Ross-Ade Stadium, November 2

IMG_5291Kish and I had a great time going to yesterday’s OSU-Purdue game, thanks to the generosity of proud Purdue alum WOW II and his lovely wife the Gifted Googler, who can use her handheld to identify architectural styles in the blink of an eye.

The fact that the Buckeyes prevailed helped, of course, but it was great to see another Big Ten stadium, do some tailgating with the Boilermaker faithful, and get a tour of the Purdue campus — which is beautiful — with an alum as tour guide.  The Purdue fans were gracious and friendly and everyone was having a good time in the tailgating area.  It makes me think that it might be fun to do a road trip to another Big Ten stadium now and then.

Being A “Visitor”

Today Kish and I are going with friends to West Lafayette, Indiana to watch the Ohio State-Purdue game.  We’ll be the “visitors” you see mentioned on the scoreboard.

I’m looking forward to the prospect of being a “visitor.”  Until today, my college football experience as a visiting fan has been limited to several trips I’ve made to see the Buckeyes play Michigan up in Ann Arbor — and I’m not sure that such a rivalry game tell you much about the “visitor” experience.

IMG_5276I first went up to Ann Arbor as a high school student in the ’70s, Michigan won, and one of the happy Wolverine fans stole my Ohio State hat and ran away after the game was over.  Stealing a hat from a high school kid seems like a pretty cheap stunt to me, but it’s just another reason why it’s not hard for me to hate Michigan with every fiber of my being whenever we play That School Up North.

I think I’ve been to Ann Arbor four times.  Ohio State won twice and lost twice, and each time the experience was pretty much the some — lots of (mostly) good-natured razzing, some angry, obscene comments, reasonably good behavior by all concerned once you sit in the stands, and always that slight hint of potential personal danger lurking right around the corner.  You have to stay alert for an abrupt change in the vibes coming from the fans around you.

I’m not expecting today’s atmosphere to be as charged as an Ohio State-Michigan game, but I’ll keep my eyes open — and a hand firmly on my hat.

Another Reason Why You Don’t Give Up And Leave Early

Today Ohio State fans learned a valuable lesson:  you don’t give up and you never, ever leave a game early.

The Buckeyes were stumblebums for most of the game.  The offense sputtered.  The defense gave up an 83-yard TD on Purdue’s first play from scrimmage.  Purdue returned a kickoff more than 100 yards for a touchdown.  Braxton Miller was injured (no report yet on how seriously, but it didn’t look good).  The Buckeyes had a field goal hit the upright and gave up a safety due to a holding call in the end zone.  And, with 40-some seconds left, the Buckeyes were behind by 8, with no timeouts, trying to rally behind their second-string quarterback.  By then, many fair weather fans had already left, and only the diehards remained.

Yet somehow, improbably, the Buckeyes came back to win.  Kenny Guiton, the backup QB, led the Buckeyes on a drive that saw them score the crucial touchdown with 3 seconds left, and then gain the essential two-point conversion with a beautiful play that featured Guiton throwing a fine touch pass to his tight end.  And so, improbably, the Buckeyes sent the game into overtime, where the Buckeyes scored on their possession and Purdue didn’t — and that was the ballgame.

I always stay at games until the end.  I’m there to see the game, and the last seconds of a loss are as much a part of the game as the first few plays.  I’ve also seen enough football to know that anything can happen . . . and today it did.  It gives me some pleasure to know that the early departees are kicking themselves for giving up and missing the chance to witness one of the most unbelievable comebacks in Ohio Stadium history.

As far as the Buckeyes go, this is a team that still needs a lot of improvement on both sides of the ball.  For now, though, I’m going to enjoy a game that showed you should never give up, whether you are a player, or a fan.  Go Bucks!

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!

 

Showdown In West Lafayette

Tomorrow afternoon two teams will play a game that will go a long way toward deciding who will be the regular season Big Ten basketball champion.  Ohio State travels to West Lafayette to take on the Purdue Boilermakers.

A lot is on the line.  The Buckeyes are 12-1 in the conference and have a two-game lead over second-place Purdue.  In their last outing, the Boilermakers won a huge home game against Wisconsin to take sole possession of second place.  They now look to topple the Buckeyes and pull within one game of the Big Ten lead.  They also will be looking for some revenge against Ohio State, which crushed Purdue 87-64 when the teams matched up earlier this season at Value City Arena.

The last game between these two teams is meaningless.  It was one of those magical games where everything went right for Ohio State and everything went wrong for Purdue.  (I have the game DVR’d and will probably not erase it for months; it is too much fun to watch.)  The rematch undoubtedly will be different.  Mackey Arena is one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten, and this year Purdue is undefeated at home against Big Ten opponents.  In the first game between these teams, JaJuan Johnson played well and scored 22 points, but he was almost a one-man team.  The Buckeyes managed to marginalize Purdue’s excellent shooting guard E’Twaun Moore and neutralize the Boilermakers’ waterbug-quick point guard, Lewis Jackson.  Aaron Craft had a breakout game for the Buckeyes, playing hard-as-nails defense and blowing past the Boilermakers’ defense for some embarrassingly easy layups.

Craft and the Buckeyes won’t surprise Purdue this time.  Matt Painter is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten and he will have the Boilermakers ready for this game.  Moore and Jackson, in particular, will be pumped for a chance to redeem themselves against the Buckeyes.  I expect another very difficult road test against a well-coached opponent that will be playing with a lot of talent and a lot of pride.

Big Game In The Big Ten

It’s still January, and there is more than a month to go in the Big Ten regular season.  Nevertheless, a huge game looms tomorrow night, when Purdue visits Ohio State.  Purdue is 6-1 in the Big Ten and is ranked no. 12 nationally.  The Buckeyes are 7-0 and ranked no. 1.  If the Buckeyes can win, they will open up a two-game lead in the race for the conference title.  If the Boilermakers prevail, they bring Ohio State back to the pack and tie the Buckeyes for the conference lead.  Obviously, every other team in the Big Ten will be rooting hard for Purdue.

Although Ohio State has played some tough opponents this year — Saturday’s game against Illinois comes immediately the mind — Purdue probably has the best tandem of players Ohio State will face this year in E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson.  Together they average almost 40 points a game.  Moore is a triple threat who can score, rebound, and dish out assists.  Johnson leads the Boilermakers in scoring and rebounding and is an excellent shot-blocker.  Purdue is well coached and plays a disciplined game that features tough defense.  Imagine how good these guys would be if star Robbie Hummel hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury!

There will be lots of good matchups between skilled players in this game, but the battle in the paint will be especially interesting.  Freshman Jared Sullinger played his best game of the year against Illinois, but senior Johnson presents a huge challenge at both ends of the floor.  Can Sullinger use his big body to get position on the blocks against the spindly but crafty Johnson, and if so can the Buckeyes get him the ball?  I also expect the Boilermakers to try to make Sullinger work harder on defense, both with Johnson and with other players, like Moore, looking to penetrate the lane.  The Buckeyes will need to play stout perimeter defense to help keep Sullinger out of foul trouble.

Tomorrow’s game is not going to be the final word on who will win the Big Ten — there are far too many games left for that — but it will be an opportunity for the Buckeyes to demonstrate whether they truly deserve their no. 1 ranking.  Let’s hope the Buckeye Nation turns out for the game in force, loud and proud.

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.