Chicago Colleges: Ohio State Buckeyes
Mitch Sherman: Joe took issue with my analysis of Minnesota, which included some humor, in our Best case/Worst Case series. We traded a few messages on Twitter. I invited him to submit a question for the mailbag, and he did, with a well-constructed email on the Gophers. Now we're buddies, though he's not convinced me that a best-case scenario for Jerry Kill's team equates to more than nine wins. Joe notes that Minnesota, from its eight-win team a year ago, trades Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana for Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. I see that as a wash -- 2-1 for 2-1. And though Minnesota may not be more than a slight underdog during a four-game, midseason stretch against Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa, I don't see it as a team with enough talent to run the table against that group. As Joe tells me, the Gophers feature veteran lines and a strong defense overall. Best case, QB Mitch Leidner and the receivers make a big jump to support a solid running game. That's a 10-win team, he says. I'm not so sure. I think the cards fell about as perfectly as possible last year. Minnesota won a pair of games by a field goal in 2013, and each of its losses by came by double digits. TCU is an upgrade in the nonconference. The Gophers have to go to Michigan again and also get Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. Nine wins sounds pretty optimistic. But thanks, Joe, for the conversation.
@mitchsherman I can't decide which is more asinine, winning 8 as a best case, or only winning 3 as a worst case. Awful stuff.- Joe Chamberlin (@realjchamberlin) August 13, 2014
Mitch Sherman: It's not good. The Wildcats, as expected, are staying optimistic about the loss of arguably their two most potent offensive weapons. Yes, Northwestern can handle this from a personnel standpoint, with capable players set to fill the shoes of Venric Mark and Christian Jones. But this is another blow to the psyche of Pat Fitzgerald's club one year after a season of disappointment followed by a distracting offseason. What happens when more adversity strikes? It threatens to send the Cats more easily into a downward spin. In the end, I think the recent developments could contribute to a season with one or two fewer victories.
Mitch Sherman: In the Big Ten East? Perhaps, though I find it premature to write off Michigan. Despite James Franklin's hot start, the Wolverines will keep up with Penn State and Michigan State in recruiting. And moderate improvement on the field would allow Brady Hoke to beat Ohio State for a fair share of the prospects over which the rival programs go head to head. Penn State needs time to prove that Franklin's early results in recruiting will elevate the program to an elite level. If you're asking about the Big Ten as a whole, the Buckeyes and Spartans stand atop the heap today, but Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West possess the infrastructure to compete long term with any program in the league. Read more from ESPN's Recruiting Nation.
Mitch Sherman: Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst granted a rare interview this week, and while he said nothing of great significance, simple statements from Bo Pelini's boss are enough to make news. I'm not sure stability is the goal of Husker football; if so, things have changed more than I realized. And Nebraska's relevance is debatable. Sure, the Huskers are relevant in Nebraska, as always, and regionally. But on a national level, I don't notice much discussion about the program, unless it involves the coach's cat. Still, it's good for Nebraska when Eichorst offers an occasional comment, if just for the sake of appearance, even if he remains guarded in his opinions.
@mitchsherman Is NU "relevant" & "stable" or was Wed's interview just SE realizing he needed to say something this year PRIOR to season?— David (@drhgeronimo) August 14, 2014
Mitch Sherman: I sense irritation from Nate and fans of many Big Ten programs over the hype that surrounds Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's freshman defensive back. Hey, Peppers is good, and he's starting to prove it in practice. But no one in an important position at Michigan is set to award him with anything until he does it consistently on Saturdays. Peppers will get his shot first at nickelback in Greg Mattison's system, though the Wolverines are likely to try the talented rookie in many roles.
@mitchsherman they gonna put jabril peppers in the hall of fame during the season or you think they'll wait until after the year?— Nate James (@FortuNateShev) August 15, 2014
Here's the mailbag for Wednesday. Send more questions here for later this week.
Mitch Sherman: Iowa fans value stability. They've got it in Kirk Ferentz, entering his 16th season. He trails only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for longevity among major-conference coaches. Of course, with stability can come complacency. And the Hawkeyes got a dose of it two years ago. Last fall, though, produced positive vibes in Iowa City, with the promise of an even better season to follow.
Ferentz earned just less than $4 million last year, a figure that places him among the nation's elite. Iowa is 27-24 since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, so yes, fans ought to demand more bang for the buck. Thing is, from my view just to the west, I didn't sense more than moderate unrest even after the 2012 debacle.
Iowa fans understand the economics in play here. They like Ferentz as the face of the program. And expectations in Iowa City may never match those in place at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. All told, the Hawkeyes know what they have in their coach and generally like it. In this case, stability pays.
Mitch Sherman: The answer is multi-faceted. First, consider that Wisconsin is just one year removed from three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. With a tip of the cap to Michigan State, the Badgers maximize talent more efficiently than any Big Ten team.
So look at this group, with a suspect front seven on defense, the underwhelming Joel Stave at quarterback and a questionable group of receivers. You may see a mediocre club. Others see a team set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff. That's the Wisconsin way.
There's also Melvin Gordon, who led the nation in per-carry rushing average in each of the past two seasons. He's back to run behind a stout offensive line. Finally, check out the schedule. Yeah, LSU awaits in the opener, but there's no better time to get the young Tigers. The Badgers face Nebraska at Camp Randall and play Rutgers and Maryland from the East Division.
Mitch Sherman: Only two coaches qualify as realistic possibilities, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini. Either could land himself in trouble with a poor season, though isn't that always the case at Michigan and Nebraska?
In his fourth season, Hoke needs to rebound from a difficult six-game finish to last season. It began with a 24-3 drubbing at Michigan State and ended with a 31-14 loss to Kansas State. In between, the Wolverines lost at home to Nebraska and Iowa. Though all the pieces don't appear in place, it's time for Michigan to reverse the trajectory on display the past three years.
For Pelini, the story is different. His record, 58-24 in six years, stands up nationally. But the lack of a conference championship -- it's been since 1999 -- is a burden that has long troubled Nebraska fans. The Hail Mary escape against Northwestern last year may have saved the Huskers and their coach from a disastrous finishing stretch. Good fortune won't always be on their side.
The new College Football Playoff is supposed to encourage schools to schedule better nonconference games, as teams try to beef up their schedule strength to earn one of the playoff’s coveted four spots at season’s end.
On Thursday, Texas A&M and UCLA announced that they’ll play each other during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Other schools have announced future marquee nonconference opponents, including Texas A&M vs. USC, Notre Dame vs. Texas, Alabama vs. Michigan State and LSU vs. Oklahoma.
Here are five other nonconference games I’d like to see in the future:
When Meyer was still coaching at Florida, the Crimson Tide and Gators played in two of the most anticipated SEC championship games. The No. 2 Gators beat the No. 1 Tide 31-20 in 2008, and then the Tide turned the tables on No. 1 UF with a 32-13 win in 2009.
Alabama and Ohio State have played only three times in history, with the Tide winning each time, most recently in a 24-17 victory in the 1995 Citrus Bowl.
2. Texas vs. Texas A&M: Perhaps the biggest casualty in conference realignment, Texas and Texas A&M haven’t played each other since the Aggies bolted the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season. Sadly, there are no plans for the in-state rivals to play again in future regular seasons.
The Aggies and Longhorns played each other 118 times from 1894 to 2011, with their annual meeting traditionally being played on Thanksgiving Day. UT won nearly twice as many games as the Aggies (76-37-5), including nine of the last 12 meetings.
With former Louisville coach Charlie Strong taking over at Texas, and Kevin Sumlin building the Aggies into an SEC powerhouse, the game would also pit two of the sport’s best African-American coaches against each other.
3. Oregon vs. Baylor: Two of the game’s most explosive offenses -- and two of its best-dressed teams -- would undoubtedly light up the scoreboard if they ever played. In fact, the contest would probably look more like a track meet.
Under coach Art Briles, the Bears have become the Ducks of the Southwest, with their hurry-up, spread offense and myriad flashy uniforms closely resembling what Chip Kelly and then Mark Helfrich built at Oregon. The Bears and Ducks follow the same blueprint on offense: play fast and score fast.
We hoped to see this matchup in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season, but alas, it didn’t happen. Oregon and Baylor have never met on the gridiron.
4. Michigan vs. USC: Two of the sport’s traditional heavyweights have faced each other eight times in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio, but only twice during the regular season -- in 1957 and 1958.
The Trojans won the last three meetings in the Rose Bowl, 32-18 in 2007, 28-14 in 2004 and 17-10 in 1990. USC has won six of the past seven meetings overall and holds a 6-4 advantage all-time.
We might have seen this matchup during the regular season if a Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling partnership hadn’t fallen apart in 2012.
5. Georgia vs. Florida State: UGA coach Mark Richt was a longtime assistant under legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden before taking over the Bulldogs, and he recently poached defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt off the Seminoles’ staff.
The Bulldogs and Seminoles go head-to-head for a lot of recruits every year, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher upgraded his roster by effectively recruiting South Georgia and Atlanta.
The Bulldogs and Seminoles have played 11 times and only once since 1984 -- UGA defeated FSU 26-13 in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Georgia leads the all-time series, 6-4-1.
Toughest: at UNLV (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon (Dec. 14 in Portland, Ore.), vs. Missouri (Dec. 21 in St. Louis)
Next toughest: at Georgia Tech (Dec. 3)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 8), Jacksonville State (Nov. 10), Valparaiso (Nov. 13), Bradley (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 22), IPFW (Nov. 29), vs. Auburn (Dec. 8 in Atlanta), Dartmonth (Dec. 10), UIC (Dec. 28 in Chicago)
Toughness scale: 6 -- It's hard to really give the Illini a solid schedule grade, because it's hard to know just how good Illinois' best opponents really are. For example: It is never easy to win in the Thomas & Mack Center, but still-unproven center Khem Birch is the most certain thing about the Rebels' personnel in 2013-14; it looks like Dave Rice's team will be a quality road opponent, but impossible to make a guarantee to this effect. The same goes for Oregon and Missouri, both of whom should be solid at the very least, either of which could completely disappoint if their respective transfers don't pan out. A six feels fair to me, but it's an educated guess.
Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Syracuse (Dec. 3), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: N/A?
The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 8), LIU Brooklyn (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 15), Stony Brook (Nov. 17), Evansville (Nov. 26), North Florida (Dec. 7), Oakland (Dec. 10), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), Kennesaw State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 5 -- Two years since the collapse of its long-standing annual date with Kentucky, the Hoosiers have yet to find a home-and-home or even a neutral-court partnership to replace the strength they lost when the rivalry went awry. As such, Indiana's marquee nonconference games have been reduced to their participation in events: The 2K Sports Classic, where they'll play Washington and then either Boston College or Connecticut; the Crossroads Classic, where they'll play Notre Dame in front of a predominantly crimson crowd in downtown Indianapolis; and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The good news, at least as it pertains to schedule strength, is that this season's ACC/Big Ten draw sends IU to Syracuse, where they'll face a rabid Orange crowd and another very good Jim Boeheim team just months removed from their season-ending loss to the Cuse in March.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 13)
The rest: UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 8), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 10), Maryland Eastern Shore (Nov. 14), Abilene Christian (Nov. 17), Penn (Nov. 22), vs. Drake (Dec. 7 in Des Moines, Iowa), Farleigh Dickinson (Dec. 9), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 6 -- Last season, the ahead-of-schedule Hawkeyes played some of the best defense in the Big Ten, finished top 20 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings and made a deep run in the NIT. They were easily one of the best 60 teams in the country, but their nonconference schedule was so weak it precluded Fran McCaffery's squad from serious tournament consideration even as it played tight games with the best teams in the Big Ten every night. That shouldn't be as much of a problem this season, when Iowa will benefit from participation in the Battle 4 Atlantis (they'll face Xavier in the first round, and either Tennessee or UTEP in the second, maybe Kansas in the final?) and a much better opponent (Notre Dame) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also get Iowa State -- which lost much of last season's excellent offensive group, but retained rising sophomore Georges Niang and that insane Hilton Coliseum home court -- in a quality true road fixture. This slate still isn't a murderers' row, but it shouldn't hold the Big Ten's most fashionable title sleeper back, either.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Duke (Dec. 3), Arizona (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Nov. 17), vs. Stanford (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn)
The rest: UMass-Lowell (Nov. 8), South Carolina State (Nov. 12), Coppin State (Nov. 29), Houston Baptist (Dec. 7), Holy Cross (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The 2012-13 national runners-up, and 2013-14 Big Ten co-favorites, will play a nonconference schedule befitting their newly elevated aspirations. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off, with VCU and Georgetown lurking, ranks among the best tournament events of November. The trip to Duke for the ACC/Big Ten needs little in the way of explanation. (Man, that is going to be a fun game.) The trip to Iowa State is no laughing matter, for reasons outlined in Iowa's blurb; the trip to Brooklyn to face defensive-minded Stanford will be a challenge, too. But the X factor in this schedule comes Dec. 14 when Sean Miller's loaded Arizona group arrives in Ann Arbor for a good old-fashioned campus nonconference tilt. Those kinds of games are rare in our modern, neutral court-dominated landscape, and neither program needed to schedule this one. But I'm happy to speak for most college basketball fans when I say how glad I am that they did.
Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12 in Chicago), North Carolina (Dec. 4), vs. Georgetown (Feb. 1 in New York City)
Next toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (Nov. 22-23), at Texas (Dec. 21)
The rest: McNeese State (Nov. 8), Columbia (Nov. 15), Portland (Nov. 18), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 29), Oakland (Dec. 14), North Florida (Dec. 17), New Orleans (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 8 -- Most of Michigan State's schedule strength is derived from that monster Champions Classic matchup with potential preseason No. 1 Kentucky, John Calipari's most laughably-loaded group of talented freshmen ever -- which, two years removed from the 2012's 38-2 national title run, is saying something. The Dec. 4 home date against North Carolina won't be easy, but if the Tar Heels are without leading scorer and noted rental car enthusiast P.J. Hairston, the Spartans will be obvious favorites in the Breslin Center. Best-case scenario in the Coaches vs. Cancer (a win over Virginia Tech and a matchup with Oklahoma) still isn't much. The real pivot point comes in late December at Texas. For much of the past decade, that has been a brutal road test having less to do with Texas' crowds (sleepy) than with its teams (defensively brutal). If Barnes' team rebounds from last season's struggles and gets back to its usual spot in the top third of the Big 12, Tom Izzo's schedule looks a good sight harder. If not, it really comes down to that Kentucky game -- and what a game it will be. (Update: My first dig into the Spartans' schedule missed their Feb. 1 Super Bowl Sunday game against Georgetown in Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas are a bit of an unknown quantity without Otto Porter, but that's almost guaranteed to be a tough win to come away with, so I bumped them from seven to eight.)
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27),
Next toughest: at Richmond (Nov. 16), Florida State (Dec. 3)
The rest: Lehigh (Nov. 8), Montana (Nov. 12), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19), Wofford (Nov. 21), New Orleans (Dec. 7), South Dakota State (Dec. 10), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 20), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Gophers have at least one true standout game on their schedule: Their first-round Maui Invitational matchup with Syracuse, the best the 2013 Maui field has to offer. Which is not to say their trip to Richmond will be easy; indeed, after an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, Chris Mooney's program looks ready to pop back into tourney-bid contention this season. But that's basically it, besides a decent second Maui game with either Arkansas or Cal. Without would-be freshmen Andrew Wiggins (who chose Kansas instead) and Xavier Rathan-Meyes (who chose FSU, but wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA), the Seminoles could be in for another sub-.500 campaign, and from there it's all home cupcakes befitting a transitioning group -- which, under first-year coach Richard Pitino, is exactly what the Gophers are.
Toughest: at Creighton (Dec. 8), at Cincinnati (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-22)
The rest: Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 8), Western Illinois (Nov. 12), South Carolina State (Nov. 17), Northern Illinois (Nov. 30), Miami (Dec. 4), Arkansas State (Dec. 14), The Citadel (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The signs of second-year coach Tim Miles' tepid forward progress are evident not only in the impending opening of Nebraska's new $300 million arena, or in his signing of impressive New Zealand native Tai Webster (who will immediately be the Cornhuskers' best player when he takes the court against Dunk City in early November), but also in Nebraska's schedule. The Charleston Classic could yield a matchup with New Mexico (not to mention first-round opponent UMass), the Dec. 28 trip to Cincinnati is a perfectly respectable road trip, and Dec. 8's visit to Creighton -- the one program whose success can be said to have played a role in Nebraska's newfound commitment to hoops -- has a chance to put the Cornhuskers on the radar before Big Ten play commences. Miles & Co. are still a year or two away, but there are green shoots all over the place here, and the slightly improved schedule is just one more piece of evidence.
Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), at NC State (Dec. 4)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 14)
The rest: Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9), Illinois State (Nov. 17), UIC (Nov. 20), IUPUI (Nov. 22), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Michigan (Dec. 7), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 16), Brown (Dec. 22), DePaul (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 6 -- First-year coach Chris Collins is the first person to admit that his rebuilding project will be a multiyear affair. The immediate future will be just as challenging: Collins has to get a group of players recruited to play former coach Bill Carmody's very specific (some would say gimmicky) style to update their entire philosophy toward a modern and more conventional approach. But Collins does have some players at his disposal in Year 1 -- fifth-year medical redshirt Drew Crawford, post-suspension junior JerShon Cobb, promising sophomore center Alex Olah -- set to play a nonconference schedule that helpfully avoids the softness that plagued the Wildcats' nascent tournament hopes in recent seasons. Two true road noncon games at Stanford and NC State complement a solid pair of back-to-back fixtures (Missouri, UCLA) in the Las Vegas Invitational. The point of all this? Northwestern has the schedule to compete for a tournament bid in Year 1. Whether it will have the results to get there -- and make Collins a lionized, conquering hero in 12 months’ time -- will be fascinating to see.
Toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 16), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21 in New York City)
Next toughest: Maryland (Dec. 4)
The rest: Morgan State (Nov. 9), Ohio (Nov. 12), American (Nov. 20), Wyoming (Nov. 25), North Florida (Nov. 29), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 11), North Dakota State (Dec. 14), Delaware (Dec. 18), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 4 -- Save a trip to Duke, the Buckeyes' early schedule in 2012 was so gentle as to make their quality difficult to gauge. It took until February, when Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson congealed into a monster on the defensive perimeter, for the Buckeyes took on the look of a national title contender. (And they would have gotten to the Final Four, too, if it wasn't for those meddling
Toughest: at Pittsburgh (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: La Salle (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 13), Longwood (Nov. 24), Monmouth (Nov. 26), Marshall (Dec. 7), Princeton (Dec. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 4 -- Like Nebraska, Penn State's schedule is improved over recent seasons, and with D.J. Newbill returning and 2011-12's do-everything star Tim Frazier back from a season-ending Achilles tear, the Nittany Lions should improve along with it. It might be unfair to La Salle to keep them off that top line; the Explorers could still be a very dangerous team even without senior guard Ramon Galloway. The Barclays Center Classic offers a game against St. John's and a matchup with either Georgia Tech or Ole Miss, and putting a trip to Pittsburgh on the schedule doesn't only help coach Pat Chambers build his program's brand in a local recruiting zone, it also gives the Nittany Lions a real-deal road game against one of the nation's most consistent (and consistently RPI-friendly) programs.
Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: Boston College (Dec. 4), vs. Butler (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis), at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
The rest: Northern Kentucky (Nov. 8), Central Connecticut State (Nov. 13), Rider (Nov. 17), Eastern Illinois (Nov. 20), Siena (Nov. 24), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 7), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 17)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Boilermakers have one of those schedules that doesn't necessarily look great from this vantage point, but stands a reasonable chance of looking tougher and tougher as the season rolls on. How so? For starters, there's at least one really good game here -- the first-round Old Spice matchup with Oklahoma State and star point guard Marcus Smart. But a trip to West Virginia is never easy, and it's hard to imagine Bob Huggins' team repeating last season's monumental struggles. Boston College is a fringe ACC sleeper. And if Butler is better than most expect -- the Boilermakers could play the Bulldogs twice, if the two teams meet at the Old Spice in Orlando -- Matt Painter's team could benefit from a slate that proves better than the sum of its parts.
Toughest: Florida (Nov. 12), at Virginia (Dec. 4), Marquette (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27), vs. St. John's (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.)
The rest: at Green Bay (Nov. 16), North Dakota (Nov. 19), Bowling Green (Nov. 21), Oral Roberts (Nov. 23), Milwaukee (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 14), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The Badgers' schedule is tough enough in the abstract. It's even tougher when you consider how quickly Bo Ryan will throw his team into the fire. The geographically baffling season opener against St. John's in Sioux Falls is one thing, but that game is followed by a visit from Florida just four days later. In late November, the Badgers will be the likely favorite in the two-game Cancun Challenge, but will have to get by both Saint Louis and (probably) West Virginia to come away with two wins. Then it's off to Charlottesville for a revenge game against Virginia, just three days before Marquette comes to the Kohl Center for another edition of Wisconsin's best basketball rivalry. Merely listing these games out doesn't quite do the schedule justice. You need to see the chronology to get the full, brutal picture.
Correction: An earlier version of this post substituted Temple coach Fran Dunphy for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. It also neglected to list Michigan State's Feb. 1 game vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty awesome game. Eamonn regrets the errors, and is now atoning via self-flagellation.
“Knock it down,” Craft said as he flicked a pass to the underclassman in the second half of Ohio State’s 61-58 win over Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament at United Center on Saturday.
That’s not an unusual command from the veteran point guard.
Craft excelled in his typical role for the Buckeyes throughout the win.
He was the orchestrator and the distributor (nine assists, two turnovers). He was also the thief (four steals).
His emergence as the scorer, however, seemed odd but necessary.
So he took more shots. He scored on layups. He hit a 3-pointer. He made jumpers, too.
In all, Craft registered 18 of his 20 points in the second half of a win that guaranteed Ohio State’s fifth consecutive Big Ten tournament title game appearance -- the Buckeyes will play Wisconsin for the third time (1-1) this season.
“Just trying to believe in myself,” Craft said. “I think we have a lot of plays that we can execute that either get me open shots or I can help create for somebody else, and tonight I found some openings and was able to knock down some shots and that definitely opened up other things … whether it was Deshaun [Thomas] or guys like LaQuinton [Ross] that can knock down shots as well.”
In recent weeks, the chatter about college basketball’s hierarchy has centered on the fluctuation toward the top of the rankings. Duke, Gonzaga, Indiana, Kansas, Georgetown, Miami, Louisville and Michigan have been submitted as candidates for “the best team in America” discussion.
Meanwhile, Ohio State continues to add to one of the country’s most impressive current winning streaks. The Buckeyes have won seven in a row since suffering a 71-49 loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17.
They’ve beaten Michigan State twice since that loss. They’ve defeated Indiana in Bloomington. They won the other four games by double digits.
They’re quietly approaching the NCAA tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country.
“Man, Ohio State [doesn’t] get respect sometimes,” Thomas said. “But it’s all good, though. Just like last year. Nobody knew we were going to get to the Final Four and we did.”
But they nearly lost their mojo in Chicago.
They went 11-for-32 in the first half against the Spartans. But they were only down 29-28 after committing just two turnovers prior to the break (five turnovers overall).
And then, Craft happened.
He scored 13 points in the first 10-plus minutes of the second half. His 3-pointer with 11:48 to play gave Ohio State a 48-45 lead. His layup with 9:47 to go gave the Buckeyes a 51-47 advantage.
But the Spartans kept fighting. Keith Appling hit a 3-pointer that cut Ohio State’s lead to three points with 3:24 on the game clock. Nix’s layup and free throw, after he was fouled with 1:54 to go, reduced the deficit to one.
But Nix grabbed Craft on a drive at the 1:27 mark. Officials called it a flagrant foul.
And Craft made one of two free throws to extend Ohio State’s lead to two points.
Thomas (16 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists) came up with a crucial rebound in the last minute. And then he hit a runner with 22 seconds remaining in regulation. His shot -- he scored just five points after halftime -- extended Ohio State’s lead to four points (60-56).
Sam Thompson contested Keith Appling’s layup in the final seconds, which essentially secured the win. Thomas capped the game with another free throw (Denzel Valentine scored Michigan State’s final bucket).
Craft soothed his squad when Thomas struggled. He kept the Buckeyes in a rhythm even as Michigan State scored multiple buckets in the final minutes.
“You look at what he has accomplished thus far in his career at Ohio State and just the wins, the big plays that he's made …. In coaching, you don't get to coach a lot of guys like him just from A to Z and everything he stands for,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said after the game.
The Buckeyes could be a perplexing case for the selection committee (Joe Lunardi listed Ohio State as a No. 2 seed in his 6:45 p.m. ET projection on Saturday evening), especially if they beat the Badgers on Sunday. In early February, they were just perplexing. They lost three of their first four games last month.
Craft was 3-for-11 from the 3-point line during that stretch.
But Matta still trusted him.
“He kind of makes us go on both ends of the floor, obviously when he's making shots, but a lot of people panicked when he wasn't scoring in the middle of the season, and I'm like, I don't have a problem with it, it'll come,” he said.
Thomas couldn’t find the rim on Saturday. But he trusted Craft enough to suppress his personal offensive urges and allow his teammate to lead.
“Probably two years ago or last year, I probably would have been like ‘I need that ball, I need that ball’ and going crazy,” Thomas said. “Just me learning the game and being mature and knowing we’ve got guys who can plays also ... I trust [Craft] no matter what.”
Craft embraces the responsibility even if it demands more shots and fewer passes. The workload doesn’t matter.
The Buckeyes needed everything from their captain against the Spartans. He ran toward those expectations, not from them.
That’s why Ohio State is playing its best basketball right now. When it matters most.
“Everything is going a lot better when you’re knocking down shots,” he said. “It kind of relaxes everybody else. It takes pressure off everyone.”
And when Craft plays the way he did on Saturday, it puts more pressure on every team facing the Buckeyes.
That night, Jan. 10, 2012, Paul scored 43 points on 15 shots, including 8 of 10 from beyond the arc. More than a few of those shots were patently ridiculous -- a contested fallaway 3 from the corner, a bank shot from 20 feet, step-backs from every angle -- and they let you know pretty early on that Paul was just having one of those nights. Stand back and enjoy.
Despite all that efficient brilliance, Illinois still only barely toppled the Buckeyes, 79-74. In the end, the game was a weirdly telling sign of things to come: Paul went back to his usual inefficient self and Illinois lost 12 out of its last 14 games, turning a 15-3 start into a 17-15 finish that got its coach, Bruce Weber, summarily canned.
This time around, the home victory over Ohio State couldn't have been more different. Illinois didn't have to summon its very best; Paul didn't have to go off. He just needed to do what he's been doing all season. He just needed to be consistent.
It's simple but true. Last season, Paul's crazy 43-point breakout was an aberration in an otherwise choppy season. On Saturday, his 19 points on 12 shots (with 7 rebounds and 3 assists) was still one of the best performances on the floor (Illinois center Nnanna Egwu had 16 points on 10 shots, with 8 rebounds), and it was more in line with what we've come to expect from Paul this season. Last season, the guard still used 28 percent of his team's possessions -- the same as in 2012-13 -- but his offensive rating was a mere 95.2. Before Saturday's game, his 2012-13 mark was 111.4.
Paul's senior year has thus far been the best of his career, and it isn't even close. He's not only more "consistent," he's better, and so is his team.
How? Paul gives a lot of the credit to coach John Groce, who did a major set renovation on Illinois' offense in his first offseason with the team. Doing away with much of Weber's three-out, two-in motion, Groce instead spaced the floor. He frequently plays a four-guard lineup, runs much more high screen-and-roll, and allows 6-foot-9 forward Tyler Griffey to spot up from 3, where he's shooting 45 percent on the season.
All of this has helped Paul feel like he has more space to operate on offense -- he can take a screen or two, read the defense, attack the rim or dish to one of several perimeter options. But Groce has also done something much more basic: He has made his star guard feel trusted.
"He's given me, and continues to give me, more freedom," Paul said. "He knows if I make a strong decision with the ball he doesn't really have to worry about bad shot selection. We've all done a better job this year with bad shot selection, myself especially.
"He's given me the option to control the team, to control the game," Paul said. "He says to go at my pace, and make sure everyone else is on the same page. That definitely helps."
To be sure, Paul got plenty of other help in Saturday's victory. His teammates put in a balanced scoring effort -- Egwu picked up an off Griffey down low, while Tracy Abrams went 5-of-7 from the field and Joseph Bertrand added 12 points off the bench. It also helped that Ohio State went just 4-of-19 from 3. Deshaun Thomas needed 21 shots to get his 24 points, and the rest of his teammates combined for just 31 points on 28.2 percent shooting, easily the ugliest performance of the season from a typically good offensive team, albeit one that has yet to notch a marquee victory, and will have its doubters in droves. And 11th-ranked Illinois cleaned up all those misses on the glass, something the Illini struggled to do in Wednesday's Big Ten-opening loss at Purdue.
Illinois' victory also highlighted the sheer strength of the Big Ten, and just how difficult it will be to steal wins on the road in league play.
"You can't take one game off," Paul said. "You have to compete no matter where you're at. It's going to be like every year in the Big Ten -- there are going to be a lot of ups and downs."
Rarely was that more true than for the 2011-12 Illini, who went from an upset of a Final Four team and a classic 43-point performance to 17-15 with a fired coach. This season, the Illini have set about making those downs less down, even if the ups are never quite as high. In a word: consistency.
"We had balanced scoring, guys in double digits, guys were getting a lot of gang rebounds," Paul said. "I love these types of games."
A quick look at No. 11 Illinois' 74-55 win over No. 8 Ohio State at Assembly Hall on Saturday in Champaign, Ill.
Overview: Illinois has proved twice now this season that it can bounce back from a loss. That wasn’t a trait of last season’s team, which had two three-game losing streaks and a six-game skid.
The Illini needed Saturday’s win after falling at Purdue in their Big Ten opener earlier in the week. An 0-2 start with upcoming games against Minnesota and at Wisconsin wouldn’t have been ideal for Illinois.
Illinois also showed it doesn’t have to rely on the 3-pointer to beat top teams, as it did against Butler and Gonzaga. The Illini were 8-of-27 from 3-point range Saturday, but they did the bulk of their damage inside. Illinois had five players score nine or more points. Brandon Paul led the way with 19 points.
On the other end, Ohio State couldn’t get much to fall. The Buckeyes were 20-of-60 from the field and 4-of-19 from 3-point range. Deshaun Thomas scored 24 of the team’s 55 points.
Turning point: Illinois came out motivated after losing to Purdue. The Illini used a 12-2 run early in the first half to go up 25-11. Ohio State was able to cut the lead to eight at one point, but the Illini wouldn’t give in any more than that. Illinois led by 20-plus points throughout most of the second half.
Key player: Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu appears to improve by the game. He scored a career-high 16 points on Saturday, and added eight rebounds, one block and one steal.
Key stat: Ohio State was averaging 10 turnovers heading into Saturday’s game. The Illini forced the Buckeyes into 10 turnovers in the first half alone. Ohio State finished with 16 turnovers.
Next game: Illinois will host its second consecutive top-10 team when No. 9 Minnesota comes to town Wednesday. Ohio State heads to Purdue on Tuesday.
Editor's note: Each Friday morning, Jay Bilas will break down the weekend's top game. This week it’s the Big Ten matchup between No. 8 Ohio State and No. 11 Illinois at 2:15 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Game overview: Ohio State comes into this key road game at 11-2, having lost only at Duke and at home against Kansas. The Buckeyes have been tested and are a quality team whose offensive and defensive efficiency is each rated among the top dozen in the country. Ohio State minimizes turnovers, averaging only 10 per game, and does a good job of limiting opponents to one challenged shot. Defensively, this team has excellent perimeter defenders from both an individual and team standpoint.
Aaron Craft is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and keys the defense with great ball pressure. But Shannon Scott also has been among the best defenders in the country so far. Scott leads Ohio State with 29 steals, while Craft has 22. Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson are also excellent defenders who are athletic and physical. The Buckeyes can match up with any backcourt in the country, get down in a stance and guard them. Simply put, Ohio State is the best defensive team in the Big Ten, especially when guarding inside the 3-point line.
Illinois, on the flip side, has outstanding guards who can really score and make great use of the 3-point line. The Illini have five guys who have hit 15 or more 3s, including three players who have hit 24 or more. Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams are difficult to contain and can all get their own. Illinois is a good passing team that really moves the ball and makes great use of the dribble. But this is primarily a jump-shooting team that does not get the ball into the post and does not get to the free throw line. Illinois wins from deep and in transition. Illinois has had trouble cleaning up its defensive glass. The Illini's first-shot defense is very good, but they allow too many second shots. Ohio State has, at times, been a good offensive rebounding team.
Player Illinois must stop: The Buckeyes have several players who can score, and Illinois has to be conscious of Lenzelle Smith out of the corner and take away angles in the post. But to beat Ohio State, you have to limit Deshaun Thomas. The 6-foot-7 lefty is a natural scorer who Ohio State will screen into the post and use in pick-and-pop situations, and he has a quick release on his shot. Thomas leads Ohio State in scoring and rebounding, averaging 20 points and seven rebounds, while shooting 47 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 80 percent from the line. To limit Thomas, you must force him to be a 2-point shooter and make him work hard as a defender by involving him in ball screens and going at him; also, you must not foul him. He will get his shots, but if he has to take mostly 2s and is not fouled, he has to work harder to produce big numbers.
Player Ohio State must stop: Illinois has multiple threats on the perimeter, but Brandon Paul is the biggest gun. Paul is averaging 18 points but has the ability to go off for 35, as he did at Gonzaga. Last season against Ohio State, he put up 43. Paul is good in transition, is strong with the ball, and has knocked down 39 3-point field goals in 15 games. He leads Illinois in scoring, rebounding, assists, 3s made and free throws made, and he is second in steals. Illinois can beat you with Richardson and Abrams, but it can't beat you without production from Paul.
Player Illinois needs to produce: The trio of Abrams, Richardson and Paul have to provide scoring, but Illinois needs a good and tough performance from Joseph Bertrand. He is an excellent rebounder and defender and a really good player. Bertrand is averaging 9 points per game and is shooting 56 percent from the floor, 45 percent from deep and 80 percent from the line. He can be a key performer on both ends.
Player Ohio State needs to produce: Ohio State does it by committee and has only two double-figure scorers (Thomas and Smith). Aaron Craft is always there on the defensive end and running the team. There is not a better or tougher competitor in the college game. But Craft needs to score for Ohio State to stay among the contending teams in the Big Ten and nationally. Craft is averaging 8 points, 5 assists and barely 1 turnover per game, but is shooting only 36 percent from the field. In Ohio State's two losses to Duke and Kansas, Craft was 5-for-24 from the field, with 4 assists and 7 turnovers.
Key stats: 3-point shooting and offensive rebounding. Illinois is averaging 10 made 3-point field goals and must be limited from behind the arc. Ohio State has to pick up early in transition and find shooters. The Buckeyes are bigger and do a better job of getting and limiting second shots. Sam McLaurin is Illinois' best offensive rebounder and needs to get second opportunities. But the real key for Illinois is to limit Ohio State's second chances. This is not a game in which either team will cough the ball up 20 times. Second chances are going to be the main opportunity for extra possessions. Control the glass and you control the game.
Who wins: Illinois is coming off a loss, and you get the feeling that the Illini will be prepared for a fight and will come out swinging. But Ohio State is so good at defending the perimeter and limiting mistakes, I favor the Buckeyes in this one: Ohio State, 72-69.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21), at Gonzaga (Dec. 8) vs. Missouri (Dec. 22 in St. Louis)
Next-toughest: Georgia Tech (Nov. 28)
The rest: Colgate (Nov. 9), St. Francis-NY (Nov. 12), at Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Carolina (Dec. 4), Norfolk State (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 16), Auburn (Dec. 29 in Chicago)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The first season of new coach John Groce's tenure kicks off with a pretty standard Illinois schedule, but with a twist -- it isn't often the Illini have chosen to play buzzsaw road games quite like their date at Gonzaga on Dec. 8. And the Maui Invitational is a nice field, too, one that begins with USC and features Texas, North Carolina, Butler and Marquette as possible opponents.
Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 19-20 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), North Carolina (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: Butler (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis)
The rest: North Dakota State (Nov. 12), Sam Houston State (Nov. 15), Ball State (Nov. 25), Coppin State (Dec. 1), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 19), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 21), Jacksonville (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Indiana prevails over first-round opponent Georgia at the Legends Classic, it will face either UCLA or Georgetown -- both of which would be quality neutral-site opponents. But because the Crossroads Classic is in friendly territory, and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge brings North Carolina to Bloomington, the Hoosiers' nonconference schedule sets up the likely preseason No. 1 with a very plausible path to an undefeated pre-New Year's record.
Toughest: Iowa State (Dec. 7), Northern Iowa (Dec. 15 in Des Moines)
Next-toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 20-21 in Cancun, Mexico), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 27)
The rest: Texas-Pan American (Nov. 9), Central Michigan (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 17), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Dec. 1), South Dakota (Dec. 4), South Carolina State (Dec. 19), Coppin State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The emergence of Iowa State and a neutral-site game with Northern Iowa provide nice dates, but the Cancun Challenge's best teams are DePaul and a rebuilding Wichita State, and Virginia Tech was hollowed out in the wake of coach Seth Greenberg's offseason firing. There's simply not a lot here.
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-20 in Ann Arbor, Nov. 21-23 in New York), NC State (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: Arkansas (Dec. 8), West Virginia (Dec. 15 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Slippery Rock (Nov. 9), at Bradley (Dec. 1), Western Michigan (Dec. 4), Binghamton (Dec. 11), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 20), Central Michigan (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The NIT Season Tip-Off comprises early-round games against mid-majors at the Crisler Center before presumably taking its show -- which will offer some combination of games against Virginia, Kansas State and/or Pittsburgh -- to Madison Square Garden. There are quality opponents available there, and both West Virginia and Arkansas will present challenges, but other than NC State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, there are no elite teams on this projected title contender's docket. Good schedule, not great.
Toughest: vs. Connecticut (Nov. 9 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany), vs. Kansas (Nov. 13 in Atlanta)
Next-toughest: at Miami (Nov. 28), Texas (Dec. 22)
The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 18), Boise State (Nov. 20), Oakland (Nov. 23), Louisiana-Lafayette (Nov. 25), Nicholls State (Dec. 1), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 5), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 8), Tuskegee (Dec. 15), at Bowling Green (Dec. 18)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Connecticut might not be Connecticut this season, but playing on an air base in Germany is never going to be easy -- especially when you follow it up four days later with a game against Kansas in Atlanta. Talk about travel. The ACC-Big Ten game at Miami is no slouch either, and Texas will be improved when it comes to East Lansing.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 22-24 in Bahamas), at Florida State (Nov. 27)
Next-toughest: at USC (Dec. 8)
The rest: American (Nov. 9), Toledo (Nov. 12), Tennessee State (Nov. 15), Richmond (Nov. 18 in St. Paul, Minn.), North Florida (Dec. 1), South Dakota State (Dec. 4), North Dakota State (Dec. 11), Lafayette (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- From Nov. 22 to Nov. 27, there are few teams in the country with a schedule as tough as Minnesota's. The Battle 4 Atlantis is this season's premier tournament. Minnesota will play Duke, then Memphis or Virginia Commonwealth, and some combination of Louisville, Missouri, Northern Iowa and Stanford just a few days before stopping off at Florida State for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Harsh stuff -- and a trip to USC in December is no cakewalk, either.
Toughest: Creighton (Dec. 6), at Oregon (Dec. 15)
Next-toughest: Valparaiso (Nov. 15), at Wake Forest (Nov. 27), USC (Dec. 3)
The rest: Southern (Nov. 11), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 18), Tulane (Nov. 21), Kent State (Nov. 24), Jacksonville State (Dec. 18), Sun Bowl Invitational (Dec. 22-23), Nicholls State (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- The only marquee opponent on this schedule is Creighton, and Nebraska is lucky enough to get Doug McDermott and Co. at home (even if a number of Jays fans are likely to invade Lincoln). A trip to Oregon won't be easy, but when your next-toughest games are home dates with Valpo and USC, your schedule isn't going to rate that highly. And in a rebuilding year, that's OK.
Toughest: at Baylor (Dec. 4)
Next-toughest: Maryland (Nov. 27), Butler (Dec. 8), Stanford (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Southern (Nov. 13), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 15), Fairleigh Dickinson (Nov. 18), Delaware State (Nov. 20), South Padre Island Invitational (Nov. 23-24), Illinois-Chicago (Dec. 1), Texas State (Dec. 17), Brown (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Northwestern's only road test before conference play comes at Baylor, and it will be a significant test. But the other highlights are limited to good-but-not-great teams, all of which come to Evanston. This isn't as bad as some of Northwestern's recent schedules, but it isn't among the toughest in the Big Ten.
Toughest: Marquette (Nov. 9 in Charleston, S.C.), at Duke (Nov. 28), Kansas (Dec. 22)
Next-toughest: Hall of Fame Tip-Off (Nov. 17-18 in Uncasville, Conn.)
The rest: Alabany (Nov. 11), UMKC (Nov. 13), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 1), Long Beach State (Dec. 8), Savannah State (Dec. 12), UNC Asheville (Dec. 15), Winthrop (Dec. 18), Chicago State (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- The Marquette game will be on board an aircraft carrier, and you never know what'll happen on one of those things. Combine that with a trip to Duke in the Challenge (the Blue Devils will surely be looking for revenge for last season's smackdown in Columbus) and a home date with Kansas, and the end result is a pretty strong schedule, all things considered.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18)
Next-toughest: vs. La Salle (Dec. 5 at the Palestra)
The rest: St. Francis-Penn. (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 23), Boston College (Nov. 28), Penn (Dec. 1), Army (Dec. 8), Delaware (Dec. 15), New Hampshire (Dec. 23), Duquesne (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- I thought about going lower, but the Nittany Lions get a little toughness scale boost for a couple of reasons. For one, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off bracket has Tim Frazier and Co. taking on NC State in the first round. For another, this team is still very much in the throes of rebuilding, at a school where the athletics programs have faced (and are facing) some of the most dire times in NCAA history. A so-so schedule is forgiveable, I'd say.
Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 15-16 in New York), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 15 in Indianapolis)
Next-toughest: at Clemson (Nov. 28), Xavier (Dec. 1)
The rest: Bucknell (Nov. 9), Hofstra (Nov. 11), UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 21), Lamar (Dec. 4), at Eastern Michigan (Dec. 8), Ball State (Dec. 18), William & Mary (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The 2K Sports Classic features a game vs. Villanova and either Alabama or Oregon State. And the neutral-court Crossroads Classic matchup with Notre Dame is going to be a tough one. But with Xavier being down for this return home-and-home trip, and Clemson rebuilding under Brad Brownell, the schedule doesn't have much of an edge to it. It's merely OK.
Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 14), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 23-24), at Marquette (Dec. 8)
Next-toughest: Virginia (Nov. 28), Cal (Dec. 2)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 11), Cornell (Nov. 18), Presbyterian (Nov. 20), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 4), Green Bay (Dec. 12), Milwaukee (Dec. 22), Samford (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Now this is a tough schedule. It features road trips to Florida and Marquette (plenty of Badgers fans will be in the building Dec. 8, but still), as well as the Las Vegas Invitational, which offers an opening-round game against Creighton and a possible matchup against Arkansas. Virginia and California are solid opponents, while Milwaukee and Green Bay are nothing to overlook. But the real strength of the slate comes in those road tests, which many of the Big Ten's top schedules can't boast.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Was it too much to ask?
Was it too much to hope that just one time -- this time -- would be Northwestern's turn as fate's chosen beneficiary? Was it too much to think that maybe, despite all the reasons to believe the contrary, the Wildcats might just catch a break? Could Northwestern fans, besieged constantly by reminders of their program's historic futility, finally feel the freedom of belief?
The short answer? No.
"It's very tough," Northwestern guard Drew Crawford said.
"Disappointing," forward John Shurna said. "Kind of a tough way to go out."
Wednesday night was Shurna's senior night, an honor he shared with Davide Curletti, Nick Fruendt and Luka Mirkovic. Shurna & Co. are the school's all-time winningest class, one that also set a school record with three consecutive postseason appearances.
Of course, none of those postseasons has been of the NCAA tournament variety, which is why Wednesday night's game was so much more than a disappointing loss, so much more than an emotional senior night spoiled by a 75-73 defeat.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- A quick rundown of Ohio State's 75-73 victory over Northwestern on Wednesday night:
Overview: The script was written. Northwestern didn't have enough size, enough athleticism, enough sheer basketball talent, and Ohio State did. The Wildcats were getting brutalized on the boards, and while their outside shooting kept them in the game, it didn't seem capable of actually pushing them over that last big invisible hump.
And then, suddenly, it did. Northwestern hung in and battled back from double-digit second-half deficits. By the final two minutes, the Wildcats had cut the lead to five, then four, then three, then -- suddenly, miraculously, from 30 or so feet -- Alex Marcotullio sank a game-tying 3 and sent Northwestern's tortured fan base into hysterics.
And then, just as suddenly, the euphoria vanished. Ohio State ran a perfectly designed play with 7 seconds left, leading to a shockingly easy Jared Sullinger layup. John Shurna's last-ditch half-court heave (just barely) missed, and there it was: 75-73, Buckeyes. Northwestern was close. So, so close. But the hump won again.
Star of the game: Jared Sullinger. The Buckeyes big man found life in the middle of Northwestern's zone about as easy as you'd expect. He scored 22 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, 11 of them of the offensive variety. He and Deshaun Thomas (19 points, 10 rebounds) dominated down low, an advantage that for much of the game kept Northwestern at bay.
Stat of the game: 62.5. That's the percentage of its own misses Ohio State grabbed Wednesday night. For reference's sake, the national leader in offensive rebounding percentage (Quinnipiac, believe it or not) grabs about 42 percent of its own misses on average. Again, OSU dominated the offensive glass, and those second-chance points were the key difference.
What it means: It's impossible not to feel, if only a little, for Northwestern. In consecutive weeks, the Wildcats took a top team (first Michigan, then the Buckeyes) to the wire at home, either of which would have given them the marquee win that almost certainly would ensure a first-ever berth in the NCAA tournament. Now, their at-large bid is still shaky, with only one game -- a potential bubble-burster at Iowa on Saturday -- left in the regular season. This is Northwestern's second brutal loss in eight days.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Michigan State’s Draymond Green is greeted with anger or indifference at 10 of the Big Ten’s 12 arenas.
He will hear a small amount of applause at most places on the road. Players’ family members travel to most games, and there’s usually a pocket of Spartans fans who live locally or will commute wherever Big Ten games are staged.
But the only two places where Green feels truly loved is at home in Michigan State’s Breslin Center and at Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena. It’s not that Northwestern’s fans are extremely friendly; it’s that Evanston borders Chicago, and Chicago is home to thousands of Michigan State alumni.
"It's always a mixed crowd at Northwestern,” Green said. “It's weird, but it still gets loud in there. But we always have a great crowd at Northwestern. I'm not sure how it turns out with everybody else. But every time I've been there, there have been a ton of Michigan State fans.”
The blame for this isn’t completely on Northwestern’s fans. Sure, if there were more Northwestern season-ticket holders, it would eliminate more opposing fans. But it’s also simply the downside of existing in a metropolitan area.
While other Big Ten teams possess the advantage of a home crowd being more completely on their side -- which some experts believe can be quantified by as many as 10 points for the home team -- Northwestern often doesn’t have that luxury.
For example, in Northwestern’s recent home game against the Michigan Wolverines, the Wildcats faithful were roaring when Northwestern was playing well. But Michigan’s fans also made themselves known when the Wolverines made their push. Michigan’s fans could even be heard chanting “air-ball” after Northwestern star John Shurna missed the rim on a 3-point attempt.
Northwestern junior guard Alex Marcotullio admitted he and his teammates notice the good and bad when they’re at home.
“You can tell especially when the opposing team goes on a run in Big Ten play,” Marcotullio said. “You can hear when it’s Michigan State, the ‘go green, go white,’ and ‘go blue’ [against Michigan]. It’s something you have to block out. I think it helps the other team a little bit when they can look up and see their colors in the crowd.
“I think it’s something we have to deal with, but then again our fans are behind us 100 percent, as well, and it’s good to see all the purple.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Stephen Bardo said he thought Northwestern’s fans could actually amp themselves up. He believed today’s Northwestern fans paled in comparison to the Northwestern fans he had to deal with as an Illinois player from 1986-1990.
“We never went up there and beat them by a ton,” Bardo said. “We would have a lot of Illinois fans, but it still felt like a road game. Their fans were really into it. Their fans were feisty. They’re like a wine and cheese crowd now. They’re trying to get into the NCAA, and I think it’s quieter than it was before.
“I think the fans take Northwestern for granted. If you think about it, it’s the best conference in the country this season. They’re right on the cusp of the NCAA tournament. They’re on the cusp of making history, and they’re not selling out.”
Northwestern has made strides in its home attendance. The Wildcats' average home attendance will rise to 6,200 after Wednesday's game with the Ohio State Buckeyes, according to a Northwestern spokesperson. Last year, Northwestern's attendance was 5,291 per game.
Northwestern fans are expected to be out in full force Wednesday when the Wildcats host the Buckeyes in what is being deemed one of the biggest games in the program’s history.
Yet, the Buckeyes will likely be well represented, too. On Ohio State’s Chicago alumni association website, an invitation to Wednesday’s game is posted.
A season ago, it was Ohio State’s fans who left Welsh-Ryan Arena happy with a one-point win over Northwestern. Perhaps the outcome will be different this time around.
Things didn't go according to plan. But were the Irish the biggest disappointment of this past college football season?
Turns out they'll have to settle for No. 2 in that category.
CBSSports.com's Brett McMurphy broke down the preseason AP poll, using it as a measuring stick to see whom the voters were right (or close to being right) about while acknowledging those they whiffed on. McMurphy listed the 48 schools that received a vote in the preseason poll and calculated the difference from where they finished in the final poll.
The numbers showed that preseason No. 8 Texas A&M, at minus-41, was the biggest disappointment of 2011, with Notre Dame right behind the Aggies at minus-33. Ohio State (minus-31), Mississippi State (minus-29) and Florida (minus-27) rounded out the top five disappointments. Those five, plus Missouri (preseason No. 21, minus-8) and Auburn (preseason No. 23, minus-4) made up the seven schools that were not ranked in the final poll after being ranked in the preseason.
Preseason unranked Baylor (plus-36) finished as the biggest surprise.
And, in a reassuring sign for sportswriters everywhere, No. 7 Stanford, No. 14 TCU and No. 19 Georgia finished in the exact same spots as their preseason rankings.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- He laughed, not out loud, but certainly to himself every now and again.
How could he not?
Not long ago, Brandon Paul was thinking he was going to stop taking 3-point shots. Maybe not altogether, but certainly cut them down -- go for more of a sure thing, such as drives to the hoop.
His confidence was somewhere near the curbside thanks to an abysmal outside shooting slump that started in the first game of the season and really hadn’t abated since. Paul was shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc, down from 36 percent just last season.
Which is why, as Paul was shooting off his back foot with a hand in his face, beating the shot clock with a swish of the net, knocking down eight of 10 from beyond the arc and scoring 43 points in Illinois’ 79-74 upset of No. 5 Ohio State, he just had to chuckle.
Clearly he was saving up.
Paul’s 43 points were the third most by any player in Illinois history. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he's the only college basketball player over the past 15 seasons to score at least 43 points while attempting 15 or fewer shots. Now that's efficient.
Heck, his point total was only five less than his team scored in a game against St. Bonaventure earlier this season.
Yes, it was a no-he-didn’t, oh-my-goodness jaw-dropper of a night, one that made you shake your head even when you watched it live.
Every shot Paul hit was crucial. He scored 10 points in a row to erase an eight-point first-half deficit and scored the final 15 of the game -- none bigger than his last 3 of the night.
With Illinois clinging to a 71-70 lead and less than a minute left, the Illini got the ball with just 4 seconds left on the shot clock. They inbounded to Paul, who somehow beat the disappearing clock to sink a 3 from the deepest corner of the baseline with Aaron Craft’s hand right in his face.
“We wanted to make him shoot a challenged shot, and he did,’’ OSU coach Thad Matta said. “It was a great shot. We were there. Aaron almost fouled him, but it was as big as an ocean for him tonight.’’
Truth is, it’s not Paul’s final dagger that will haunt the one-time prohibitive Big Ten favorite Buckeyes, who now have dropped to 3-2 in league play. It’s the two-minute span in which Paul didn’t score a point. Ohio State led by 11, 48-37. The fans were groaning, sensing that the Bucks were about to cruise to victory and turn an entertaining game into a walkover.
Instead, the Illini scored nine unanswered points, with an exclamation 3 from D.J. Richardson after Illinois doubled player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger, forcing him into a turnover.
Illinois shot 61 percent from beyond the arc against a team that had allowed opponents to sink only 30 percent from long distance. Illinois also dropped 74 on a team that ranked sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 54.9 points per game.
Bruce Weber's team went toe to toe on the boards (28-27 edge to OSU) against a team that outrebounds opponents by an average of 8.7 per game.
That and the unkind bookends of history. Just a year ago, the Buckeyes rallied from a 13-point deficit against the Illini. Weber was quick to remind his team of that during a huddle after it had regained the lead.
No doubt Matta might offer up that bit of information in the future.
“You get to the round of 32 and then the Sweet 16, and you get comfortable,’’ Sullinger said. “You get beat.’’
It would be easy to write off this loss as a bad night for the Buckeyes and a ridiculously good one for Paul. It’s not altogether inaccurate. But Matta looks a little more critically at his team and doesn't think anything is quite that simple.
He watched the film of Ohio State's 76-47 win Saturday against Iowa, a victory most viewed as a sign that OSU was back from its loss to Indiana, and saw things differently. He saw a team that made mistakes despite what looked like an overwhelmingly strong defensive effort. A team that is full of good kids but still needs a presence and a leader, especially at practice.
He’s not ready to sound the alarm, even if his players are starting to ding it for him.
Somewhere in the middle is probably the right reaction. This isn’t wholesale panic time in Columbus, not with three losses to three good teams. Yet in a league as deep and as difficult as the Big Ten, there’s little room for error, especially with what stands as an even more crucial game against Indiana looming Sunday.
“We’re not going to bite on fool’s gold,’’ Matta said. “We have to play better. Unfortunately the numbers [from the Iowa game] were a little bit misconstrued, and those got blown out of the water tonight.’’
Certainly some of that was due to Illinois, or more specifically Paul.
There are some things no one can guard against, and that includes a guy who’s turning a Division I basketball game into a game of H-O-R-S-E.
Paul’s night started out about as horrifically as a night can begin. He coughed up four turnovers in the first seven minutes and didn’t have a bucket to negate the miscues.
It wasn’t exactly what Paul was imagining when he was roused from his pregame nap by a text from his coach that read simply, "This is your time. Be special."
“The way he started," Weber said, "he was special bad."
By the end, he was unforgettably spectacular. Laughing all the way to victory.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
10:08 1st Qtr 4 Oklahoma 0 West Virginia 0 0:45 1st Qtr Mississippi State 14 8 LSU 0 12:54 1st Qtr 14 South Carolina 0 Vanderbilt 7 8:00 PM ET 22 Clemson 1 Florida State 10:30 PM ET 2 Oregon Washington State 8:00 PM ET Miami (FL) 24 Nebraska Final Florida 21 3 Alabama 42 Final 6 Texas A&M 58 SMU 6 Final Eastern Michigan 14 11 Michigan State 73 Final Troy 0 13 Georgia 66 Final Indiana 31 18 Missouri 27 Final Bowling Green 17 19 Wisconsin 68 Final Virginia 33 21 BYU 41