A Fine (Regular Season) Finale

Today the Big Ten regular season basketball season comes to an end.  Many consider the Big Ten to be the toughest conference, top to bottom, in the country, and the competitiveness of the teams has made for a wild and entertaining ride.

Many people will focus on the game at East Lansing, where Ohio State seeks revenge for the Spartans’ win last month.  The Buckeyes’ dreadful showing in that contest triggered several inconsistent performances that have tested Ohio State’s mettle and raised questions about its NCAA Tournament hopes.  A win against a top 10 team, coached by legendary Tom Izzo, in a brutal venue — and on Michigan State’s senior day, to boot — would answer those questions.  Ohio State will need to shoot a lot better and rebound a lot better if they hope to do so.

If Michigan State wins today, the Spartans win the conference outright.  An Ohio State win means at least a two-way tie, and the Buckeyes and Spartans could be joined by Michigan if the Wolverines avoid stubbing their toe at Penn State.

The Wolverines are one of several Big Ten teams that must be pleased with their regular season performance.  The Wolverines have shown grit and won several close games.  Wisconsin overcame a bad start and has played well down the stretch. Purdue and Indiana, who are playing today in one of the sport’s great rivalry games, both have beaten low expectations, played tough, and will end up with winning records in the conference.  And Northwestern – scrappy, always-on-the-brink Northwestern — beat Iowa yesterday and hope to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament and make it to the Big Dance for the first time.

The stories aren’t so pretty at the bottom of the conference.  Minnesota’s season has been crippled by injuries, but Illinois has experienced an outright collapse that probably will result in the ouster of coach Bruce Weber.  The Illini are baffling because they have one of the best big men in the conference in Meyers Leonard and a great scorer in Brandon Paul, but they play poor defense and lack the leadership and chemistry needed to win consistently.  Nebraska’s coach, too, is likely on the chopping block; the Cornhuskers look to be far away from being competitive in the conference.  And Penn State, which has a new coach this year, always seems to be rebuilding, but never quite getting to the top.

I’m a traditionalist.  I think the Big Ten regular season title means a lot more than does winning the Big Ten Tournament, because success in the regular season requires winning at hostile venues and consistently displaying the teamwork and character that is essential to success on the road.  If the Buckeyes can win at the Breslin Center today, they will have truly earned some bragging rights.

A Tough Challenge In Champaign

The undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes are moving into the meat of the Big Ten schedule.  They visit Illinois today for what should be their toughest challenge yet.

Demetri McCamey

Every Buckeye basketball fan remembers “The Shot” by Matt Sylvester that catapulted the Buckeyes to an upset win over no. 1-ranked Illinois in Thad Matta’s first season as Ohio State’s coach.  This year, the roles are reversed, with the Buckeyes carrying the no. 1 ranking into the game, but that is where the similarities end.  Illinois is a far more talented, experienced team than the upset-minded Buckeyes of six years ago.  The Fighting Illini are led by Demetri McCamey, the sturdy senior guard who leads the team in scoring and assists.  Another senior, Mike Tisdale, anchors the Illini in the middle, leads the team in rebounding, and likes to shoot from the outside.  Illinois also has lots of depth and recently beat always-tough Michigan State behind 20 points from sophomore guard Brandon Paul.

Aaron Craft

The Illini will be the best team the Buckeyes have played so far, and Assembly Hall clearly will be the toughest venue the Buckeyes have visited.  Although previews of the game have focused on how Illinois will defend Jared Sullinger, I think the bigger question is how freshman Aaron Craft will fare bringing the ball up court in the din created by the Illinois student section.  In the Big Ten, the good teams usually feature battle-tested seniors who know what it is like to play in hostile environments on the road.  Craft has been excellent this season, but he has not yet faced a crucial game played in a deafening arena.  Another interesting question will be how Coach Matta uses defensive ace David Lighty, and whether we will see Lighty defend McCamey.  And I expect that the Buckeyes will need good outside shooting from Jon Diebler and William Buford to loosen up the middle for Sullinger.

The tip is at noon today.

Edited to add:  In a fantastic game of runs and counter-runs, the Buckeyes overcame a second-half deficit, tightened up their defense, knocked down their free throws down the stretch, and came out on top over Illinois.  Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft were huge contributors, as was Deshaun Thomas, who came off the bench to spark the Buckeyes in the second half.  Ohio State is now 20-0, but the task doesn’t get any easier.  Next up is Purdue on Tuesday night.