Two teams down. Two teams move on. And Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan is ready to dance.
The Big Ten Conference had a decent showing in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. 5–2 through the first weekend. This was about the expectation; both Wisconsin and Michigan State have the depth and experience that make Sweet 16) appearances not only possible, but reality. Purdue and Indiana, while more than capable, showed the nation why the premium on upperclassmen experience is unmatched anywhere. Freshmen have a way of giving us thrills because of their pure talents and youthful exuberance, but the pressure of a tournament is something that, generally speaking, only experience can truly battle.
Obviously, it’s not a hard and fast rule; Greg Oden and Michael Conley Jr. took Ohio State within one win of the ultimate prize just last year. But in general, one should never count on the talents of a freshman versus the experience of a senior. And the Sweet 16 in 2008 is a totally perfect example of that.
Indiana put the finishing touches on a season gone horribly awry. Since the firing of Kelvin Sampson, the Hoosiers went a dismal 3–4, lost in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to Minnesota, and then in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Arkansas. But they didn’t just lose. They got beat in every way possible. Eric Gordon has shown the NBA that he is not, in fact, Superman; he shot under 25 percent from behind the arc to close the season and led his team into the toilet, not to the Final Four. Best advice? Stay another year and learn how to control your game. He won’t though. And the team that has no coach, no defense, and no heart left will be forced to live with themselves for the next few years in total flux. This will be interesting.
The Baby Boilers looked as good as they have all year against the run-and-gun style of the Baylor Bears in the first round on the way to a solid win. They ran with them on their way to scoring a season-high 90 points in the first round, delivering six players with double figures and two more with eight points each. (For all you bracket hounds out there, let it be known that Purdue has won 10 straight first round games in the NCAA tournament.) This would set up a second round battle with one of the most under-rated and experienced teams in the field: the Xavier Muskateers. After jumping out to a 9–0 lead early, Purdue faltered in the face of the multi-faceted attack designed by coach Sean Miller, finally dropping the game 85–78. But this was a season that exceeded expectations in every sense of the word. A 25–9 finish in a year where they regularly started two freshmen and two sophomores? Things are looking up for the Boilers, aside from the fact that they lost longtime assistant coach Cuonzo Martin to Missouri State this week. Expect big things from them in the next few years.
Let’s look at what’s on tap for the Big Ten’s last teams standing for the year.
The talk of the tournament is none other than the future NBA guard Stephen Curry. The shooting star from Davidson single-handedly dismantled both Gonzaga and Georgetown, scoring 70 points over two days and hitting so many clutch shots, there is no word to actually describe the kind of game that he has developed. But Wisconsin handled a tough Kansas State team, led easily by National Player of the Year (by my vote), Michael Beasley. Brian Butch seems more determined to win than he ever has been, and Marcus Landry is looking more and more like his older brother all the time. I say Wisconsin takes out Davidson, but loses to Kansas in the Elite Eight. As good as they are on defense, I don’t think they have the firepower to handle some of the guns that Bill Self has in Lawrence.
If there was ever a tough game to call, I’d say it’s the battle between Michigan State and Memphis. On one hand, you have John Calipari trying desperately to prove to every pundit in the land that his weak Conference USA schedule is no big deal in the face of the kind of talent that plays for him each game. On the other, Tom Izzo is a proven winner from a conference that has more than it’s fair share of competition. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Spartans looked beat and without much hope. Now, they are reminding everyone why they are the definitive team to pick every March. I say that Drew Neitzel steps up, shoots his way to an upset versus Memphis, and then proceeds to dismantle an over-rated Texas team as well, en route to yet another Final Four appearance. Tom Izzo is just that good.
Will next week be the final Big Ten Basketball report? Only way to find out is to tune into CBS all weekend, where Greg Gumbel will fill us in on why he insists on wearing the worst toupee in the history of broadcasting.