But who has time to celebrate in the Big Ten? “We’ve got a lot more tests ahead of us,” he said. “Get to enjoy this for five minutes.”

Look at Iowa’s Fran McCaffery and Indiana’s Mike Woodson Thursday night. Late in the game, as Iowa was completing its stunning rally, McCaffery wanted to know what an Indiana assistant was saying to one of the officials and wandered across the 10-second line into the Indiana bench area. That’s a little like crossing the DMZ between North and South Korea. Woodson was enraged no technical foul was called, which would have probably cooked Iowa’s comeback chances.

“That’s (bull) is what it is, and you can print that,” Woodson said in his postgame press conference. “When you can allow coaches to come across halfcourt into your space, that’s (bull)."

So Iowa, the team that came in having lost three in a row including to 31 ½-point underdog Eastern Illinois, ended up carrying a tense night. “Every game in our league is like this,” McCaffery said. “You’ve got to figure out a way to win some of them.”

Doesn’t Purdue know it. The Boilermakers seemed to have preserved their No. 1 ranking Monday when Fletcher Loyer’s 3-pointer gave them the lead in the last 30 seconds. But Rutgers grabbed it back. It was a Loyer 3-pointer again Thursday night at Ohio State, only this time with 11 seconds left, and it stood up.

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So the intriguing questions already multiply in the Big Ten.

Can the Rutgers defense get the Scarlet Knights to conference title contention? They’ve never finished in the top three in the Big Ten.

Can Indiana, down two starters now with Xavier Johnson and Race Thompson injured, overcome that and its own lousy free-throw shooting?

Is Wisconsin one of the best shows in college basketball? The Badgers’ only defeats are one point in overtime to Kansas and three points to Wake Forest. They have beaten Dayton by one, Marquette by three in overtime, Iowa by three in overtime, Minnesota by three, and Maryland and USC by five. Nobody leaves Wisconsin games early.

Is the ship righted at Iowa, where the Hawkeyes not only have had to deal with a losing streak but starting forward — and coach’s son — Patrick McCaffery taking time away for anxiety issues?

Is Northwestern for real? Is Michigan State over the home defeat to Northwestern and 18-point pounding at Notre Dame and ready to make the usual run, having now won five in a row? Can Michigan, Maryland and Illinois — a combined 12-13 since Nov. 29 — find consistency?

And Purdue. Are the Boilermakers still the team to beat?

The 14-1 overall record matches the best start in school history. They’re 3-1 in the Big Ten but had to go overtime to get by Nebraska and might well have had an 0-2 week had Loyer missed Thursday night at Ohio State. They’re still No. 1 until Monday but they’re very close to being 1-3 in the conference.

“We’re seconds away from feeling like crap again after a loss,” Loyer said about Thursday’s win over the Buckeyes.

That might be the perfect summation of what this Big Ten season is looking to be. You’re always seconds away from feeling like crap.

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