The Little Big Ten

Today the Big Ten kicks off league play.  It should be a competitive conference race, because the Big Ten clearly doesn’t have any powerhouse teams this year.

The results of pre-conference play were not kind to the teams in the Old Conference.  Michigan got pulverized by Alabama and then played badly in a loss to Notre Dame.  Wisconsin lost to Oregon State and has struggled mightily against mediocre teams like Utah State and UNLV.  Pre-season favorites Michigan State and Nebraska have fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten, with the Spartans getting pounded by Notre Dame and the Cornhuskers dropping a winnable game to UCLA.  Iowa, Penn State, and Illinois already have two defeats.  Minnesota is undefeated, but hasn’t played anybody.  The best team in the conference could be Northwestern, which has knocked off Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College.

The marquee games today are Wisconsin at Nebraska and Ohio State at Michigan State.  The Badgers will be trying to get their offense back on track against a Nebraska defense that was dismal in its only game against a tough foe.  The Ohio State-Michigan State contest is intriguing because MSU handed OSU an embarrassing home loss last year, when the Spartans manhandled the Buckeye offense.  Ohio State is undefeated, but it has played mediocre football against inferior teams and hasn’t played a road game yet.  The tilt in East Lansing today will tell us a lot about whether Ohio State is competitive — and also whether Braxton Miller can weave his offensive magic against a very stout defense.

Thanks to NCAA penalties, Ohio State can’t play in a bowl game or the Big Ten conference championship game this year.  If the team wants to make something of this lost year, it needs to win games like today’s match-up.

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Wildcat Wishes

Ohio State fans like me are spoiled.  We expect our sports teams to win the vast majority of their games, to routinely move on to post-season tournaments and bowl games, and to win national championships every year.

Not every school is like that.  I realized that when Richard went to Northwestern and I started following the Wildcats.  NU has long had the reputation for being the toughest school, academically, in the Big Ten and the easiest, athletically, for the other schools to trounce.  Northwestern students may have been the first to come up with the “you’ll be working for us one day” chant directed at opposing teams.

In the past 20 years, Northwestern football has stopped being a doormat and has become very tough and competitive.  And Northwestern basketball has steadily improved under the careful tutelage of their excellent coach Bill Carmody.  However, the Wildcats have never been to the NCAA Tournament.  That’s right, never.  As in, not in the history of mankind.  Zero.  Nada.  Zilch.  Goose egg.

This year, though, the Wildcats have a chance to get off the schneid.  Entering the Big Ten Tournament, they stand at 18-12 overall, and 8-10 in the Big Ten.  They have two great scorers, in John Shurna and Drew Crawford, a pretty good point guard in Dave Sobolewski, and a number of role players that Coach Carmody has molded into a good team.  They shoot the three, run a Princeton-style offense that can burn teams with back cuts, and can stick around and pull games out at the end.  If they could somehow win a few games in the Big Ten Tournament, they might actually earn that first invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

I’m rooting for them to do so.  So please, Webner House readers — won’t you also root for the Wildcats this weekend?  It’s high time for them to partake of some March Madness, Northwestern style.

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.

Down To The Wire

The Ohio State Buckeyes are struggling, no doubt about it — but they aren’t out of the Big Ten race yet.

We’ve been saying all season that the Big Ten is balanced, and the regular season has proven that to be true.  The top team, Michigan State, already has four losses after getting drilled by Indiana last night, Ohio State and Michigan have five, and Wisconsin has six.  If The Buckeyes can win their last two games, against Northwestern and Michigan State, they would finish tied for first place.

That’s a big “if” right now.  The Buckeyes have lost two out of three at home and three of their last five.  In Sunday’s grim loss to Wisconsin, Ohio State had silly turnovers and couldn’t hit free throws, allowing the Badgers to stay in the game and pull out a last-second win.  The team seemed disorganized and undisciplined at crunch time.  These aren’t the kinds of qualities you want to see as tournament time arrives.  If a team can’t figure out to gut out close games, their season is likely to come to an early end.

Tonight’s game against Northwestern will be a good test.  The Wildcats are fighting for a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, and a win over Ohio State would bring that dream a lot closer.  Northwestern already has beaten Michigan State this season, and behind their senior and scoring machine John Shurna they are fully capable of hanging another loss on the Buckeyes.  If Ohio State hopes to win this game, key players like Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, and William Buford need to step up and provide leadership at key moments, the team needs to play defense and rebound, and the players need to play smart basketball — which includes making their shots at the charity stripe.  It’s time for this Buckeye team to pull together and start playing like a contender.

Home Cooking For The Buckeyes

Ohio State blitzed Illinois yesterday and avoided having an actual losing streak for the first time in years.  Playing in front of a friendly home crowd, the Buckeyes shot lights out in the first half and gave their reserves plenty of playing time in the second half.  They ended up beating Illinois 83-67, in a game that really wasn’t as close as the final score.

For Ohio State fans, there was joy in seeing the Buckeyes shoot the ball well.  As Uncle Mack has (gleefully) pointed out in his last few basketball-related posts, Ohio State has thrown up its share of bricks in the losses to Michigan State and Michigan.  Against Illinois — which, admittedly, is not one of the toughest defensive teams in the Big Ten — the Buckeyes shot 65 percent from the field and better than 50 percent from beyond the three-point arc.  Getting some fast-break baskets and dunks certainly helped.

I’m convinced that there are two keys to how well the Buckeyes do for the rest of the year:  William Buford and Aaron Craft.  When Buford plays within the offense and shoots the ball reasonably well, Ohio State becomes a more multi-dimensional offensive team that is much harder to guard.  Craft, on the other hand, is the engine that makes the team run.  When he gets steals and forces turnovers, and particularly when he takes the ball down the lane and either dishes or shoots, he converts Ohio State from a very good team into a real contender.

The Buckeyes finish the season with a home game against gritty Wisconsin, a visit to Evanston to play Northwestern, and then the rematch against Michigan State.  We’ll find out soon enough whether the Buckeyes’ home cooking against Illinois was the start of a good-shooting trend, or just the result of playing an overmatched opponent that is wrestling with all kinds of demons.

The Big Ten Free-For-All

This afternoon Ohio State hosts Indiana at the Schott.  Even though the season is young, it’s being viewed as a must-win game for the Buckeyes — but then again, just about every game in the Big Ten this year may be of the must-win variety.

This year appears to be the most balanced Big Ten in years.  Only five games in, every team has lost at least one game.  Northwestern’s huge upset win yesterday over unbeaten Michigan State proved, again, that no game can be taken for granted.  As of today, Michigan State and Illinois stand at 4-1, four teams, including the Buckeyes, have two losses, and three teams have three losses.

That’s why Ohio State’s game today against Indiana is seen as a must-win contest.  The Buckeyes lost to Indiana in a foul-plagued, turnover-heavy game at Assembly Hall, so they need to win today to even the season series.  Ohio State also lost at Illinois when Illinois’ Brandon Paul had one of those magical games where he simply could not miss.  If the Buckeyes want to stay within range of Illinois and Michigan State, they need to put today’s game in the win column.  We’ll be looking for our senior, William Buford, to lead the way.

As an Ohio State fan, I want the Buckeyes to win every game by 30 points.  As a sports fan, however, I’m enjoying an unpredictable Big Ten season where many talented teams get the chance to beat up on each other.

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!