Big Ten flexes its muscles
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The national perception of Big Ten basketball is of a plodding, physical, deliberate style of play. It’s not wholly accurate, although the stereotype carries a measure of truth.
For every Evan Turner high-flying dunk, there’s an offense built on getting some kid who grew up behind an axle plant in Akron to set picks and rebound.
There’s something to be said for purposeful and fundamentally sound, though. If it doesn’t seem exciting, just wait until it pushes you into the next round of the NCAA tournament while some fan favorite is at home dealing with the humiliation of a first-round upset. Just ask the Big East.
The Big Ten is 4-1 in the NCAA tournament. It hasn’t been pretty getting there, it hasn’t been without controversy and, of course, it’s more than a little ridiculous to praise Wisconsin (total enrollment: 42,099) for defeating Wofford (total enrollment: 1,479).
Still, this is the NCAA tournament. The goal is to move on. That’s it. That’s all. There are no style points. You don’t get to roll over margin of victory like cell phone minutes.
“If there’s one word I’ve learned in the years I’ve been in this tournament, that word is ‘survive and advance,’ ” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
Now, “survive and advance” isn’t one word. Forgive Izzo, though. He’d just watched his fifth-seeded Spartans fight for their life to hold off 12th-seeded New Mexico State, 70-67. He knows there is significant value in having a team that knows how to remain calm when an upset appears imminent.
Izzo has led five teams to the Final Four. He isn’t going to beat up his team for winning a tournament game against an opponent that’s just as motivated and desperate.
“Everybody’s playing for survival,” Izzo said.
Friday, the Big Ten played “Survivor” well. Injury-plagued Purdue battled out a victory against Siena, 72-64. Wisconsin outlasted Wofford, 53-49. Michigan State got past New Mexico State. And Ohio State withstood an early charge from UC Santa Barbara to win going away, 68-51.
Only a loss by Minnesota at the hands of Xavier ruined the day.
Yes, these were four games the Big Ten was supposed to win. In this tournament, that doesn’t even matter. These also were four (or at least three) games the Big Ten could’ve lost. This could’ve been a disaster.
It’s not a stretch to say if a few plays had gone the other way, the Big Ten is sitting at 1-4 and once again having to defend the way it plays basketball. Instead, it should take pride in having players that know how and when to make the often simple plays that win games. It’s not as easy as it seems, even as the higher seed.
“I’ve always said I think there’s a little more parity in the first games of tournaments, when you got everybody on TV saying the nation says 94.612 percent are picking this team and this team and this team,” Izzo said. “That makes it harder on the favorites.”
Michigan State had threatened to make a mockery of its game with NMSU, only to see the Aggies get hot in the second half and battle back. In the end, though, the Spartans made a couple of critical rebounds, got two late free throws from Raymar Morgan (the second courtesy of a horrendous lane-violation call) and played just enough defense to prevent a game tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Perhaps the Spartans were inspired by Wisconsin. The fourth-seeded Badgers should’ve handled 13th-seed Wofford with ease. When the little Terriers led late, though, the Badgers didn’t freeze up in fear. They responded with a clutch steal from Trevon Hughes and a big jump shot by Jon Leuer. They made winning plays. UW had just four turnovers on the day.
“That’s the only way we had a chance to shoot 37, 38 percent and win a ballgame,” coach Bo Ryan said.
Not turning the ball over doesn’t make for much of a “One Shining Moment” highlight. Ryan will take it right now.
Purdue coach Matt Painter, meanwhile, will take his victory with great pride. Yes, Purdue was seeded fourth and Siena 13th. But the Boilers, once a potential Final Four favorite, lost their best player to injury and were the chic pick to get sent home early.
Even President Obama picked Siena and noted how poor ole Purdue got a raw deal when Robbie Hummel got hurt.
Poor ole Purdue took that pity, manned-up and fought out the kind of impressive victory on which programs are built. If the Boilermakers don’t make a deep run in this tourney, they’ve shown what they are all about already.
“I think the biggest thing was for me when President Obama just said he kind of felt sorry for us, just everything we’ve been through and the adversity we face,” guard Lewis Jackson said. “Guys don’t want people to feel sorry for us. We want to prove that we still have a lot of talent and can make a big run in the tournament.”
It was Jackson who was called on to make the lonely moment play. With the game hanging in the balance, Siena purposely fouled him because Saints coach Fran McCaffery had noticed Jackson’s previous free throws were “ugly.”
Jackson got to the line and, per the scouting report, tossed up a brick. It just happened to hit the rim hard and get through the rim anyway. Purdue was on its way.
“It was ugly,” Jackson acknowledged. “But, I mean, no matter how it drops, it drops.”
In the NCAA tournament, you don’t have to apologize for winning ugly. The winning part is all that matters.