The Big Ten
By Matthew L. Lofton
Now is this an interesting dilemma. In one game over the weekend, we had the fortunes of two teams completely change. Down double-digits in East Lansing March 4, Ohio State was staring down the worst second seed and a possible elite eight match-up with Kentucky square in the face. But something funny happened on the way to Indianapolis. Freshman Brandon Dawson goes down with a season-ending injury for MSU, the Buckeyes come back, and OSU, MSU and Michigan all tie for the regular season crown. Michigan is not in the discussion for a one or two seed thanks to bad losses at Iowa and Arkansas, but what happens to MSU and OSU? In one half, OSU went from slipping from even a two seed and MSU cementing a strong case for a one seed to Ohio State facing new life and Michigan State staring an elite eight match up with Syracuse or Kentucky.
Let us start with the hard-luck Spartans. Entering the final week, MSU was 13-3 in conference play (bad loss at Illinois), but with a split between games at Indiana and at home against OSU, Michigan State was in good position to get a one seed in the NCAAs. After a double-digit loss, the Spartans came out on fire against Michigan State. Ohio State pulled itself out of whatever doldrums it was in and won on a shot by William Buford. MSU is not a high-octane offense at 71 points per game. Eight points and four-and-a-half rebounds with the loss of Dawson does not seem much, but when he is your team’s third leading scorer and second leading rebounder, not having that big body down low hurts. This puts even more pressure on Draymond Green, who is averaging a double-double in his own right (16 points and 10 boards per game). But, Green clearly showed he alone is not good enough to lead the team to victory at Indiana. There are two bright spots for the Spartans: 1). Time to show the committee what it can do without Dawson, especially with a winnable quarterfinal game against Iowa or Illinois. It also faces a team that plays into the Spartans strength in the semi-finals against Wisconsin (and MSU better hope Indiana does not beat Penn State and then Wisconsin. 2). Derrick Nix for MSU showed he may be able to step into a leadership role with his second half against Ohio State.
Now for Ohio State. After a dominating win back in November against Duke, the Buckeyes seemed to be going through the motions the rest of the season. Jared Sullinger is becoming known as quite the whiner to officials and Buford has been a no-show in big games. Translate that in tough losses at Illinois, at Indiana, at Michigan and even HOME losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin. One late season trend that emerged is the Buckeyes propensity to commit stupid fouls with bad hand position on defense. Down the wire against Wisconsin, Aaron Craft gave four points to the Badgers from the free throw line. First it was bad hand positioning just inside the arc that the Wisconsin shooter picked up on and went up for a shot and was fouled. Then Craft fouls at mid-court. Same thing happened against Northwestern that almost cost OSU a game. On a key drive, OSU made what looked a clean defensive play. On replay, it was clear Craft arm-barred the defender down at the waste. A tough call for the official to see and make, but the pattern is there.
Sullinger will get his points and rebounds, but he cannot have a bad triple-double that equates to 10 turnovers against Michigan State in Columbus. He needs to assert himself down low and become the back-to-the-basket, low post dominant center we know he can be. It is fine for him to flash out to the perimeter because he can make treys, but he needs to be the body in the low post. Craft needs better hand positioning on defense and Buford just needs to calm down and not try to be the guy. He needs to realize when he is not on and involve others in the offense. Who knew recent graduate Aaron Diebler would be such a huge loss for the Buckeyes with his ability to stretch the defenses?
Michigan has the shooters to go far, but the Wolverines are not best-suited for a tournament atmosphere to slug it through when shots are not falling. Though, head coach John Beilein’s 1-3-1 press keeps opposing teams on its toes. UM should not be able to deal with OSU’s size and should not make it past the semifinals.
Wisconsin likes to make things ugly, and the slow-down style of play MSU brings might bode well for the Badgers to make it to the finals, except here comes Indiana as the probable quarterfinal opponent. IU has Cody Zeller, who may be better than his older brother that was just named ACC Player of the Year. If Zeller and the rest of Indiana keep the pressure up like it did against Michigan State, the Hoosiers can make a run to the title. The bad: Indiana is just average away from home. The good: they are playing a stone-throw away from Bloomington in Indianapolis.
Finally, Northwestern is on the bubble. It may be on the right side now, but I cannot see NW beating both Minnesota and Michigan, what I think it needs for a bid.
Winner: I am going out on a huge limb and say Indiana. The Hoosiers have to play four games, but does playing in a 5-12 game against Penn State really count? The quarterfinal can be a stretch, but Indiana can beat Wisconsin and then a depleted Michigan State team to roll into the finals. Anything can happen in the finals of a conference tournament.
Team most likely to make the four games in four days run: See above.