Before I get to the subject at hand, which is the first day of the Big 10 men’s basketball tournament, a couple of photos. I hope this isn’t getting tiresome, but there just are days when I look out the window and see things that are breathtakingly beautiful. Tonight, with a clear sky and a full moon illuminating Lake Michigan, was one of those times.
Now, about the basketball… reviewing today’s games in the order they occurred:
Iowa 64, Illinois 61
The first-round matchup between these two teams was appropriate, because each of them defied the expectations held for them at the start of the season — Iowa in a positive sense, Illinois negatively.
Illinois was viewed as a solid middle-of-the-pack team with an outside chance of contending for the Big 10 championship and seemed to verify that early on, as the Illini won their first 10 games, started the conference schedule 11-2 and then won four of their first five Big 10 games, capped by a 79-74 home win over Ohio State, the team favored to win the league title.
Iowa, with a new coach (Fran McCaffrey) and a lack of experienced talent and leadership on the court, was widely viewed as a candidate for last place, and seemed to confirm that early on too. The Hawkeyes were 8-5 in a weak pre-conference schedule that included a loss by 16 points, at home yet, to the Campbell Fighting Camels of the Big South Conference. Iowa then started out the Big 10 season with three wins and six losses that included a 29-point whacking by Ohio State in Iowa City and a 34-point road loss at Michigan State.
But the end of the season was a dramatically different story for both teams. Illinois nosedived, losing 11 of its last 13, and one of its wins was a bizarre 42-41 mess of a home game against Michigan State in which Draymond Green, the Spartans’ star player, was sick and then was knocked out of the game by an injury. Iowa, on the other hand, was 5-4 down the stretch (despite losing at Illinois for the Illini’s only other win) — not spectacular, but enough to boost their Big 10 mark to 8-10 and a tie with Northwestern for 7th place in the now 12-team conference.
Illinois led today’s game, 31-27, at halftime, and led by as much as seven with a little less than 17 minutes to go. But then, as so often this season, the bottom dropped out. By the time a 25-10 Iowa run ended more than 10 minutes later, the Hawkeyes led by eight. Although Illinois teased its fans again by closing to within one on a 3-pointer with 20 seconds left, they could not come all the way back.
Though Illinois could still draw a bid to the second-tier National Invitational Tournament with its overall record of 17-16 (6-13 in the Big 10), it faces a major period of transition. It is widely presumed that the school will part way with Coach Bruce Weber, who had a decent nine-year run but never again approached the heights of his second year, when the Illini went 37-2 and played all the way to the NCAA final before losing a close game to University of North Carolina. Meyers Leonard, the 7-foot-1 sophomore center, has skills that are a work in progress, but his height has drawn interest from the NBA that could prompt him to leave early for the pros.
Iowa, led against Illinois by senior guard Matt Gaten’s 20 points, has to turn around quickly to play Friday against Michigan State, which is seeded number 1 in the tournament after tying for the regular season Big 10 championship with Ohio State and Michigan.
The Spartans are 24-7 overall and 13-5 in the league, but will be tested by a two-game end-of-season slump that saw them lose by 15 at Indiana and by 2 at home to Ohio State in a game that deprived MSU of an outright regular season title. And this will be Michigan State’s first full game without freshman starter Brenden Dawson, who suffered a knee injury in the Ohio State game that required surgery and has him sidelined for the post-season.
Indiana 75, Penn State 58
Nothing much to say in detail about this wholly expected outcome in a game between Indiana — a traditional power whose resurgence after several bad seasons produced an overall record of 25-7 and a Big 10 mark of 11-7 — and Penn State, a team that tied for last in the Big 10 with a 4-14 mark (12-20 overall).
Indiana was led in scoring by junior guard Jordan Hulls, who had 20 points, and freshman center Cody Zeller, who had 19. Zeller also was one of three Hoosiers who pulled down 10 rebounds. Junior guard Tim Frazier led Penn State with 26 points, but the load he had to carry was evident in the fact that he attempted 24 field goals, hitting nine.
Indiana, seeded fifth, moves on to play 4th-seeded Wisconsin (23-8 overall, 12-6 Big 10) in what appears to be a very even matchup. The teams played only once during the regular season, with Wisconsin scoring a 57-50 home win on Jan. 26.
Minnesota 75, Northwestern 68 (overtime)
Northwestern is one of the few Division I basketball programs that has never qualified for the NCAA tournament. After the Wildcats came close in recent years, this season began with high hopes that this would be THE year. But the loss by 7th-seeded Northwestern to #10th seeded Minnesota appeared to snuff out those already flickering hopes.
What has to be especially galling to Northwestern fans is how painfully close their team (now 18-14 on the season) came to being very, very good. Along with a signature 81-74 upset over Michigan State at home in January, Northwestern lost three times in overtime, including both their games with eventual Big 10 co-champion Michigan; came from way behind to tie eventual co-champion Ohio State in their next to last regular season game, only to lose by two at home; also lost at home by one against Illinois and by two against Purdue; and lost by just five at Indiana.
Minnesota, which now has an overall record of 20-13 despite going 7-12 in the Big 10, was led against Northwestern by guard Andre Hollins’ 25 points. The Golden Gophers now play #2 seed Michigan, which won the only regular season matchup between the team by 61-56 in Ann Arbor on New Year’s Day.
Northwestern was led by 24 points by sophomore guard JerShon Cobb, who was hindered by injuries for most of the season, and senior John Shurna, the school’s career scoring leader, who had 21 but was held without a field goal for the last 13 minutes of the game.
Purdue 79, Nebraska 61
Purdue was as inconsistent during the regular season as its 10-8 Big 10 record (6th in the conference) would suggest. But the Boilermakers still overmatched Nebraska, which finished its first basketball season as a member of the Big 10 tied for last place with Penn State at 4-14.
Purdue cinched this victory with runs of 15-0 in the first half and 28-13 in the second half. Five Purdue players finished in double figures. The Boilermakers move on to a much taller challenge in the second round against Ohio State — though they gave the Buckeyes all they could handle before dropping an 87-84 decision in Columbus Feb. 7, their only meeting in the regular season.
As tough as this season was for Nebraska, they now face the prospect of rebuilding. Guards Bo Spencer (22 points) and Toney McCray (13 points) , the Cornhuskers’ leading scorers as they were during the regular season, both are seniors.