State Of Nice

I got a chuckle out of the sign above this store in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Many state slogans are laughably inaccurate — XXX, “State of Excitement!” — but calling Minnesota the “State of Nice” is pretty darned polite, accurate . . . and unassuming, just like Minnesotans.

Of course, the store does prominently feature a statue of a bear.

Adding Up The Obamacare Tab

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, its drafters contemplated that states would design their own health care exchanges, with the federal healthcare.gov website serving as a kind of backstop.  That turned out to be a miscalculation.  More than 60 percent of the states — 36 out of 50 — elected not to create their own health care exchanges.

At the time, some critics argued that the decisions of states with Republican governors to refrain from building their own websites was politically motivated.  In retrospect, however, the decisions to eschew developing state-specific health care exchanges seem more like a wise recognition of the limitations of state capabilities, because the experiences of states that did attempt their own websites have been decidedly mixed.

Six of the 14 states that chose to create their own exchanges — Masschusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Maryland, Minnesota, and Hawaii — have had severe functionality problems and have become tremendous cash drains and political albatrosses.  In Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, and Maryland alone, the federal government has paid at least $474 million to support the establishment of non-functional exchanges, and that cost total seems certain to increase significantly.  In those states, Democratic politicians are blaming the website contractors and threatening litigation, and Republicans are saying that the states never should have attempted to build the exchanges in the first place.

Obamacare has become such a political football that every fact and development gets spun to death — but if we can’t learn from the current reality, and recognize that mistakes were made in the legislation and its conception, then we are just compounding our problems.  In all, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about $5 billion in federal funds that have been shelled out to states to allow them to assess whether to create state-specific exchanges and then, in some cases, to support their creation.  That’s an enormous sum of money, and it is becoming clear that a significant part of it has been wasted.  Whatever happens with Obamacare, let’s at least hope that in the future we refrain from enacting statutes that require states to develop large-scale, complicated technological systems, on their own, with the federal government picking up the tab.  As the mounting Obamacare costs demonstrate, that approach is fraught with peril.

The Big Ten Tightens Up

This year’s Big Ten has got to be the most entertaining basketball conference in years — and, perhaps, the best conference as well.

Over the past few days, the top three teams in the conference — Indiana, Michigan State, and Michigan — all have lost.  Ohio State’s victory over Michigan State on Sunday wasn’t that much of an upset, but Minnesota’s win over top-ranked Indiana last night was a real surprise, and Penn State’s victory tonight over Michigan, in a game in which Michigan frittered away a double-digit lead, is an absolute shocker.  Before that game, Penn State hadn’t won a conference game all year.  As a result of the upsets, Indiana leads the conference race with three losses, Michigan State and steady Wisconsin are right behind with four losses, and Ohio State and stumbling Michigan are one game farther back.

College basketball is a lot of fun because the players are kids, the students watching the game are into it, and emotion can play a significant role.  When a conference has have a bunch of very good teams, some good teams, and some teams that can rise to the occasion when their home court advantage comes into play, you get lots of surprises and unexpectedly close games.  The last few games of the conference regular season over the next week and a half are likely to be a free-for-all.  If a team like Ohio State wants to stay in contention, it had better be ready to play every game against every opponent — starting tomorrow night, when it travels to Evanston to play Northwestern.

After the regular season finally ends, we’ll have the Big Ten Tournament.  There’s a reason why this year’s tournament is the first one ever to be sold out:  it should be a very good show.

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.

Roll Out The Roundball

Tonight Big Ten basketball teams begin playing their conference schedules.  Wisconsin takes on Nebraska, and Illinois plays Minnesota.  Ohio State kicks off its Big Ten season tomorrow against Northwestern.

It should be a very interesting Big Ten season.  By far the most surprising team so far has been Indiana.  The Hoosiers, who were woeful the past few years, are undefeated and have a last-second win over mighty Kentucky under their belts.  Many people thought Indiana was a year away, but perhaps coach Tom Crean and the young Hoosiers have other ideas. We’ll get a good sense of the Hoosiers’ real strength soon enough — they open at Michigan State and then welcome the Buckeyes to Assembly Hall in what should be a barn burner.

I haven’t seen all of the Big Ten teams play yet, but the conference appears to be strong and deep.  Ohio State likely would be the favorite if Jared Sullinger were 100 percent, but he has been hobbled by injuries and his status throws the conference race up for grabs.  Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Purdue are always tough.  Minnesota has been a surprise — although they really haven’t played much of a schedule — Michigan has lots of talent, and Illinois and Northwestern have gotten off to good starts.  Northwestern, in particular, is a challenge to play because they run a back-cut offensive scheme that other teams don’t see very often.

Of course, that’s one of the great things about college basketball — coaches can play different schemes and use different looks that can catch opponents off-guard and allow for upsets.  This year’s Big Ten conference race should be competitive, and entertaining.  Let’s get it started!

 

Burying The Gophers

Ohio State rolled on today, beating the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis 82-69.  Every member of Buckeye Nation of a certain age feels a great satisfaction when Ohio State beats the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis, on a floor that saw the worst incident in the history of college basketball.  In this case, the victory was a true team win, with every starter scoring in double figures and the Buckeyes defense throttling the Minnesota offense until the game was out of reach.

Ohio State remains the only undefeated team in college basketball and leads the Big Ten conference race by three games.  The Buckeyes now get a few days off until their next game, which is on Saturday at Wisconsin — a place where the Badgers seldom lose.

There will be a lot of analysis of the impending Ohio State-Wisconsin matchup in the days to come.  For now, every Buckeyes fan should take a moment to appreciate this tough and unselfish team.  Starters David Lighty, Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale, Williams Buford, and Jared Sullinger, and principal reserves Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, play a very hard-nosed style that is a pleasure to watch.  They move the ball around on offense until they find the hot hand.  They rebound well.  Their fundamentals are sound, and they usually end up getting a good shot.  On defense, they stick to their opponents and don’t let up.  There is a reason why these guys are unbeaten and no. 1, and I’ve enjoyed being along for the ride.

The Big Ten Basketball Meat Grinder

A lot of people have been saying that the Big Ten is the strongest basketball conference in the country this year, and it is beginning to look like they might be right.  Five games into the conference schedule (six for Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn State), it looks like the Big Ten has a number of very good teams, lots of wonderful players, and a conference race that is and will continue to be up for grabs.  This is a conference where anything can happen on any given night of rugged Big Ten play.

The Buckeyes sit atop the standings at 5-0, a record that includes three invaluable road wins.  Ohio State has not been blowing its opponents out of the gym, however.  In its last four games Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Penn State have taken the Buckeyes down to the wire, and we can expect more of the same as opponents develop ways to defend against Ohio State’s inside-outside game.  Saturday’s game against Penn State was a good example.  The Buckeyes pulled out to a ten-point lead, Penn State went to a zone that took Ohio State out of its game, and it took some last-second heroics from Jared Sullinger to ensure the victory.  It is clear that Penn State — which has been one of the surprises of the conference this year, having already upset Michigan State and Illinois — has a very good, well-coached team, led by senior guard Talor Battle and other experienced players.  They will give other teams fits.

Right behind the Buckeyes, at 4-1, are Michigan State and Purdue.  Michigan State has not been overwhelming — it needed overtime to win its last two home games, against Wisconsin and Northwestern — but it has found a way to win, and the Spartans always seem to be in the thick of the conference race under their great coach, Tom Izzo.  Purdue may have the best one-two combination in the conference in splendid senior center JaJuan Johnson and senior guard E’Twaun Moore and won its first four conference games handily before losing at Minnesota.  The always-tough Wisconsin Badgers, with their deliberate offense, and athletic Illinois are 3-2, the surprising Nittany Lions and the huge Minnesota Golden Gophers are 3-3, and spunky Northwestern stands at 2-4.  Indiana and Michigan, at 1-4, and Iowa, still winless, round out the conference — but don’t think they aren’t putting up a fight.  Michigan and Iowa both played well in their home games against the Buckeyes and gave Ohio State all it could handle.

This may be the best and deepest the Big Ten has ever been in basketball — and that is saying something.  The upcoming games where the top teams try to knock each other off, in the kind of bruising battles you expect in the Big Ten, should be epic.

The Big Ten, With November To Go

I’m sitting watching the Michigan-Illinois game at the Big House.  It’s halftime — and the score is 31-31!  Huh?  Is this really the Big Ten?

The Big Ten is very interesting this year for a lot of reasons.  Four teams are tied for the lead with one loss — Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State.  Traditional powerhouses like Michigan and Penn State are struggling.  And the days of bruising 10-7 battles seem to be long gone.  If anything, some Big Ten teams seem to be defensively challenged.  (I’m looking at you, Michigan, Indiana, and Minnesota!)

Which team has the best chance to win the championship?  Michigan State, which got pounded by Iowa last weekend, probably has the easiest road to the championship.  The Spartans are crushing Minnesota today and have Purdue at home in two weeks before they must travel to Penn State for the last game of the season.  Iowa, on the other hand, probably has the toughest schedule left.  They are, surprisingly, locked in a tough game with Indiana today, play at Northwestern next week, and then have Ohio State at home before ending at hapless Minnesota.  Ohio State also has a rugged schedule, playing Penn State next week, then traveling to Iowa, then ending with Michigan in a throw-out-the-records rivalry game.

I was impressed by Wisconsin in their win over the Buckeyes.  Although they are struggling a bit in their game at Purdue today, I think Wisconsin is the odds-on favorite to win the conference championship.  They have beaten Ohio State and Iowa head-to-head, and if they get by Purdue today they have Indiana, Michigan, and Northwestern left. Wisconsin should be favored in all of those games.

The Big Ten has changed a lot since the days of Woody and Bo.

A Win And A Bye

Ohio State avoided a trap game last night.  They waxed the struggling Minnesota Golden Gophers, 52-10, in Minneapolis.  The Buckeyes now get a week off to heal and prepare for the last three games of the regular season, against Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan.

The Buckeyes played well.  They racked up more than 500 yards of total offense, and both the passing game and the running game were hitting on all cylinders (although Terrelle Pryor, who otherwise has an excellent game, no doubt wishes he could take back an ill-advised pass that was intercepted at the Minnesota goal line).  Defensively the Buckeyes gave up a few long passes down the middle but otherwise held a pretty good Minnesota offense in check.  The Buckeyes blew the game open by scoring 17 unanswered points in the second quarter, then added a special teams score and a defensive touchdown in the second half.

It’s hard to know what to make of last night’s game, because Minnesota clearly is not a very good team right now.  The Buckeyes should be satisfied with their win and will look forward to a bye week to rest up and get ready for the final push.  Currently Ohio State is one of four one-loss teams atop the Big Ten — Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa are the others — and the tough, bad-weather games on tap for November will tell the tale in the battle for the conference championship.

A “Trap Game” In The Land Of The Golden Gophers

Tomorrow night Ohio State will play at Minnesota.  It is one of those “trap games”  — a game that the Buckeyes are expected to win, but also a game that poses challenges.

It has been a tough season for the Golden Gophers.  They are 0-4 in the Big Ten, having lost to Northwestern, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Purdue, and 1-7 overall.  They had an embarrassing defeat to South Dakota, and earlier this season they fired their coach.  Still, Minnesota has managed to put points on the board in its conference losses.  They are led by a senior quarterback, Adam Weber, who has thrown for 17 touchdowns, and a big, tall, receiver, Da’Jon McKnight, who has caught nine of those scoring passes.  They have two good running backs who share rushing duties.  The Golden Gopher defense, however, has been a problem all season.

You would expect Ohio State to win this game, but there is reason for Buckeye fans to be wary.  This game is a way for the Minnesota players to salvage something from an otherwise lost season.  The Golden Gophers will be playing under the lights on national TV before what is likely to be their biggest crowd of the season.  They just saw their arch-rival, Wisconsin, beat Ohio State in a night game, and they will be fired up to duplicate that achievement.  I would expect Minnesota and its interim coach to pull out every stop and use every play in the playbook to try to win tomorrow night’s game.

As I said, it’s a trap game.  I hope the Buckeyes are ready.

The Big Ten Gets Underway

The Big Ten looks like it is in for a very interesting year.  After one week of conference play, there are a few surprises.  Four Big Ten teams — Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, and Ohio State — haven’t lost a game this season, and two other teams, Iowa and Wisconsin, are 4-1.

Denard Robinson

It seems odd to say that an undefeated Michigan team is a surprise; after all, Michigan is the winningest college football team of all time.  Denard Robinson, however, can only be said to have put up shocking numbers on offense.  His extraordinary output has allowed Michigan to overcome what appears to be a pretty weak defense and keep the wolves (or perhaps Wolverines) from the door of beleaguered coach Rich Rodriguez.  Michigan State — particularly its win over preseason Big Ten favorite Wisconsin — also has been a surprise.  We’ll find out soon enough which team can keep it up; the Wolverines and the Spartans play each other this week at The Big House in Ann Arbor.

At the other end of the league, Minnesota’s bad start may have finally made Golden Gopher supporters rue the day Glen Mason got fired.  Penn State fans have to be disappointed in their offense, which has struggled to score points and been held to a field goal apiece by Alabama and Iowa.  Indiana, which comes to the Horseshoe to play Ohio State this week, is almost Penn State’s exact opposite.  The Hoosiers have scored points in bunches behind a passing attack that currently ranks fourth in the nation, but it has given up points in bunches, too.  Denard Robinson took advantage of that propensity to pull out a last-second win last week.

College football is a lot of fun to watch, and the Big Ten this year is especially unpredictable.