Commentary from the Cheap Seats: Big Ten Semifinals
So back to my journal/first-hand analysis/whatever we’re calling it today:
On Saturday, I saw what ended up by far being the best game of the weekend tournament. Wisconsin, the one seed, edged Michigan State, 65-63 when the Spartans’ Drew Neitzel missed a potential game-winning triple at the buzzer. But my day didn’t start there...
My day began with a trip to the Circle Centre Mall. The mall is connected to many of the downtown hotels by an enclosed skywalk, and I used this outing to stock up on Purdue merchandise (as you can imagine, Boilermaker gear is not readily available in southwestern Ohio!) After a brief detour through GameWorks (have you ever played air hockey with three pucks at the same time?), we finally arrived in Conseco Fieldhouse about 15 minutes before the first game.
I’m heading toward the escalator (going to the cheap seats, of course) when I saw my first and only “famous person” of the weekend. As a fan who hangs out in the cheap seats, famous people are few and far between...but that didn’t stop me from buying a ridiculously-priced $8.00 souvenir program and carrying it around with a Sharpie...just in case I had that lucky encounter.
Any guesses on my famous person? Here’s some hints: he was a University of Minnesota quarterback from 1973-76...and also played one year of basketball for the Gophers (along with current Pistons coach Flip Saunders).
Ringing a bell? Let me throw in one more...he’s the current head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
Sure enough, Tony Dungy is three steps in front of me in a maroon University of Minnesota shirt. I “chased” him down, and he was nice enough to sign my souvenir program. That was about it as far as celebrity sightings (although my wife did catch a glimpse of former Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez as we crossed the street outside Conseco on Friday).
We made it to our seats just as they were announcing the starting lineups for the MSU/Wisconsin game. We were sitting in the same section as Friday night, upper deck, third row, right on the corner of the court above the MSU pep band.
Since Purdue had been eliminated on Friday, I didn’t really have a rooting interest in the game. That means I can give you my honest and objective opinion: Michigan State got ripped off. Any basketball game where the team foul discrepancy per half averages out to 15-4 is suspect...but this one was just plain pathetic. The Spartans played their hearts out...controlled play throughout...and led by as much as 53-41 late in the second half...
That’s when the officials decided to foul out four MSU players in a row. Literally. I’ve never seen three players disqualified in less than a minute of game action. It’s hard enough to upset the number one team in the conference with a full roster, but playing with the second string makes it impossible.
State hung in valiantly, but Neitzel’s last shot bounced off the rim, and Wisconsin had escaped. The Badgers were led by their front line (as always): Joe Krabbenhoft had a double-double (11 and 10) to go along with Brian Butch’s team high 19 points. Marcus Landry, who went on to be named the tournament’s most outstanding player, finished with 18.
MSU got 18 points from freshman Kalin Lucas, who has all kinds of potential for the Green and White. Neitzel finished his final Big Ten game with 26 points—but it will be the three he didn’t get at the end that will stick with him.
For those of you that are wondering, yes, there were TWO games that day. But after watching the number one and number four seeds battle, a 6-10 matchup obviously felt like a bit of a letdown.
When it was all said and done, Illinois kept their surprising run alive for another day by defeating Minnesota, 54-50. Both teams looked a little worn down after thrillers the night before (Illinois defeated Purdue in overtime, while Minnesota shocked Indiana on Blake Hoffarber’s miracle jumper). However, the Illini made just enough shots throughout to keep the Gophers at bay and advance to the tournament final.
Seniors Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle helped extended their seasons an extra game with double-figure performances for Illinois, who had all five starters play at least 32 minutes. Lawrence McKenzie finished as the only Gopher in double digits with 13 points.
I headed home that night more in love with college basketball than ever before. By now, you know that Wisconsin defeated Illinois on Sunday, 61-48, to win the tournament title. That means four Big Ten teams qualified for the Big Dance: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Purdue, and Indiana. I’m really intrigued to see how the league’s teams stack up in the NCAAs: I think each of the four have potential to win three games...or lose in the first round:
WISCONSIN has been on a tear for three months and plays like a true team for forty minutes.
MICHIGAN STATE can beat anyone when they dominate the glass and get big shots from Drew Neitzel.
PURDUE can turn you over and is balanced offensively.
And INDIANA might have the best inside/outside combination in the country with D.J. White & Eric Gordon.
At the same time, I’ve heard the criticism. The Big Ten plays ugly, boring basketball and doesn’t stack up with any of the other big leagues. Maybe it’s true—how else can you explain the regular-season and post-season tournament champion (Wisconsin) only getting a three seed?
There’s only one way to find out—let’s watch the games! And when next year’s Big Ten tournament rolls around, I hope I’m back in Indianapolis for one of the best basketball experiences in the Midwest.
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