Roll On, Big O-SU

The Ohio State Buckeyes spanked Indiana today, while Purdue crushed Michigan State.  Their victories set up what should be an interesting final week of the Big Ten regular season.

The Buckeyes close at Penn State, on Tuesday night, and then finish at home against Wisconsin on Sunday.  Purdue, in the meantime, hosts Illinois on Tuesday and then ends the season at Iowa on Saturday.  Although there will be a Big Ten Tournament the following weekend, and the winner of that tournament will be deemed the Big Ten championship for purposes of the automatic NCAA Tournament bid, every true Big Ten fan knows that the regular season title is the more important one.  There is a lot of pride involved in surviving the rugged life on the road in the Big Ten and winning enough away games to claim the regular season title.

This year, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin clearly are the class of the conference.  Ohio State fans hoped that Purdue might stumble in East Lansing, but instead the Boilermakers drubbed the struggling Spartans.  That win means the Buckeyes will have to win out to claim the regular season title, and Ohio State held up its end of the bargain today by clubbing the Hoosiers at Value City Arena.  Indiana is a good example of a once-storied program that has fallen on hard times.  Although the Hoosiers may bounce back next year, when they have a good recruiting class coming in, right now they just don’t belong, talent-wise, on the same floor as Ohio State, Purdue, or Wisconsin.  They are cannon fodder, like the Washington Generals or the anonymous masked wrestler who gets trounced by Hulk Hogan in the run-up to Wrestlemania.

The game at Happy Valley Tuesday night will be a huge one for both teams.  The Nittany Lions need a win to build their resume for an at-large NCAA bid, and the Buckeyes need the win to stay ahead of Purdue in the race for the regular season Big Ten crown.

One Game Does Not A Season Make (But It Certainly Was A Wonderful Game To Watch)

The Buckeye Nation woke up whistling a happy tune this morning.  The Basketball Buckeyes crushed the Purdue Boilermakers, 87-64, in what was easily Ohio State’s most complete and dominating game of the season.  The Buckeyes pulled away from a solid Purdue team from the opening tip, never trailed, and inexorably increased their lead, which at times exceeded 30 points in the second half. With the win, the Buckeyes opened up a two-game lead in the Big Ten conference race.

This was a game where Ohio State was hitting on all cylinders.  The team played lockdown defense on the Boilermakers throughout the game.  Although Purdue’s ace center JaJuan Johnson scored 22 points, the rest of the squad was neutralized and seemingly baffled by the Buckeyes’ tough defense.  The Buckeyes beat the Boilermakers like a drum on the boards.  Ohio State’s hustle and grit, at times, seemed to catch the Boilermakers flat-footed, such as when Jon Diebler rebounded a miss on the front end of a one-on-one as the Purdue players napped.

Offensively, the Buckeyes rained in three-pointers, took Purdue defenders to the rack, and watched Jared Sullinger work his magic on the blocks.  The game continued the season-long coming out party of Ohio State’s excellent freshmen — Sullinger, Aaron Craft, and Deshaun Thomas, each of whom made mighty contributions to the victory — and saw the Buckeyes outrebound and consistently outbattle the Boilermakers.  David Lighty, Diebler, and William Buford, who together form the heart of the Buckeyes’ steady corps of experienced players, also had tremendous games.

The rout was a complete team effort that must have warmed the hearts of head coach Thad Matta and his staff.  As impressive as the win was, however, it is only one game.  The challenge for Coach Matta and his assistants will be to continue the development of their talented players and to challenge and inspire them to reach even greater heights during the rest of the Big Ten schedule and into the NCAA tournament.

Next up for the Buckeyes is a road test Saturday against Northwestern.  It will give Buckeye fans some time to savor a very satisfying win.

A Bounce Back Game

After losing at Wisconsin last Saturday night and falling to number 10 in the polls, the Buckeyes came roaring back yesterday.  On a fine fall day in Columbus, overcast and perfect for college football, they trounced Purdue, 49-0.  The score really isn’t reflective of how one-sided the game was.

The Buckeyes get ready to score one of their first half touchdowns against Purdue

Ohio State led 42-0 at halftime and racked up more than 400 yards of offense in the first half.  They ran the ball pretty much at will, Boom Herron lived up to his name as he blasted through Purdue for two scores, and Terrelle Pryor threw for three additional touchdowns.  The defense, after getting gashed by Wisconsin’s running attack, totally shut down the Boilermakers very banged-up offense.  In the second half the Buckeyes coasted (a bit of a concern to the Buckeye Nation, which knows that you don’t want to get sloppy).

Up next is Minnesota, where the Buckeyes will play their third Saturday night game of the year against a Golden Gophers team that has struggled all year and recently fired its coach.

When A Coach Earns His Pay

After the Wisconsin game, I tuned out college football for a few days.  I skipped the post mortems, avoided the Ohio State message boards, and didn’t analyze the game with friends.  Why add to the pain?

Coaches don’t have that luxury.  Jim Tressel and his staff had to immediately swallow their disappointment and get to work at deconstructing the Wisconsin game and developing plans for the next game.  When I was deciding to practice an avoidance approach, they were watching film of the brutal loss.  They had to decide what to tell players who had played poorly at Madison and what to do to keep opponents from running kickoffs back for touchdowns, among countless other preparations.  The Wisconsin game — tough though it was — is only one game of a long season.  There are many more games to be played, like tomorrow’s game against Purdue at the Horseshoe, and when you have a bad game you have to bounce back.

This is where a coach earns his pay.  Great coaches help their players shrug off a bad game and understand that they can still have a successful season, and then get them to play hard the next game and get back on track.  Coach Tressel managed to do that last year after Ohio State had a painful loss at Purdue.  This year he faces that challenge again.

Big Lift For Big Ten Basketball

The Big Ten is feeling pretty good about basketball these days.  With three teams — Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue — in the Sweet 16, the Big Ten has more teams still in contention than any other conference.  For a moment, at least, the Big Ten has quieted critics who say that the league pales in comparison to the Big East or the ACC, that Big Ten teams play a boring, bruising style that is not attractive to fans or talented players, and that Big Ten teams underperform in big games.

I’m not sure that you can conclude that the Big Ten was the strongest conference this year based on its performance in the NCAA Tournament, any more than you can argue that the league has sucked in the past based on prior tournament disappointments.  The NCAA Tournament often boils down to individual team match-ups that don’t allow for sweeping conclusions about entire leagues.  Still, it is gratifying for the Big Ten teams to perform well in the spotlight, and particularly meaningful because Michigan State and Purdue overcame significant injuries in winning their games to advance.

The reality is that the Big Ten plays good, solid basketball and features a number of tough, hard-nosed players who don’t quit.  The fact that most Big Ten teams score in the 50s and 60s, and not in the 70s and 80s, does not detract from the high level of play and fine coaching.  Perhaps, with this NCAA Tournament, basketball fans outside the Midwest are starting to realize that.

The Buck Back Begins

Last year I wrote a bit about the Buck Back, the weird, hybrid pool and fantasy-type draft we have when the NCAA Basketball Tournament begins.  The linked post explains the rules, to the extent they exist.  Basically eight people put in eight bucks and select all of the teams in the NCAA Tournament through a serpentine draft, and each time one of your teams wins you win a buck back.

My 2010 Buck Back grid

This year I drew the ace from the deck and got the first pick — which is good and bad.  You get to pick what you consider to be the best team — or at least the team most likely to win it all, given the draw — but then don’t draft again until the 16th selection.  I chose Kansas for my first pick, and then followed two simple rules for my remaining picks:  (1) choose the best available school, preferably from a tough conference, that has some prior NCAA experience; and (2) try to balance your teams to end up with two teams in each bracket.  I did a decent job following the first rule, but failed miserably on the second.  In order, my draft was Kansas (pick 1), Texas A&M (pick 16), Xavier (pick 17), Texas (pick 32), Florida (pick 33), Washington (pick 48), Murray State (pick 49) and East Tennessee State (pick 64).  (When you draft first, your last pick is the last team left.)  I ended up with 1 team in the Midwest regional, 1 in the South regional, and 3 each in the West and East regionals, which makes me uncomfortable.

In retrospect, I’m a bit skeptical of my drafting approach, but this year’s draft was complicated by the number 4 seed given to Purdue.  With the gut-wrenching season-ending injury to Robbie Hummel, and E’Twan Moore coming up gimpy in the Minnesota game — a game where Purdue was able to put up only 11 points in the first half — Buck Back participants were very skeptical of the Boilermakers’ ability to win even one buck by beating Siena.  The Boilers fell all the way down to the 24th pick whereas, if you were picking strictly by seeding, a number 4 seed would be picked no later than number 16.

I should know early whether my Buck Back team blows.  Florida plays the first game in the tournament tomorrow, with a 12:20 p.m. tip, and 6 of my 8 teams play Thursday games.

Boiler Up!

One of the great things about being a long-time Big Ten football fan is that you learn about, and ultimately come to enjoy, not only your own institution’s traditions but also those of other members of the conference.  True Big Ten followers appreciate the annual  contest for Paul Bunyan’s axe between Wisconsin and Minnesota, or the story about the pink visitor’s locker room at Iowa’s Nile Kinnick stadium.  Such traditions lend a richness and color to college football that you simply do not find in professional sports or, for that matter, in other college sports.

The Golden Girl and the Boilermaker Special

A past Golden Girl and the Boilermaker Special

Purdue, Ohio State’s opponent tomorrow, has some great traditions.  Purdue athletic teams are known as the Boilermakers, and its official mascot is a locomotive known as the Boilermaker Special.  Its on-the-field mascot is a burly, lantern-jawed, mallet-wielding titan with a hard hat named Purdue Pete. If I recall correctly, a very loud locomotive sound is made whenever Purdue scores.  The band features the baton-twirling Purdue Golden Girl and a mobile Big Bass Drum manned by a team of helmet-wearing bandies.

Of course, I want Ohio State to stomp Purdue all over the field tomorrow — but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Purdue’s pride in its lore and unique traditions.  So, go ahead, Boilermakers!  Boiler Up, beat that drum, and let the train whistle roar!