College Basketball Nation: Big Ten Conference
Somehow, Izzo’s efforts topped the rest, even though John Calipari brought Drake to Lexington, Josh Pastner called his pal Rick Ross, Bill Self wore Andrew Wiggins’ jazzy NBA Draft jacket and Tubby Smith crashed a motorcycle in Lubbock during similar events.
Now, you can own Izzo’s autographed KISS uniform and the accompanying KISS sign through the school’s online auction, Michigan State announced on Wednesday. The auction ends Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. ET. The bidding starts at $500 for the outfit and $250 for the sign.
At 1 p.m. ET on Wednesday, there weren't any bids on the outfit and only one person had bid on the sign.
Too bad it won’t be available in time for Halloween. Sorry, Jeff Goodman. But it seems perfect for Halloween 2015 and beyond.
Per team spokesman Matt Larson, proceeds from the auction will go to MSU athletics. But hopefully some of the cash will be used to fund an Izzo-Snoop Dogg collaboration for next year’s Midnight Madness. One can dream.
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Big Ten coaches and players gathered again for the league’s annual media day on Thursday.
Here are my five takeaways from the event:
- Same ol' Wisconsin. The Badgers, who were picked to win the league for the first time under Bo Ryan, didn’t arrive by chariot. Sam Dekker wasn’t wearing sunglasses and a gold chain, either. If all the hype and buzz that followed last year’s Final Four run has changed Wisconsin, the program is doing a great job of hiding it. “Well, it really doesn't affect when we're doing; our transition defensive drills, I don't think my guys are thinking about that,” Ryan said. “Our guys live in the moment, or at least we're trying to -- it appears that way. They're trying to get better. They know there's weaknesses to shore up, and we're trying to accentuate our strengths." One strength that Ryan pointed to was the team’s overall depth. He says he has seven starters with Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Duje Dukan all potentially working their way into the starting rotation. Four starters return, including Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year. They’re obviously facing more scrutiny and the expectations are higher, but the Badgers seem as humble and reserved as they were when they became accustomed to being the perennial underdogs in the league.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Morry GashBo Ryan has four starters returning from last year's team that made a Final Four run.
- Where are the stars? In recent years, the Big Ten has been carried by some big names who shaped the league’s identity. Jared Sullinger, Greg Oden, Draymond Green, Robbie Hummel, Cody Zeller, Adreian Payne and others were marquee names that resonated on the national scale. But outside Wisconsin’s roster, it’s difficult to find those stars in the Big Ten. There are certainly some candidates who could emerge in the coming months. A.J. Hammons could have a big year for Purdue. Branden Dawson is finally “The Man” at Michigan State. Caris LeVert could be Michigan’s next lottery pick. Rayvonte Rice is a talented player who could make some noise. Aaron White at Iowa could, too. But it’s odd to survey the room and not see the kind of recognizable talent that the Big Ten often enjoys. But the good news for the league is that it has produced a multitude of breakout stars, including Victor Oladipo and Nik Stauskas, in recent years. That could happen again this season. Right now, however, there aren’t many surefire gems in the Big Ten who don’t live in Madison.
- Big Ten not worried about Big National Title Drought. The Big Ten has taken the “best league in the country” championship in recent seasons. It’s a force that regularly sends six or more teams to the Big Dance every year. But the conference hasn’t won a national title since Michigan State seized the crown in 2000. Big Ten football has experienced a similar drought (Ohio State’s 2002 championship was the league’s last national title in that sport). But commissioner Jim Delany said he doesn’t think that mark is a fair measurement of the league’s achievements. “When I was at North Carolina, we lost in three Final Fours three years in a row,” Delany said. “We couldn't win the big one. But the reality is there are a lot of ways to measure success. This is college basketball, so check us first on who we recruit, the kind of people we have, how they move through the system. Check out our winning, check out our attendance for 38 years in a row. We've had five years of consecutive attendance growth -- that's pretty remarkable.”
- Nebraska ready for the next step. Tim Miles, the coach who live tweets during games, kicked off the event with his typical brand of humor. “You know, an old coaching friend told me one time, never trust the media unless it helps you with recruiting, so I kind of stick by that.” How old a coach was that? “Well, that was Jim Molinari, my assistant. He told me yesterday.” But he’s more than a comedian. Miles can coach and he’s ready for the expectations that Nebraska faces after last year’s run to the NCAA tourney. “Expectations are what they are, but nobody should have higher expectations for us than ourselves,” he said.
- Poll Recount? Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State (the latter two lost major contributors from last year) were picked to finish first, second and third in the league by a media panel. I think Nebraska deserves a slot in that top three with all that Miles is bringing back. Kaminsky, Dekker, LeVert, Terran Petteway and Yogi Ferrell comprise the preseason all-Big Ten squad. Strong crew, but no room for Dawson, Rice or Big Ten newcomer and former all-ACC performer Dez Wells?
But no initiative -- other than bringing in Maryland and Rutgers -- sparked more reaction than the league's announcement that the 2017 men's basketball tournament would be held at Verizon Center in Washington D.C. Since its inception in 1998, the hoops tournament had been held only in two Big Ten strongholds: Chicago and Indianapolis.
"Our conference is founded in the Midwest, and it's important we continue to understand those roots," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said at last month's administrators' meetings. "While excited to have this new frontier, our foundation is in Chicago and Indianapolis and Detroit and other areas. I just want to make sure we protect our homeland while flanking out to a very important East Coast."
The Big Ten on Thursday let its core fans know it hasn't forgotten about them. The league announced future sites for its football championship game and men's and women's basketball tournaments. All of the events will be held in Indianapolis or Chicago.
Here's the breakdown:
Football championship game: Remains in Indianapolis through the 2021 season. The 2014 and 2015 events already had been announced for Lucas Oil Stadium, and the new agreement covers 2016-21.
Men's basketball tournament: Will be held at Chicago's United Center in both 2019 and 2021 and at Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse in 2020 and 2022. As previously announced, Chicago will host in 2015, Indianapolis will host in 2016 and Washington D.C. will host in 2017. Negotiations on the site for the 2018 event continue and an announcement should come later this month.
Women's basketball tournament: New agreement has the event at Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse from 2017-2022. As previously announced, the 2015 event will be held at Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and the 2016 event will take place at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
"We've always intended to use those cities," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com on Thursday. "They've been great partners. We're fortunate to have great fan bases in both places, tried and true success in both of these cities.
"It gives us a lot of stability going forward."
Despite the Washington D.C. event in 2017, Indianapolis and Chicago were always part of the Big Ten's future vision. There were "no surprises," Delany said. But he added that the Big Ten will continue its push to integrate in the East Coast.
"I'd be shocked if we didn't have very deep engagement in both regions," he said. "With the number of institutions, fan bases, cities, I'd expect there to be a rotation."
“There won't be a rotation for the football championship game, at least in the immediate future. Delany still considers the game a new event that needs to be developed, and the league never seriously considered moving the game from Indianapolis in the next cycle.
Our conference is founded in the Midwest, and it's important we continue to understand those roots.” -- Mark Hollis, Michigan State athletics director
There was no formal bidding process like there was in 2011, when groups from both Indianapolis and Chicago presented to the Big Ten athletic directors and coaches.
"We're not at the stage of experimentation with respect to indoor quality, the centrality of it; it's a new event," Delany said. "We've been cautious in trying to grow it, trying to understand it. We always thought it will be central. By the time we’ll finish up [the agreement], it will be 11 years there.
"After 11 years we’ll figure out how successful it’s been, how much it’s grown, whether that kind of alternative venue makes sense. But at this point, we're building it, stabilizing it, creating a great brand around it, making it as accessible as possible."
There's no doubt Indianapolis puts on a great event at a world-class facility and has logistical advantages over a site like Chicago. But Chicago remains the hub of Big Ten fans and should gain future consideration, as should other cities like Detroit and Minneapolis, which recently was awarded the 2018 Super Bowl for its new football stadium.
The Big Ten will continue to monitor cities and facilities. Delany gushed about the recent Big Ten baseball tournament in Omaha, which set several attendance records.
"We've got a bowl game in Detroit, we've got hockey [tournaments] in Detroit and Minnesota, great sports towns, great sports venues," Delany said. "We will obviously watch the facilities and events that go there and will stay in close contact with those communities. As this cycle plays out, there will be more communications."
Bottom line: The football title game isn't leaving the Midwest any time soon, which makes sense with only two teams involved and often little time to plan. Big Ten basketball fans should prepare for other tournaments outside the traditional footprint. It's an easier event to move, because all 14 teams and fan bases are involved.
But Thursday's announcement signifies that the Big Ten still knows where its bread is buttered.
The east end of the building is bracketed by steps. Across the street is the Verizon Center, the downtown home of the Washington Wizards and Capitals and Mystics and Georgetown Hoyas basketball. Before events at Verizon, if the weather is nice, fans stream out of the Metro train station, pick up food from nearby restaurants and set up shop on the portrait gallery steps.
A few blocks east is the National Building Museum. If you go a block southwest, you can see Ford's Theatre. The White House isn't too far away. The National Mall is five minutes south.
On Tuesday afternoon, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany sat in the Verizon Center's Acela Club room and formally announced news that broke early Monday evening: In 2017, after 17 years spent rotating between Chicago and Indianapolis, the Big Ten will bring its conference tournament to the Verizon Center.
The timing is no coincidence. Delany was joined at the podium by Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson and coach Mark Turgeon; university president Wallace Loh was in attendance. On July 1, the Terrapins, alongside Rutgers, will become official members of the Big Ten. Delany is determined to greet their arrival with a major presence throughout the Northeast corridor.
"At the time Maryland came in, we set, I think, an aggressive goal to live in two regions of the country," Delany said. "Those were our words. We've been working awful hard the last 18 months to turn words into actions."
This week was proof of that push. On Monday, Delany was at Madison Square Garden in New York -- where the league recently opened a satellite office -- to announce a new competitive partnership with the Big East. The Dave Gavitt Tipoff Games, an eight-team event beginning in 2015-16, will pit the Big Ten and Big East in what both leagues hope will be a marquee season-opening event.
The league also added lacrosse power Johns Hopkins as an affiliate member, which will allow it to host its first conference championship in the traditionally East Coast-focused sport.
On Tuesday, the Verizon Center was lit up with the Big Ten's conference and team logos. The arena's video board featured men's basketball highlights from the previous season. The message was clear: This is the Big Ten's turf.
"The Big East is on the East Coast as well as the Midwest," Delany said. "We're in Midwest and on the East Coast. ... We want to move the ball. We want to move into a second region."
The question is why, and the answer is easy: television. The Big Ten Network has expanded by leaps and bounds since its debut in 2007; it now reaches nearly 50 million cable subscribers both inside and outside the conference's traditional footprint. In 2012, the league distributed about $23 million worth of (mostly) television revenues to its 12 members. In late April, according to an open-records request by the Louisville Courier-Journal, the league projected each school to receive nearly $45 million in 2017-18, in what would be the first year of a new television deal.
Delany touted the high number of alumni along the East Coast, as well as the number of "casual fans" he felt sure would come to enjoy the Big Ten's product. But the eastward expansion is a product of the same strategy that propelled the Big Ten Network in the first place: Fans' demand for college athletics and the networks that carry them, and the bundled economic model of large cable television providers.
Some of the almost 10 million homes in New York and Washington, D.C. alone -- to say nothing of regional areas and New Jersey, where Rutgers' following is strongest -- already receive the Big Ten Network. But there are many more homes to reach, and many more subscriptions to sell.
"We're in, and we have some distribution in, the East," Delany said. "I hope that we'll have complete and total integration and Big Ten distribution in the East in the coming months.
"We're not there yet. We won't get there overnight. These things take a little time to develop. But I'm confident we'll achieve distribution in these markets -- full distribution."
That, of course, is why the Big Ten took on Maryland and Rutgers in the first place. It's why Delany was eager to create a new event in partnership with the Big East. It's why the Big Ten will move its men's basketball tournament out of the central (and largely fan-convenient) Indianapolis and Chicago locations for the first time in nearly two decades in 2017.
And it's how the Big Ten commissioner found himself sitting across the street from the National Portrait Gallery, admiring the Big Ten logos in the Verizon Center, planting a flag hundreds of miles east of the league's Chicago home, speaking the language of the benevolent conqueror.
"We've come here not to visit," Delany said. "But to live."
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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?
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."
"Our defense," Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III said, "is going to make us or break us."
Defense pushed Robinson and his teammates into the round of 32 after their normally fluid offense zigged and zagged against Wofford. The Wolverines made just one-third of their field goal attempts in the second half but allowed just 20 points, the same total they allowed in the first 20 minutes.
Wisconsin, a program famous for stifling defense -- but one that hasn't always delivered it this season -- was even better at keeping American off the scoreboard. The Badgers allowed only 13 points in the second half -- the fewest in a half for a Badgers opponent in any modern-era NCAA tournament game -- and just 18 points in the final 29 minutes, 17 seconds.
"Obviously, we were very good," Badgers assistant Greg Gard said, "but it will be a totally different challenge [Saturday]. It goes from a test of your discipline and your focus for 30 seconds, to the shot clock might not even get to 30 at times for Oregon."
Dana Altman might not be college basketball's Chip Kelly, but his team, unlike American, is all about pushing the tempo. Oregon led the Pac-12 and ranked 11th nationally in scoring offense, reaching 90 points in nine games and 100 points in four. Offensive threats are everywhere, from the starters to the bench, which needs 18 more points to reach 1,000 for the season.
The Ducks showcased their scoring speed and prowess Thursday against BYU, tallying 87 points on 50 percent shooting. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan wondered aloud whether any tournament team will face a bigger contrast in opponents than his Badgers.
"It's crazy," said junior guard Josh Gasser, Wisconsin's top defender. "They are just completely opposite. Their philosophies, what they're trying to do, even their personnel. But we've played teams that like to slow it down, we've played teams that like to push it in transition.
"We're pretty much used to anything by now."
The Badgers have seen shades of Oregon in Big Ten foes like Iowa and Michigan State. Their defense hasn't been bad -- 63.7 points per game allowed, 42.9 percent opponent shooting percentage -- but it hasn't always met the Ryan standard, in part because of a stronger, quicker offense and a new-look front line.
Oregon is mostly perimeter-oriented but could target the post more with veteran Mike Moser and Elgin Cook, who had a career-high 23 points against BYU in his Milwaukee homecoming.
"We're attacking from every direction," Ducks point guard Johnathan Loyd said. "Anybody can go get 20 on any given night. It's just tough to defend. ... [Opponents] kind of start bickering with each other, like, 'Hey, you should have been there! Nah, I had this guy!'
"That's when you know our offense is really clicking."
Michigan faces much bigger post problems with Texas. Longhorns center Cameron Ridley and forward Jonathan Holmes combined for 483 rebounds during the regular season, including 187 offensive boards.
"We're a good rebounding team," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "They're a great rebounding team."
Texas isn't Wofford, which started no players taller than 6-foot-7 and went 1-for-19 from 3-point range.
"I don't think that's going to happen again," Michigan forward Jon Horford said, "so we have to be realistic about defensive expectations but still bring that emphasis into every game."
Longhorns players liken Michigan's perimeter-oriented style to Iowa State, a team it split with during the regular season.
"I look to attack more," Ridley said. "This is an opportunity for me and Jon, Prince [Ibeh] and Connor [Lammert] to show how good we are and exploit the advantage we might have."
Michigan is one of the more efficient offensive teams in the country, but its defense has slipped at times, including late in the regular season. Beilein unveiled some 2-3 zone during the Big Ten tournament as a changeup from the team's standard man-to-man or 1-3-1 zone looks.
The Wolverines geared their defense against Wofford toward stopping guard Karl Cochran, the team's offensive catalyst. Texas, meanwhile, has four players who average in double figures and six who reached the mark against BYU.
"We have to vary our defensive coverages," Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander said, "whether that be man-to-man or trapping or zones, and see if we can get them off rhythm."
Even if the Wolverines succeed at forcing missed shots, Texas could still make them pay.
"Any time you can get offensive rebounds, it breaks their back," Holmes said. "Another 35 seconds of defense is never fun."
Michigan and Wisconsin had plenty of fun on defense Thursday. Both teams must dig in to keep the good times going.
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.
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?
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.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Ndamukong Suh sat courtside and shot T-shirts into the crowd, because, hey, this is Nebraska, and there's never a break from football.
But rarely has the cash cow appeared so secondary as on Sunday, when the upstart basketball team toppled No. 9 Wisconsin 77-68 to close the regular season and likely punch Nebraska's ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
“I told the guys in the locker room,” second-year coach Tim Miles said, “That’s what college basketball should be about. The exhilaration that you’re feeling, that we’re all feeling, that our fans are feeling, that’s the way it should be.”
Yes, this is new territory here. Students lined up outside Pinnacle Bank Arena, the school’s gleaming new home, at 5 a.m. and flooded the floor at the final buzzer, engulfing Miles and his band of overachievers.
In between, reserve guard Mike Peltz proposed to his girlfriend, Shelby Campbell, during pregame Senior Day festivities. Slashing wings Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields scored 26 points apiece as the Cornhuskers won for the 10th time in 12 games to improve to 19-11 and 11-7 in the Big Ten.
They earned the fourth seed in the league tournament this week and will play Ohio State or Purdue on Friday in Indianapolis.
“No. 1 seed for what?” coach Bo Ryan said. “We’re the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament; that’s the only thing I know.”
Ryan was smarting after the defeat in front of a frenzied, school-record crowd of 15,998. The energy in the building Sunday exceeded anything experienced at Nebraska in the past two decades -- maybe ever.
But Ryan said the crowd mattered little to his players.
“These guys have all played in pretty big places,” he said. “This is the Big Ten.”
Make no mistake, the noise played a factor. It crescendoed early as senior Ray Gallegos buried a 3 from the corner to give the Huskers a 13-6 lead after less than five minutes.
After Wisconsin chipped away, as it led 35-34 at the break and by seven points one minute into the second half, the roof rattled when Gallegos hit his next shot from long range to give Nebraska the lead again at 53-52.
Shields’ ensuing jam in transition capped a 7-0 run and forced Ryan to call timeout, though the noise muted the officials’ whistles. When Petteway scored from close range two minutes to later to put the Huskers on top 60-53, the crowd and the Huskers sensed victory.
“I don’t know if you guys see it, but it’s a lot of fun out there,” Petteway said.
Shields and Petteway attacked the rim consistently, but Nebraska did not attempt a free throw in the first half. After halftime, the Huskers hit 19 of 25 from the line, including 11 from Petteway, the Big Ten’s leading scorer who sat for five minutes in the first half with two early fouls.
The Huskers held Wisconsin to 34.4 percent shooting (11 of 32) in the second half and 20 points during the decisive 17-minute stretch after the Badgers’ surge out of the locker room.
“We had to calm down and take a breath,” Petteway said.
So they stand on the brink of a breakthrough at Nebraska, which has endured two failed coaching stints and a lifetime of hurt since it last played on the sport’s biggest stage.
Asked if the Huskers belong, Ryan didn’t hesitate.
“There’s not even a question in my mind,” the 13th-year Wisconsin coach said.
The Huskers agree after a final five-day stretch in which they won at Indiana and took down the Badgers.
Most impressive, perhaps, about Sunday is that everyone here knew what it meant. The fans who stood in line understood the importance of Sunday. The Huskers knew the stakes. And still, they delivered.
“I think anybody who would be on the committee and watch that game would think, ‘Hey they’re pretty good,’” Miles said.
Nebraska is 0-6 all-time in the NCAA tournament. Miles doesn’t want to hear about the past though. He arrived just two years ago, fresh off a tournament appearance as coach at Colorado State. None of his players endured the past 15 seasons.
History means nothing to them.
“Don’t put that crap on me,” the coach said. “This is my program. We don’t carry any baggage. Everywhere I’ve been, we’ve been surrounded by great people and we win, and we’re going to keep doing it. So all that curse crap, all of the hexing and vexing and all that [stuff] that goes with it is exactly that, and you can print it, because I ignore that.
“That’s not us. That doesn’t exist. That does not exist.”
For the first time in a long time at Nebraska, he was right.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
On Thursday, a few teams helped their respective causes. And a few teams continued to miss their potential. See: Kentucky and Iowa.
Kentucky: Even though the Wildcats suffered their second overtime loss of the season to Arkansas on Thursday night, there’s still hope. Maybe. Kentucky is clearly struggling without any veteran leaders who can help John Calipari’s team maintain -- or discover -- its poise in tight games. And that’s a troubling condition. But a roster that might possess three or four first-round picks always has a chance to put it all together in the final weeks of the season, right? That might not happen for a program with an offense ranked 10th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings, but it’s possible. Right?
The problem with Kentucky is that the “What if?” scenarios have all lost their flavor as the regular season nears its conclusion. Doesn’t matter what they could be. We have to look at what they are: good only in spurts. Yes, Kentucky could do a lot of things. But one must consider what it has failed to do, despite boasting eight McDonald’s All-Americans. It’s not working. Not consistently. A 21-7 record would be an achievement for most squads. The Wildcats, however, began the season with one of the best recruiting classes in NCAA history and now they can’t even get through the weak SEC. Other than a December win over Louisville, Kentucky hasn’t done anything to prove that it’s elite and prepared to compete with some of the nation’s best teams in the coming weeks. And that’s never a good thing with March only days away.
Yes, the Hawkeyes were on the road. Yes, Indiana is a sub-.500 Big Ten team that counts every game as a chance to salvage its season. But the Hawkeyes were supposed to win these games this season. At least some of them. Instead, their resume is decorated with single-digit losses to Iowa State, Villanova, Wisconsin (twice), Michigan and Michigan State. The Hawkeyes gave up 95 points in a loss at Minnesota on Tuesday and 93 points in a loss at Indiana on Thursday. Their defensive troubles (65th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy, prior to Thursday’s loss) have been a major issue in this three-game losing streak. Iowa should still make the tournament. With the roster it has, however, getting there shouldn’t have been the original goal. The Hawkeyes have the tools to make a run. But that’s meaningless if you don’t prove it. They’re in danger of falling into a low seed and an opening matchup against one of the elite teams that they’ve wrestled with all season.
Arkansas: Mike Anderson’s program is doing what the rest of the SEC’s bubble teams can’t seem to do: it’s winning. Arkansas is on a four-game winning streak after completing the season sweep of Kentucky on Thursday night. The Razorbacks are 4-5 against the RPI’s top 50. And they’re 3-1 in their past four road games. Arkansas is doing a great job of positioning itself for an at-large bid with this late push. Proof? According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the Razorbacks are in the field of 68 right now.
Louisville: With so many new faces, it took Louisville some time to build chemistry and begin to play the brand of basketball that fueled its rise to the national championship last season. But look at the Cardinals now. They’ve lost one game since Jan. 9. And they avenged that Jan. 30 loss to Cincinnati via Russ Smith’s buzzer-beating game-winner against the Bearcats last weekend. Thursday’s 88-66 win over Temple was its 11th win in 12 games. It’s top 20 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy, numbers enhanced by Smith, arguably the nation’s most versatile player. Louisville is playing some of the best basketball in America.
The keys to the game are simple. Michigan shoots 3-pointers better than any team in the Big Ten (40.2 percent in league play). When they’re only average beyond the arc, however, the Wolverines aren’t the same team. Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III have to help this team excel against a Wisconsin defense that held Michigan State to 0.91 points per possession during its 60-58 win over the Spartans on Sunday. When Wisconsin’s defense is that restrictive, it’s always a tough opponent.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Michigan is 18-2 when its offensive efficiency is 105.0 or greater and 0-4 when it’s below that. This game features one of the nation’s most powerful offenses (Michigan is third in offensive efficiency) versus a steadily improving defense (Wisconsin was 46th in adjusted defensive efficiency entering its matchup against Minnesota on Thursday night).
Two specific players -- Stauskas and Wisconsin star Sam Dekker -- will be pivotal to the final outcome, though. It’s obvious that teams tend to follow their leaders. That’s why San Diego State suffered its first loss since November when Xavier Thames couldn’t find the rim against Wyoming. That’s why Oklahoma State slid when Marcus Smart became a less effective player prior to his three-game suspension.
Both Dekker and Stauskas have fought through rough stretches in recent weeks, too. Dekker went 6-for-12 in Wisconsin’s 81-68 loss at Minnesota on Jan. 22. In Wisconsin’s four other losses? He was just 13-for-38 (34 percent). Prior to Sunday’s win, Stauskas endured a 5-for-15 slide in three games.
Coaches promote the “next guy up” philosophy often. And at this level, teams must be ready to go even if their top player is in a funk. But it’s far more difficult in practice.
Opponents have tried to box Stauskas and limit his freedom because he’s so dangerous in space. Dekker has faced various defensive looks all aimed at limiting his offensive versatility and forcing him to be a one-dimensional jump shooter.
Multiple components could affect Sunday’s matchup in Ann Arbor, but Michigan needs the Stauskas who has been the Big Ten’s best player, arguably, outside that rocky week. And Wisconsin needs the Dekker who can decode defenses with his variety.
The game is usually bigger than two players, but this one revolves around the efforts of both Stauskas and Dekker.
Does the Big Ten owe Tom Crean lunch?
On Saturday afternoon, during Iowa’s ruthless home rout of Michigan, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich hit on a key insight.
Convention would dictate that a coach should check Michigan guard Nik Stauskas with as tall a wingman as he had available -- the better to challenge Stauskas, who spent all of January destroying Big Ten defenses, on the perimeter. But Dakich noted that when Indiana played (and beat) Michigan, Crean used a much shorter player -- 5-foot-11 point guard Yogi Ferrell -- on the Wolverines’ star. Crean didn’t make this decision out of necessity: 6-foot-7 Indiana wing Troy Williams might be the Hoosiers’ best all-around defender, and he would have been convention’s perfect candidate. But Ferrell’s quickness, his ability to stay inside Stauskas’ comfort zone, made him a constant nuisance. Stauskas, who had averaged a scorching 131.0 offensive rating since Dec. 21, who blew kisses to the Breslin Center, who was unstoppable ... finished with six points on 1-of-4 shooting. It was his worst game of the season.
Say what you want about the frustrating, stop-start 2013-14 Indiana Hoosiers, but it would appear their coach did the rest of the Big Ten a solid.
Of course, Stauskas was probably due for a natural regression at some point. He was never going to sustain 45 percent shooting from 3 and 60 percent from 2. Maybe that regression came along on its own, and teamed up with Crean’s unconventional strategy. Maybe? It’s hard to tease exactly all of this out.
But there is clearly something to the idea of chasing Stauskas around the court with a small, quick, aggressive man-to-man defender. He is more likely to turn the ball over. He is less likely to get to the rim. He may see 3s more easily, but when he was tearing opposing defenses apart in January, any of them would have begged to turn Stauskas back into the semi-manageable spot-up shooter they had to worry about a year ago. Better that than unstoppable all-court destruction, you know? Better him be uncomfortable. Better to take away something.
Ohio State, for all of its issues -- and it another of those inconsistent Big Ten teams with massive, glaring flaws -- does one thing extremely well: perimeter defense. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are excellent perimeter defenders, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson aren’t far behind. As a group, the Buckeyes force Big Ten opponents into turnovers on nearly 21 percent of their possessions. OSU opponents also shoot the worst percentage in the league (28.6) from 3, and that’s when they even get a shot off, which isn’t often (just 30.6 percent of shots against the Buckeyes are 3s, second fewest in the Big Ten). The Buckeyes’ offense is occasionally a train wreck; it’s usually pretty tough to watch. But Ohio State's defense is still a nightmare for opposing guards.
If you’re Stauskas, there is no worse way to break out of a three-game mini-slump than having Craft and Scott chase you around the perimeter. Whether the league’s coaches have figured out an antidote is almost beside the point. Ohio State had one ready all along.