In a weekend of conference tournaments across the country that have been riddled with upsets--Kansas and Oklahoma gone in the Big 12, Pitt & UConn eliminated in the Big East--the Big Ten played it mostly by the book. The top three seeds all advanced with relatively little drama. The only break from the chalk was fifth-seeded Ohio State beating #4 Wisconsin. But a 5 beating a 4 is hardly a major upset in any case, and when you consider both teams were 10-8 in league play, it becomes even less so. Here's the recap of the opening two days, broken down into the four pods.
Pod 1: Michigan State
Minnesota 66 Northwestern 53
Michigan State 64 Minnesota 56
Tough games on both Thursday and Friday. In the opening round, Minnesota was able to negate 21 points by Kevin Coble through a defense that clamped down on Craig Moore and Michael Thompson. The NU guards were held to eight points apiece, and with the Wildcats three-pronged attack reduced to only one, the Gophers were able to get a methodical win they had to have. Northwestern ends a nice season at 17-13 that will see them get an NIT bid.
Michigan State then advanced to the semis behind 17 points from Chris Allen off the bench. The Spartans, as expected, won the rebounding battle. But at 34-26 the margin was not as high as what we've seen from them this year. Free throws came aplenty in this game, and MSU outscored the Gophs 19-13 from the line, a margin that comes pretty close to accounting for the victory.
Pod 2: Ohio State
Ohio State 61 Wisconsin 57
The one pod that doesn't involve a Thursday game saw the Buckeyes finish strong and get a four-point win. Wisconsin's atypical poor defense, something that's plagued them all year long, finally bit them at a crucial time. OSU shot 50 percent from the floor, and even UW's prudent taking care of the ball (only seven turnovers) was not sufficient to compensate. Evan Turner had 19 points and one has to think put his team into the NCAA Tournament. Conventional wisdom says Wisconsin is also in, but I'm not as sold. Granted, as a UW loyalist and a naturally nervous person, I tend to see the dark side. But at 19-12 with no really impressive wins (1-4 versus the conference's top three, losses to Texas, UConn and Marquette in December), there is a case for excluding the Badgers if the Big Ten is limited to six, or even seven bids. There's also a case for including them too, but space doesn't permit an extended discussion right now. Suffice it to say, Badger Nation should be more worried than they are.
Pod 3: Illinois
Michigan 73 Iowa 45
Illinois 60 Michigan 50
DeShawn Sims came to play and kept his team alive for an NCAA Tournament invite with the opening day win. Friday's loss keeps the Wolverines on the bubble, but they are still breathing. Sims scored 27 against Iowa, and combined with Manny Harris' 18 points, was enough to easily outpace the Hawkeyes. Jake Kelly's great run finally ended with a 10-point showing here. Sims came out strong again against Illinois, knocking down 15 and grabbing eight boards. But Harris, showing his on-again, off-again persona, was missing in action and contributed only nine. In the meantime, Illinois got a 22-point/10-rebound effort from Mike Davis, In the two days of action, Michigan got to the line only ten times.
Pod 4: Purdue
Penn State 66 Indiana 51
Purdue 79 Penn State 65
Like Michigan, Penn State kept themselves alive, but missed a chance to seal the deal. Jamelle Cornley came up big both days. The power forward started it off with 22 points against IU. Between him and Stanley Pringle (16 points) they covered for a non-performance from Talor Battle and a strong game from Verdell Jones who rang up 23, the one bright spot in a game that ended the long first season for Indiana's Tom Crean. Penn State's run ended on Friday under a rain of three-pointers. Purdue hit 12-22 from long range, led by Robbie Hummel's four treys. Cornley had another strong game, with 20 points and 8 rebounds. With the rest of his teammates, he'll have to see if their body of work was enough.
So we're down to Michigan State-Ohio State in one semi and Purdue-Illinois in the other. The Spartans are very much alive for a #1 seed, in light of the upsets going down across the nation. See you back here tomorrow (or late this evening) for a recap of the semis.