College Basketball Nation: Big Ten

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Police dogs sniffed the backpacks and purses of men and women who entered AT&T Stadium on Friday morning. One of the officers claimed that the black Labradors were deployed to search for bombs and other explosive devices.

But that might not be the full story about the security operation. Perhaps they were really there to protect "the tweak."

For weeks, John Calipari has discussed "the tweak." It’s a mystery, but he swears that the tweak changed Kentucky basketball in 2013-14.

It all started about a month ago, as the Wildcats were prepping for the SEC tournament. That’s when Calipari tweaked -- not to be confused with "twerked" -- something within his program. Even though Kentucky lost to Florida by a point in the conference tourney title game, it seemed renewed in Atlanta.

The Wildcats were jelling and connecting in ways that weren’t evident in the previous weeks and months. They were moving the ball and defending better than they had all season.

What changed? Tell us about the tweak.

"I’m not supposed to talk about it, but it has definitely changed the energy of the team and our chemistry," Julius Randle said. "It just improved the team."

Calipari has promised to divulge the tweak sometime in the future. Once the season ends, he said, he’ll discuss the alteration that morphed Kentucky into the juggernaut that it has become in recent weeks.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJohn Calipari isn't talking about the adjustments made by the Wildcats.
The media, however, won’t understand the tweak, even when Calipari finally blesses us with a full explanation.

"What I told these guys after I saw what it did, I just said, 'You know what? I screwed this up. Make me look good,'" Calipari said. "And they have. The media doesn’t have enough basketball savvy to figure it out, so …"

Who can blame Calipari for his approach to this? He’s in the middle of a battle for the national championship, and the goal is to maintain a shroud over any strategic maneuverings that could give his opponent the edge. He’ll face a veteran coach and a talented program in Bo Ryan and Wisconsin during Saturday’s national semifinal.

So it’s better to say less right now.

Reveal the tweak? Nah. This is secret societies stuff. Knights Templar. Freemasons. Skull and Bones.

The tweak might be something simple. Maybe Calipari gave Dakari Johnson a pep talk or granted Randle the freedom to annihilate any mortal who dares to stop him.

Who knows?

It’s obvious, however, that the tweak worked.

Randle has been more aggressive and effective in the NCAA tournament. Aaron Harrison has made nearly 50 percent of his 3-pointers in the Big Dance. Andrew Harrison has been a leader.

Johnson and Marcus Lee have contributed. James Young is confident.

The Wildcats snatched a spot in the Final Four after defeating Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan.

No team in the Final Four encountered a more difficult path to Arlington, Texas.

No team in the Final Four made the U-turn that this program has experienced over the past month. On Selection Sunday, the Wildcats were a disappointing 8-seed that entered the season as one of the most hyped squads in recent college basketball history.

Then, they lost to Arkansas and South Carolina in SEC play. As a result, many doubted the program’s postseason potential. Inside the locker room, however, Kentucky still believed.

Look at the Wildcats now. Look at the power of the tweak. Tweakability.

Kentucky’s third trip to the Final Four in four seasons? Don’t credit the kids.

Thank the tweak, whatever it was.

"I mean, Coach said don’t give any details about it, so I can’t really say what it is," Aaron Harrison said.

OK, fine.

But what is the tweak? Is it tangible? Can you touch the tweak? Is it edible? Is there video evidence of the tweak? If we close our eyes, click our heels and dream, will the tweak appear?

And where is the tweak? A safe somewhere in Lexington, Ky? A vault in Dallas? Does Jerry Jones have access to the tweak?

"I cannot give any details," said Dominique Hawkins, who wore the look of a young man who knew far more than he disclosed. "I can’t say anything about it."

But maybe it’s not as complicated as Calipari suggests. Maybe it’s simple.

This isn’t the first time a group of young men have unified at the right time. The development of chemistry is a gradual process for most programs. That’s why juniors and seniors discuss their bonds according to years. These Wildcats have been together for only six months, and they’re all freshmen and sophomores.

That makes the tweak even more intriguing.

"I don’t know what the mystery is,” Alex Poythress said, "to be honest."

Young doesn’t mind sharing the secret behind the tweak: The Wildcats have embraced their individual roles and taken a more selfless approach to each game, he said.

"It really wasn’t a tweak," Young said. "It was just us playing hard, I guess, and getting open shots for each other. Just really penetrating."

Added Poythress: "We just came together as a team. We just try to look for open players more, try to play more team ball. Less is more."

Still, that only shows the impact of the tweak.

We still don’t know exactly what it is, and we may never know, because the Wildcats won’t talk about it. There’s a gag order.

And if they beat Wisconsin on Saturday, Calipari will probably mention the tweak again, but don’t expect him to ruin this covert operation.

Leave that to his players.

"I can’t give you details," Johnson said.

It was worth a try.
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson had the same initial reaction as many often do the first time he witnessed 7-footer Frank Kaminsky launch a 3-pointer.

“I’m like ‘you’re 7-foot bruh, get on the block,’” laughed Jackson, who was even more surprised that Kaminsky made the shot.

[+] EnlargeFrank Kaminsky
AP Photo/Andy ManisWith improved post skills, Frank Kaminsky has become Wisconsin's leading scorer.
There’s just something about a big man taking a jumper that makes people cringe. But it’s Kaminsky who has finally grown as comfortable on the blocks as he is outside and the Badgers are better for it.

The junior center who leads the Badgers in scoring (13.6) and rebounding (6.3) doesn’t often shoot from long range, but when he does, he’s as effective as anyone. Kaminsky is shooting 36.6 percent from 3-point range and has actually made two more 3s this season than Jackson.

Kaminsky’s outside shooting touch will come in handy when the Badgers face Baylor on Thursday in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The Bears, the sixth seed in the West Region, have used a zone to shut down their opponents -- including the nation’s leading scorer, Doug McDermott.

“They have the quickness and they have the length inside to protect the rim,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “That’s why it’s been pretty effective. They’ve certainly shown that towards the end of the season for sure.”

Kaminsky was especially concerned with Baylor’s 7-foot-1 center Isaiah Austin.

“He’s one of the longest players we’ll play all year,” Kaminsky said. “So just the athletes and the length combined in their zone is going to be tough to go against.”

But Kaminsky’s size will be a challenge for Baylor as well. The Bears' zone isn't quite used to giving full close out status, normally reserved for sharpshooting guards, to a 7-footer like Kaminsky. Normally an opponent would welcome a big man who stepped outside to shoot. Kaminsky, however, isn't exactly alone.

Wisconsin’s entire starting five shoots better than 32 percent from 3-point range with guard Josh Gasser leading the way at 45.6 percent. Gasser cautioned that the Badgers can’t become so fixated on the perimeter that they forget to feed Kaminsky in the post.

“You’ve got to touch the post, you’ve got to get it inside still and not just rely on 3s,” Gasser said. “Obviously we’ve proven we can be a great 3-point shooting team, but you can’t rely on it too heavily.”

In his previous two seasons, the Badgers didn’t rely on Kaminsky much at all on the post. He still hadn’t found his comfort zone on the blocks.

“I had that perimeter game from when I was little,” Kaminsky said. “My first two years of high school I was almost strictly a perimeter player. Then when I grew, the outside game came first then the inside came second.”

Kaminsky’s story is somewhat typical of a big man with a late growth spurt. He was so used to playing like a guard he stayed on the outside instead of running to the post.

That didn’t always go over too well.

“There would be some frustration moments with my coaches,” Kaminsky said. “Obviously, I had those tendencies to be on the perimeter.”

He didn’t want to lose that ability altogether. Part of the reason why Kaminsky picked Wisconsin was because Ryan wasn’t going to force him to be a traditional back-to-the-basket post player.

“I could play that inside, outside game, maybe with some other programs I wouldn’t have been able to get away with that,” Kaminsky said.

After playing just reserve minutes his first two years, Kaminsky has started every game this season. His development on the post combined with his skill from the perimeter made him a matchup problem.

He displayed the full array of his skills when he erupted for 43 points against North Dakota in the fourth game of the season. Kaminsky made all six of his 3-point attempts and shot 16-of-19 from the floor.

Michigan had no answer for him when he pumped in 25 points in the Badgers’ win in Ann Arbor. Michigan State couldn’t contain him either when he went for 28 in the Big Ten tournament championship game.

In the Badgers’ comeback against Oregon, Kaminsky made 7 of 10 shots inside the arc and scored a team-high 19 points.

In a reversal for a center, this season he’s actually wowed his teammates with how well he’s played in the post.

“I’m so proud of him this year just because of how much better he’s gotten in the post,” Jackson said. “He’s able to do both which is a huge factor for our team.”

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Most teams that will be playing in the NCAA tournament next weekend know what and who they are. If they’ve been playing together long enough and they’re playing together in March, there’s a general trajectory for their play, and, though there might be outliers throughout a game, their identity is pretty much settled.

Then there’s Michigan State.

Certainly, there’s individual talent there -- Adreian Payne dropped 41 in the second-round win over Delaware, and Branden Dawson scored a season-high 26 in their 80-73 win over Harvard on Saturday to help advance the Spartans to the Sweet 16. Keith Appling and Gary Harris have taken over games and been leaders. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine keep elevating their games.

But with injuries galore and players constantly being shuffled in and out of the rotation, this team remains one that’s still learning how to play together. It might be coach Tom Izzo’s 12th Sweet 16 team in 17 seasons, but he might know this one’s identity the least.

"We played good enough that you’d say 'That team’s capable of getting to the Final Four,' and we played bad enough that you could say 'That team should’ve been out of the tournament,'" Izzo said. "Maybe it’ll be a little learning lesson for a couple of those guys who got complacent."

It’s the only use this game is to Michigan State at this point. The Spartans can’t take back the near embarrassment or the way that a team without a single athletic scholarship flustered them.

So what can they learn?

[+] EnlargeBranden Dawson
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMichigan State players were in a mood to celebrate in a win over Harvard.
Izzo said his team needs to learn how to stay out of foul trouble. Harris said he thinks the Spartans need to be better with time and score. Dawson said they need to learn how to not get comfortable with a lead -- and this Harvard game took the Spartans one step closer to that.

Michigan State blew a 12-point halftime lead against a smaller, less physical team. They got out-executed at times and out-hustled at others. Combined, that created an interesting stretch in which it appeared that the Ivy League might be making a Sweet 16 appearance instead of the team that the president chose to win it all.

After the Spartans accounted for 11 assists and just one turnover in the first 20 minutes, the wheels fell off the train. The Spartans gave the ball away 10 times in the second half, with quite a few of those resulting in dunks and breakaway layups for the Crimson.

And yet, even with all that and the entire arena turning its support to the underdog, this team that’s still figuring out what it is knew what it needed to do.

"The greatest thing that happened for me is we did enough bad things … but we found a way to bounce back and win," Izzo said. "It’s always a better learning experience when you win and do some things that will maybe get their attention now in the film session tomorrow night."

Michigan State will take on the winner of Virginia-Memphis in the Sweet 16, but it’ll still be a few days before the Spartans even think about that.

With how little this group has practiced together because of injuries, it’ll spend a lot of Sweet 16 prep in Spartan focus mode -- building chemistry with each other, working on their timing. It’s the stuff every other team has mainly figured out at this point in the season, but it has been a season of catching up for Izzo.

He has been saying the whole season that this team had the potential to make it this far (and further) if it can figure out the pieces and where they fit. This Harvard game will act as that next piece for the Spartans. They’ve gained a ton of exposure in the past few weeks as they’ve won the Big Ten tournament and put up huge performances, but they can’t get complacent.

If Izzo’s team picks up as quickly as he thinks it can, the Spartans won’t make this same mistake against Memphis, Virginia or anyone else down the road.

"I hope [this experience] makes you smarter," Izzo said. "I don’t think we need to be stronger. We need to be smarter. We didn’t do some things that were very smart in that stretch. Hopefully, this will be a learning experience. Whenever you can learn with a win, that’s a valuable lesson."

The true value of this win won’t be decided until next weekend, when the Spartans travel to New York. If it’s a learning experience the Spartans can put into practice, it’ll be pretty valuable. If they don’t put it to use, they’ll have to wait until next season.

But Izzo knows that those lessons taste sweeter when they come with a win, specifically one that would come on April 7.

"When you can learn and win, that’s a hell of a day," Izzo said. "That’s a hell of a day."
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Three weeks ago, the expectations for the Michigan State basketball team were pretty low. Riddled with injuries and unable to find any semblance of chemistry, it seemed as though the Spartans were a team destined for an early NCAA tournament exit.

[+] Enlarge2014 Presidential Bracket
Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaPresident Obama will be rooting for Michigan State over the next few weeks.
A few wins and Big Ten tournament title later, they’re the No. 4 seed in the East Region. The expectations soared as fans discussed how under-seeded the Spartans were, how they were no worse off than Michigan or Wisconsin, which both received No. 2 seeds.

Then, President Obama picked the Spartans to win it all in his annual "Barack-etology." For Michigan State, it was fine to know that experts and analysts were picking the Spartans to cut down the nets, but when the president of the United States knew the names and stats and stories of the Michigan State team, it struck some members of the team.

“When I saw that it was just bizarre that Barack Obama picked us and he was talking about Keith [Appling] and injuries and us getting back and playing together as a team,” Branden Dawson said.

However, the Spartans were quick to temper that feeling with the knowledge that Obama’s pick doesn’t give them any kind of an advantage heading into their second-round game against Delaware on Thursday.

“That’s an honor for him to say that,” Gary Harris said. “It’s not going to be handed to us. We have to go out there and prove it.”

“I’m glad that he has such high expectations,” Appling added. “But nothing has been accomplished yet.”

And historically, Obama’s vote of confidence hasn’t generally translated into on-court victories. In his six years of picking the tournament, only once has he correctly chosen the eventual champion -- in 2009 with North Carolina.

Even so, every member of the team is appreciative of the support. Even Michigan State coach Tom Izzo joked about the potential sway the president could have on the tournament.

“I’m trying to get ahold of the president right now and see if he has any pull with the officials since he picked us that high,” Izzo said.

Obama doesn’t have any pull with NCAA officials, but it surely doesn’t hurt the Spartans' locker room vibe to know that the president is going to be sporting green and white over the next month.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom Izzo likes championships. Of course, he likes winning them most of all, but he likes to watch them, too.

The environment, the excitement, the energy, it all gets the Michigan State coach’s blood going.

Izzo thought it might be good for his team, a team he thought had the promise of a champion itself, to experience that championship atmosphere.

So back in December, when the Spartans’ football team faced Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, he packed up his team for a road trip, bringing it to Indianapolis to watch the game.

[+] EnlargeAdreian Payne
USA TODAY SportsAdreian Payne and the Spartans, now healthy, will face in-state rival Michigan for the Big Ten title.
Michigan State won and Izzo was ready to leave, figuring they wouldn’t get back until the wee hours of the morning, but his players stopped him.

“They said, ‘No, Coach, we have to stay for the ceremony,’” Izzo said. “So we started the season learning how to win a championship from our football buddies and now we have a chance ourselves.”

The Spartans, who beat Wisconsin 83-75 to reach the Big Ten tournament final, get a shot at their own ceremony Sunday, when they face Michigan. Strange as it might seem, it is the first time that the two Michigan schools have met in a Big Ten tourney game -- not just a final, but any game.

The Wolverines, after holding off Ohio State in their own semifinal, will be playing for a chance at the fourth No. 1 seed. It’s a standing that seems to be getting passed around like a toxic hot potato.

The Spartans will be playing to prove that they finally are the team everyone thought they could be.

Mix in an in-state rivalry and this should be good.

“It’s Michigan,” Adreian Payne said by way of explanation.

Neither team will be a popular draw when the bracket is announced on Sunday night, but the Spartans could be the more frightening choice.

Michigan snuck by Illinois and survived the Buckeyes.

Michigan State blew the doors off of Northwestern and pulverized Wisconsin in the first half, leading by 17.

This is what the Spartans were supposed to look like all season, before Izzo started issuing Band-Aids with Gatorade, before injuries hijacked what might have been.

He called this the “most difficult year of his career,” but it might wind up being his most enjoyable. He’s always liked this team, enjoys the players and the lack of drama. He just has not been able to enjoy coaching them.

And now, he might finally get his chance.

The Michigan State team that attacked Wisconsin was downright scary, taking it to the Badgers in every which way -- taking it to a Wisconsin team, we might add, that could have played for a 1-seed itself with a win against the Spartans.

Izzo labeled that half the best his team has played this season, but his players thought they could get even better.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface,” said Payne, who scored 18 points against the Badgers.

There’s not a lot of time to work out the kinks. Next week begins the most unforgiving tournament in sports, and so this trip to the Big Ten tournament has had value because the Spartans have simply been able to play games together.

Of course that’s not why they came here exactly.

These Spartans started the season watching their football team enjoy a championship ceremony in Indianapolis.

Now they want one of their own.
INDIANAPOLIS – The guys in suits on the bench, the coaches who are in charge of telling Caris LeVert what he’s supposed to do, were practically making a windstorm on the sidelines they were waving their arms so hard, cajoling Levert to go back on defense.

LeVert ignored them.

He won’t be running gassers for his insubordination.

He might, in fact, get the game ball.

LeVert’s act of defiance, opting to go up and get an offensive rebound instead of sprinting back on defense, allowed Michigan to preserve a 72-69 victory over Ohio State and send the Wolverines to the Big Ten tournament final.

“This one time he gets the pass,” head coach John Beilein said. “He took a chance, but that’s what players do. That’s why he’s had the successful year he’s had, because he knows when to take a risk and be a player.”

[+] EnlargeCaris LeVert, Shannon Scott
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCaris LeVert scored 17 points and had eight rebounds, including a huge one that preserved Michigan's Big Ten tournament victory over Ohio State.
That it was LeVert getting the rebound – not to mention scoring 17 points –- made it all a little sweeter for Michigan and a whole lot more sour for Ohio State.

These two schools, you may have heard, don’t like each other much. And LeVert is a Columbus kid; he played on a state championship team at Pickerington Central High School.

And never got so much as a phone call from the Buckeyes.

That would sting a little bit no matter where LeVert attended school right about now. He’s arguably one of the biggest surprises/breakout stars of this season. He averages 13.4 points, which might qualify him for criminally overlooked status.

That he went to Michigan and is playing so well is pouring a shaker of Morton’s on the gaping wound.

Don’t think LeVert doesn't know it, either.

“It means a lot to me,” LeVert said. “To play like this on a big stage like the Big Ten tournament and to do it against Ohio State.”

Yes, you could call that a dagger shot.

Of course, the Wolverines shot a lot of daggers at the Buckeyes in the semifinal – 12 3-pointers, in particular – but Ohio State kept taking the body blows. The Buckeyes trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half, got down again in the second and kept coming back.

If there is a silver lining in a loss – and finding one in a loss to Michigan isn't easy – the Buckeyes ought to leave here feeling better about themselves and their offense. They rallied from down 18 to beat Nebraska and matched Michigan almost bucket for bucket.

Even with LeVert’s big rebound, Ohio State had a chance to tie it at the buzzer.

But Aaron Craft, who idled on the bench for much of the second half with four fouls, fumbled the ball away as he tried to go up for the shot.

Guess who was there when Craft went up?

Yep, Caris LeVert.

It was that kind of revenge-exacting day for the kid.

“I think he just lost the ball, actually,” LeVert said. “I don’t think I got a hand on it. He just lost the ball and time ran out.”

In Thad Matta's defense, LeVert wasn't exactly boxing up recruiting mail from across the country. Ohio offered him a scholarship following his junior year, and because nobody else seemed terribly interested, he took it. Then Ohio coach John Groce left for Illinois and LeVert decided to re-evaluate things.

By then, he’d done a little more. The state title came in his senior year, as did a bunch of honors, and still not a single jingle from Ohio State.

So when Michigan offered, he jumped.

“I really don’t know why I wasn't recruited more,” he said. “Maybe I was a little undersized.”

After LeVert’s first college season, it didn't seem like anyone missed much. He averaged just 2.3 points per game.

But this season, when the Wolverines went searching for offense, there came LeVert.

He’s second to Nik Stauskas in scoring on the team and a big answer to the riddle of Michigan’s surprising success this season. The Wolverines lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke after last year’s run to the NCAA championship game and then lost Mitch McGary early in the season to a back injury.

That’s three starters, which usually wouldn't spell good things for a young team. Yet here are the Wolverines, 25-7, regular-season Big Ten champs and now gunning for the tournament title.

Beilein talked after the game about his players' genuine affection for one another and how that’s allowed Michigan to stick together despite the curveballs.

“They have each other’s backs,” he said. “They trust each other.”

And he trusts them.

Trusts them so much, in fact, that he doesn't even mind a little insubordination.

Especially when it works.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jimmy Staley already has demanded a recount. As the campaign manager for #Deo4President, Staley is convinced his candidate was robbed.

Amedeo Della Valle, after all, only had two platforms in his hastily convened campaign for Ohio State student government president:

  1. That he would officially declare snow days via Twitter.
  2. That he would teach people how to spell his name properly, via a video tutorial where he went letter by letter with single sheets of paper to spell out all 16 letters.
[+] EnlargeDella Valle
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsAmedeo Della Valle's defense and clutch free throws helped Ohio State rally to beat Nebraska.
“The whole video was about spelling his name right,” said Staley, whose day job is Ohio State basketball student manager, “and the official results come back and his name is spelled wrong? C’mon.”

Added fellow campaign manager Kyle Davis: “I think they counted people who were dead or something.”

Chances are, if Staley gets his wish for the recount, Della Valle would now win in a landslide.

The Alba, Italy, native, previously best known for his moppy hair, scored 12 points, pulled down six rebounds, blocked three shots and was, in Thad Matta’s estimation, "the difference in the game," as Ohio State rallied from 18 down to beat Nebraska in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.

“I definitely would win now,” Della Valle agreed.

Truth is, Della Valle is a reluctant politician. OK, he’s not a politician at all. That’s all the byproduct of a late-night inspiration from an old episode of "The West Wing," a video concocted on the road in lieu of a few beers, and an Italian goofball’s willingness to put himself in a video wearing a variety of ridiculous outfits.

But more on that later because for these purposes, we first must discuss Della Valle’s other job -- being a basketball player. Prior to the Nebraska game, Della Valle, who came to Columbus by way of Findlay Prep in Nevada, averaged just 12 minutes and 4.1 points this season but earned the 21 he played against Nebraska with hustle plays, a big 3 and defense, including a critical snuff of a David Rivers’ layup that set up the last push in Ohio State’s rally.

The idea that Della Valle’s defense could save the day would have been laughable two years ago. When he came to Columbus, he was your typical European player, sweet on offense, not so much on D. But two years in the gym and early morning workouts paid off to the point that Matta even used the 6-foot-5, 195-pounder (up from 170) in the post for part of the game.

“That was a lot of hard work, a lot of hard work,” Della Valle said. “And it paid off. I was just thinking, ‘Finally, finally.’”

He said that in the locker room after leaving the more formal press conference setting. There, under the bright lights and microphones, Della Valle had been asked about his ability to hit 4 of 4 free throws in the final 12 seconds after clanking two badly only minutes earlier.

“Yeah, I think I didn’t release the ball well at all on my first two free throws,” he said. “And to be honest, I don’t really like the ball. I hate the ball.”

The ball here, it turns out is a Spalding, not the Nike version the Buckeyes practice with and Della Valle said it felt smaller and "weird" in his hands.

Of course, such honesty could very well doom his political future if Staley can resurrect it.

Not that there’s much to resurrect. Della Valle’s dive into American politics lasted just a few days, begun when Staley, inspired by a 3 a.m. rerun of "The West Wing" decided one of his players ought to run for student government president. Obvious choice Aaron Craft is a senior and no longer an option, so Staley went with option two, Della Valle, a popular kid on campus who, he said, "loves Ohio State."

There was some initial concern about his eligibility -- “Could an Italian really be the Ohio State student government president?" Davis asked -- but Staley and Davis figured, why not roll the dice?

Della Valle agreed and one night on the road at Indiana, instead of going out for beers, Staley and Davis made a video. They’d seen the other candidates' pitches filled with big promises. One promised to fight the administration’s decision to eliminate the tradition of jumping in Mirror Lake prior to the Michigan game; another vowed to do something about the price of textbooks.

“Student government has no real power,’’ Staley said. “So we always find out about snow days a few hours ahead of time. Amedeo was going to have an official Amedeo snow day.’’

Splicing together the theme song from “Rocky” (Italian Stallion, get it?), Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” game highlights and random pictures of Della Valle in everything from a whirlpool to a banana suit, Staley and Davis submitted a video to nominate Della Valle as a write-in candidate.

He finished fifth overall, with 479 votes but the election was the best voter turnout since 1972, when current Ohio governor John Kasich won.

Staley and Davis call that the Della Valle effect.

And hey, there’s always next year.

And more, there’s always Saturday, when the Buckeyes play hated rival Michigan for a shot at the Big Ten Tournament title game.

If Della Valle plays like he did against Nebraska, they might as well call off the election next year and crown him king.
Here’s what’s bubbling now. First the ACC, where Pitt is now a lock.

At this point, any team with a cat-related mascot and a couple of close games in their rearview gets slapped with the "Cardiac Cats" nickname. Pittsburgh actually earned it. All season, the Panthers have played close games. Its losses to good teams have been close, its wins over bad teams closer. And then there's the slow-burn bubble drama: On a per-possession basis, Pittsburgh should have wrapped up its NCAA tournament bid months ago. Instead, its lack of quality wins and a couple of home slugs down the stretch (to Florida State and NC State, respectively) put Pitt and its questionable nonconference schedule into legitimate bubble jeopardy.

Friday was another exercise in self-induced anxiety. Leading 50-31 with 11:43 to play, Pitt should have put North Carolina away with room to spare in the second half. Then, of course, the Panthers gradually let UNC close the lead, and when Talib Zanna -- who put together a brilliant 19-point, 21-rebound game -- fouled out with 1:03 left, and Marcus Paige's free throws cut the lead to four, things looked grim. But Pitt regrouped and survived, thanks to free throws and careful ballhandling down the stretch (and maybe one or two missed calls, which were legion in this game), and as such we can officially lock the Panthers into a tourney slot. Adding another noteworthy top-50 win was really all this team needed to do to make sure the committee didn't look askance at its unspectacular profile. Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, over in the Atlantic 10 …

Alongside Providence-St. John's and La. Tech-Southern Miss, Friday's Saint Joseph's-Dayton clash in the A-10 quarterfinals was the best example the weekend had to offer of two bubble teams, both in need of wins, clashing in the conference tournament. The result was a thriller. Thanks to a Langston Galloway 3, Saint Joe's escaped victorious, and now the question is what it all means.

St. Joseph’s: Notching a win over a fellow bubble team on a neutral floor is the kind of thing that just might make the difference -- a tiny difference, but a difference -- between getting in the tournament and getting snubbed on Selection Sunday. The Hawks got what they needed Friday, thanks to Galloway's 31 points and a clutch 3 with 20 seconds to play in Friday's 70-67 win over the Flyers. It was the Hawks' third win over Dayton, which helps, because it looks like both teams are in a dead-heat on the cut line. The question is what might happen Saturday when the Hawks play St. Bonaventure. What should have been a crack at Saint Louis has suddenly turned into a bad-loss opportunity. Would St. Joe's take a hit if it lost? We're honestly not sure. But Friday's win was major regardless.

Dayton: On Friday morning, before broadcasting St. Joe's-Dayton -- he is a man of many talents, after all -- ESPN's own Joe Lunardi offered up his latest last four in update: St. Joe's, Dayton, BYU, Providence. That squared with our own reckoning starting the day, and it's not clear Dayton should be downgraded much along the cut line after the loss. The next four teams on Joe's S-Curve are Minnesota, FSU, Southern Miss, and Arkansas, followed by Cal, Missouri, St. John's, and Green Bay. Both in the short-term movement and overall resume sense -- FSU, Arkansas, Cal, and St. John's have all lost in the past 24 hours -- Dayton rates well against most of those teams. And again: what happens if St. Joe's loses to the Bonnies? Don't tear up your season programs just yet, Flyers fans. If anything, a #daytonindayton play-in game looks likelier than ever.

And let’s not leave out the Big Ten …

Illinois needed, at the very least, a win over Michigan on Friday (and then probably another against Ohio State on Saturday) to get anywhere near the bubble conversation, and the Illini gave it a real run. (And inspired the Watch's Illinois-based friends to send a flurry of second-half texts. Hey guys!) But Michigan held on to a 64-63 lead down the stretch, and the Illini's sudden long-shot hopes vanished just as quickly.

By our admittedly dim lights, Nebraska entered the day with a little space between itself and the cut line -- one of the last four byes, maybe higher. After the loss to Ohio State? It's hard to say. Résumé-wise, Nebraska has a solid-enough RPI (41) and an even better overall schedule (26), plus an 11-7 record in the Big Ten, which might count for something. The committee should see a good, hot team that knocked off Wisconsin five days ago, that outplayed Ohio State for much of Friday's game, that won at Michigan State in mid-February, and that finished the Big Ten season 8-2 over the final 10 games. But if the committee pays as much attention to the sweep vs. Penn State, or the neutral-court loss to UAB -- and if it doesn't like the sight of a good team crumbling under the postseason glare -- maybe Nebraska's case won't be cut and dry. We think they'll get in, but we're not positive about it.

Off in the SEC ...

Missouri: The Tigers played Florida to a draw in the first half and completely crumbled in the second; that's what happens when you let Texas A&M take your nonexistent defense to double-overtime a day before playing the best team in the country. Barring a major surprise, the Tigers' punishment will take the form of a Selection Sunday snub. Arkansas isn't in much better shape after Thursday's loss to South Carolina. In the end, it looks like the SEC is going to be a three-bid league. Finally, Tennessee finally has emerged as a willing third wheel.

Tennessee: No team in the country enjoyed a wider gap all season between what advanced metrics said about them -- that they were one of the best 15 or 20 teams in the country -- and what their wins and losses, and their resulting RPI, indicated. A lot of that had to do with an uncharacteristic-for-all-parties 30-point blowout of Virginia in late December, but still: Tennessee has been one of the nation's best offensive rebounding teams in the country with the returning SEC player of the year (Jordan McRae) roaming the perimeter. But losses to Vanderbilt, Missouri and Texas A&M in February put Cuonzo Martin's team on the bubble and kept it there since. But after avoiding a bad loss on Friday to South Carolina, the Vols are 20-11 overall with a top-15 strength of schedule number by their name and an all-upside matchup against Florida on deck for Saturday.

Check out full details on teams on the bubble here.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Football is supposed to be the game of inches, where the nose of a football can determine a winner or a loser.

Basketball, it turns out, can be just as exactingly sweet or cruel, depending on your rooting interest.

Jordan Morgan laid in a shot on a feed from Nik Stauskas, the ball hanging on the rim for a split second before falling in.

Tracy Abrams pulled up for a wide-open jumper, the ball kissing the front of the rim and bouncing off.

Michigan 64, its chance at a Big Ten tournament title and maybe a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament still alive.

Illinois 63, its dreams for a Cinderella run here cut short, its hopes now focused on an NIT bid to extend the season.

[+] EnlargeJordan Morgan
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsSenior Jordan Morgan's game winner sent Michigan to the Big Ten semifinals.
“We got some good bounces around the rim," John Beilein said, using a throwaway quote straight out of the coaches’ cliché handbook that actually made sense here.

Because this game, as much as it was about finesse, execution and some seriously good coaching from both benches, wound up coming down to luck and guessing, or at least educated guessing.

The Wolverines got luckier and Beilein guessed better.

“There’s a lot of things that you can second-guess after the fact," John Groce said. “You can go back, 'I wish I would have done this' or 'I wish I would have done that.' But decisions that are made throughout the course of the game are discussed and they’re educated decisions. Most of the times those work, and to be honest with you, occasionally they don’t."

Ten days ago, the Illini and Wolverines met in Champaign, Ill. Michigan drained 16 3-pointers and won in a rout. So naturally, Groce decided, as the Wolverines threatened to pull away, to go with a zone.

Say what?

Of course it worked, taking the Wolverines out of their rhythm enough to get the Illini, once down by as many as 13 in the second half, back in the game.

But when the game hit the critical mass point, with the Illini up one and just 19 ticks left, Groce went back to his comfort zone and called man to man.

“Hindsight is always 20-20 on decisions like that," Groce said. “Now that I know that Morgan scored that basket, as it looked like it was going to roll off the rim, I would have liked to have gone zone."

Beilein, MacGyver with a whiteboard, able to X-and-O his way out of any problem, countered with a play that naturally could work against either defense.

He put the ball in Stauskas’ hands, and when the Big Ten Player of the Year rose up just inside the free throw line, he attracted two defenders to him. Instead of shooting, which you might say is Stauskas’ calling card, he dropped it down to Morgan.

“J-Mo rolled down the lane and he was wide open," Stauskas said.

The pass still caught Morgan off guard. He said Stauskas told him coming out of the timeout he was going to shoot it regardless, so when the ball started coming his way, he was a little bit unprepared.

In the moment, at least, he was unprepared. In reality, Morgan was wildly ready. A few years ago, Beilein swiped a drill he saw another NCAA tournament team using. Essentially he has his bigs run to the rim with their heads turned, assistant coaches hitting them with bags as they work.

“It’s a lot of action, a screen-and-roll play, but you don’t know what’s happening," Beilein said. “You’ve got to be able to catch it here, catch it there, catch it with balance and put it in. At least 2,000 times in five years, Jordan Morgan has run that same drill. ... He said he wanted to add a little drama to the game, so he decided to put it up on the rim."

A little drama, and maybe just a kiss of luck, too.

Tournament preview: Big Ten

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11

The beautiful chaos in the Big Ten this season didn’t disappoint. Michigan emerged from the rubble despite losing former Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and competing without Mitch McGary for most of the season.

Wisconsin’s streak of top-four finishes and NCAA tourney appearances under Bo Ryan continues. Nebraska might be dancing, too.

The league’s perennial mantra -- there are no easy wins in the Big Ten -- is more than just talk. Penn State swept Ohio State. Northwestern beat Wisconsin in Madison. Illinois went to East Lansing and upset Michigan State.

"As soon as you act like you've arrived, you're going to fall pretty quickly," Illini coach John Groce told reporters after that March 1 victory.

Every team in this league has experienced that to some degree this season.

The highs and lows to date makes this event in Indianapolis the most intriguing conference tourney in the country.

What’s at stake?

[+] EnlargeMichigan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein's Wolverines, the top seed in Indy, are playing with confidence.
There was a time when Wisconsin was unraveling. And the crux of the crumble centered on defense, a usually dependable strength for the Badgers. But they couldn’t -- wouldn’t -- defend anyone during that nasty 1-5 stretch.

They’re 55th in adjusted defensive efficiency now, per Ken Pomeroy, but they approached triple digits during that rocky stretch. They recovered, however, with an eight-game winning streak that Nebraska snapped on Sunday.

Now Wisconsin could have an outside shot at a top seed. The Badgers boast a 15-5 record against the RPI’s top 100 and a résumé that includes nonconference wins over Florida, Saint Louis and Virginia. Perhaps a Big Ten tournament championship would be a convincing argument for the selection committee.

But the Badgers might have to get through Michigan State in the semifinals to get there. The Spartans are finally (somewhat) healthy, but the complete Michigan State squad has struggled. Tom Izzo’s team has suffered losses in seven of its past 12 games. It’s hard to imagine Michigan State preserving Izzo’s streak of sending every four-year player he’s ever coached in East Lansing to the Final Four, unless it finds some mojo in Indianapolis.

The field, however, is a gauntlet. Top-seed Michigan was a step above the rest of the conference. John Beilein’s team has that same bravado right now that the Wolverines used to fuel last season's Final Four run.

Nebraska’s win over Wisconsin on Sunday might have sealed its first NCAA tourney bid since 1998. But Tim Miles isn’t preaching guarantees to the underdogs in Lincoln, Neb. Will this ride continue in the Big Ten tournament? It’s certainly possible.

Iowa might have the most to lose. The Hawkeyes’ strength of schedule (21st) has helped them preserve their dreams of earning their first NCAA berth since 2006. But a Thursday loss to Northwestern would be its sixth defeat in seven games. Iowa entered the season as a team that appeared to be capable of winning a few games in the Big Dance. A stumble this week, however, could put the Hawkeyes in a bad spot in their first-round matchup.

Ohio State, second in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, is still a threat to the field. And Illinois (4-1 in its past five games) is probably the sleeper. And who knows, maybe Yogi Ferrell and a strong showing by Indiana fans will make the festivities interesting for the Hoosiers.

Team with the most to gain

When Richard Pitino took the Minnesota job, folks around the program were talking about its future, not its present.

But the Gophers have the most at stake entering the Big Ten tourney because this could be the difference between an NIT bid and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Their 6-10 record against the RPI’s top 100 could be a problem they could address with a few quality wins in the Big Ten tournament. They’ve been on the bubble for weeks. But a strong outing in Indianapolis could really help a program that’s living off its No. 5 SOS right now.

Top 10 Clutch Performers

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6

It’s March. Championship Week begins Friday, and we’re less than two weeks away from the Big Dance.

We’ll probably see a multitude of thrillers, overtime games and clutch performances in the coming weeks. At least, we hope we will.

With the game on the line, these players should have the ball in their hands.

Here’s a list of America’s most clutch performers:

  1. Sean Kilpatrick: Cincinnati’s defense has been critical in the Bearcats’ rise to the top of the American Athletic Conference. But Kilpatrick has been the offensive catalyst for a team that’s struggled from the field this season. He’s arguably the top shooting guard in America, and his 34-point effort in Thursday’s 97-84 win over Memphis was his 17th performance this season with 20 points or more.
  2. Shabazz Napier: This list wouldn’t be valid without Napier. The senior guard has been clutch throughout his career at UConn. He’s always confident with the ball in his hands during big games. The legend continued when he hit the game-winning shot over Florida in December. He’s averaging 18.1 PPG, 5.3 APG and 1.9 SPG, along with shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. He’s always ready to show up down the stretch.
  3. Russ Smith: He’s still “Russdiculous.” Sometimes Smith can lose control and force shots, but he rarely shrinks under the spotlight. The senior star just keeps rolling, even on his worst nights. Against Cincy on Feb. 22, he’d missed seven of nine field goals when he caught the rock in the final seconds. He hit the shot, beat the buzzer and won the game for Louisville. The shot alone was impressive, but Smith’s ability to move on to the next play and help his team is rare.
  4. Tyler Ennis: Yep, Syracuse is struggling. But prior to this 1-4 stretch, Ennis was probably the most dependable player in America in the final minutes of a game. Through Feb. 12, he was 8-for-9 from the field and 14-for-14 from the charity stripe with a 6-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in the final five minutes of the second half and overtime, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s a ridiculous stat line that illustrates Ennis’ reliability in crucial moments for the Orange this season.
  5. Doug McDermott: Perhaps a list like this has to feature a senior who is on the verge of scoring 3,000 points for his career and earning his third consecutive Associated Press first-team All-America honors (he’ll be the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing in the 1980s to complete that feat). McDermott is also shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line this season and averaging 25.9 PPG.
  6. Traevon Jackson: Wisconsin’s veteran guard can’t match the accolades that other players on this list boast. But whenever the Badgers are in a tight spot toward the end of a game, Bo Ryan usually turns to Jackson, the son of former Ohio State and NBA standout Jim Jackson. Sure, Jackson has missed a few late, but he’s also nailed clutch shots during his time in Madison. He beat Minnesota and Penn State last season with shots in the closing seconds. And his most recent heartbreaker was a last-second dagger that finished Michigan State last month.
  7. T.J. Warren: His blood type? Ice. The 6-foot-8 sophomore plays on a Wolfpack squad that won’t crack the NCAA tournament field without an ACC tourney championship. But he has put together some of the season’s most magnificent performances. His 41 points (16-for-22) in a 74-67 victory at Pittsburgh Monday probably opened some eyes, but he has scored 30 or more eight times this season.
  8. Billy Baron: There is only one player with a higher offensive rating (125.2) than Doug McDermott, per Ken Pomeroy. That’s Baron. But Canisius fans knew that already. Last season, Baron hit a 3-pointer toward the end of regulation to force overtime in a win at Youngstown State in the CIT, capping a comeback from a 45-28 halftime deficit. This season, Baron put together a late barrage during a 40-point night that lifted Canisius to a triple-overtime win versus Siena.
  9. Jermaine Marshall: Arizona State wouldn’t be in the NCAA tourney conversation without the Penn State transfer. He hit big shots in overtime during ASU’s win over rival Arizona last month. In January, Arizona State beat California in overtime after Marshall’s 3-pointer forced the extra period. He hit clutch free throws in a win over Oregon a few days later, too. The senior doesn’t have much time left and is playing with a sense of urgency, an attitude that has helped the Sun Devils compete for an at-large bid.
  10. Nik Stauskas: The versatile sophomore has fueled Michigan’s run to the Big Ten title. He’s averaging 17.3 PPG in a season that could end with All-America and Big Ten Player of the Year honors. His teammates can trust him with the game on the line. In January, two clutch performances stood out. Stauskas helped the Wolverines secure a road win over Minnesota Jan. 2 after Glenn Robinson III missed the second half with an ankle injury. Two weeks later, he knocked down a 3-pointer in the final minutes to help the Wolverines hold on to their lead in a win at Wisconsin.

Tournament-worthy Tuesday

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5

If the NCAA tournament comes anything close to what we witnessed during Tuesday night’s slate of 7 p.m. games, we’ll have a fulfilling end to the college basketball season.

This closing week of the regular season felt like the opening weekend of the tournament with upsets that will potentially upset the tournament bubble. A must-win for Georgetown ended with a 75-63 victory over No. 13 Creighton. A must-win for Baylor ended with a 74-61 triumph over No. 16 Iowa State. Georgia Tech contributed to the downward spiral of No. 7 Syracuse by pulling off a 67-62 upset.

No. 1 Florida and No. 25 Kentucky both needed second-half awakenings before pulling away for their respective wins.

No. 12 Michigan was the only team than made the outcome totally boring. The Wolverines secured the Big Ten title outright by pummeling Illinois 84-53.

Baylor and Georgetown played with the desperation of teams needing to solidify their résumés. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Bears in as an 11-seed before beating Iowa State. Tuesday’s win should just solidify their standing -- especially if they end the regular season with a win at Kansas State to reach .500 in Big 12 play.

[+] EnlargeBrady Heslip
Jim Cowsert/USA TODAY SportsBrady Heslip scored 18, including five 3-pointers, to help Baylor upset No. 16 Iowa State.
Eight of Baylor’s 10 losses had come to ranked teams, but the Bears changed that narrative by executing down the stretch. They held the Cyclones scoreless the last four minutes of the game.

Brady Heslip broke a 61-61 tie with his fifth 3-pointer of the second half and the Bears never trailed again.

Georgetown’s win over the Bluejays propels it into Saturday’s regular-season finale with another opportunity to impress the committee at No. 6 Villanova. The hot-shooting Hoyas jumped on Creighton from the beginning en route to shooting 54 percent from the field.

It was the defensive job they did on Creighton’s Doug McDermott that keyed their win. Though McDermott did score 22 points, he needed 23 shots to get there. The Hoyas held him to just six points on 3-of-10 shooting as they built a 42-28 lead at halftime.

McDermott got hot in the second half and led a charge that cut a 16-point deficit down to five with 1:34 left. But the Hoyas made five of six free throws and Creighton couldn’t muster another basket to close the game.

Syracuse’s fall from being a potential No. 1 seed in the tournament appears to be complete unless it can turn things around quickly. That doesn’t seem likely as the Orange lost for the fourth time in five games and suffered their second setback to a team in the lowest third of the ACC.

The Yellow Jackets were a perfect senior night opponent having entered the Carrier Dome as losers of their past four. But they were in control most of the game against a Syracuse offense that again struggled to score.

C.J. Fair delivered 28 points and Tyler Ennis added 18, but no other Syracuse player reached double figures. Guard Trevor Cooney went 3-for-12 from the field -- including just 1-of-7 from 3-point range -- and finished with seven points.

The Orange sorely missed the presence of sophomore forward Jerami Grant, who is nursing a back injury and did not dress out for the game. Grant averages 11.8 points and is their leading rebounder with 6.7 rebounds.

The loss dropped Syracuse one step closer to a full scale panic. Kentucky nearly joined them.

The Wildcats trailed Alabama 28-25 and were flirting with their first three-game losing streak in five years. Tied at 32-32 in the second half, they used a 9-2 spurt to take the lead for good en route to a 55-48 win.

It wasn’t an overwhelming show of strength for the Cats. They shot just 32 percent from the field, including a 1-for-11 outing by James Young, but they showed fortitude they didn’t have in the loss at South Carolina. Julius Randle's 11 rebounds powered a 41-27 advantage for Kentucky, which helped it outscore Bama 18-3 in second chance points.

No. 1 Florida made upset-minded South Carolina believe that it was headed toward paying another SEC fine. The Gamecocks knocked off Kentucky on Saturday leading their crowd to rush the court after the game. That drew a $25,000 fine from the league for violation of policy and another violation would have upped the ante to $50,000.

The Gators led just 28-26 at halftime and by four points at the under-12 media timeout. The Gamecocks’ confidence seemed to be rising with each minute they remained close, but Michael Frazier II put an end to that.

Frazier already had five 3-pointers in the half. He made six more over the game’s final 11 minutes, including his first of those six that ignited a 15-0 run en route to a 72-46 win. Frazier set a new school record with his 11 3-pointers, beating Joe Lawrence’s mark of nine set on Dec. 27, 1986. He also scored a career-high 37 points.

The Illini never really had a chance against Michigan. They held their previous four opponents to less than 50 points. The Wolverines scored 52 in the first half. They bombarded Illinois by shooting 11-of-14 from 3-point range and 67.9 percent overall from the field.

The win secured Michigan’s first outright Big Ten title since 1986. The Wolverines were the only ranked team that seemingly were never seriously challenged on Tuesday. That’s why, although the tournament is still two weeks away, the madness has already started.

Video: Indiana 72, Ohio State 64

March, 2, 2014
Mar 2

Indiana went on a 16-0 run in the first half en route to its fourth win at home against a ranked team this season, defeating No. 22 Ohio State 72-64.

Big Ten

Video: Iowa 83, Purdue 76

March, 2, 2014
Mar 2

No. 20 Iowa snapped a three-game losing streak with an 83-76 victory over Purdue.

Big Ten

Video: Wisconsin 71, Penn State 66

March, 2, 2014
Mar 2
Josh Gasser scored 15 points to help No. 14 Wisconsin beat Penn State 71-66 for its seventh consecutive victory.

Big Ten