INDIANAPOLIS—The biggest storyline at this weekend’s Big Ten tournament has been (and will be) the half dozen teams that think they have a legitimate shot at earning an at-large berth when the pairings are announced on Selection Sunday.
According to most prognosticators, the top three teams in the league standings are in (Michigan State, Illinois, and Purdue), while the bottom three don’t have a chance (Northwestern, Iowa, and Indiana). That leaves the 4th-through-8th seeded teams trying to impress the selection committee, currently sequestered only a couple of blocks away.
Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Minnesota: five legitimate bubble teams that will endure thousands of sleepless moments before the pairings are announced this weekend. While the Badgers and Bucks need to wait another day to begin play (they meet in the second of four quarterfinals on Friday), the league’s other bubble brethren won convincingly here to further solidify their postseason profiles.
The funny thing about Thursday’s games is that this tournament (more than most) seemed to be extremely wide open. No one could quite put their finger on which underdog team may have the “most to prove” and would come from nowhere to run off a string of wins. I especially doubt anyone would have predicted (I certainly didn’t) that the average margin of victory in the three first-round contests would have been almost 19 points.
There’s no question that the potential of a Big Dance invitation weighs heavily on the players’ thoughts. Even if Minnesota’s Lawrence Westbrook says “we never looked at it that way” when discussing today’s 13-point triumph over Northwestern. Personally, I tend to believe Michigan’s Manny Harris, who told reporters that trying to get an at-large bid “was definitely a goal—we thought about it.”
The Wolverines posted the biggest victory spread of the day, knocking off Iowa 73-45. Harris and teammate DeShawn Sims combined for 45 points by themselves to equal the Hawkeyes’ offensive output. Coupled with Michigan’s big road win last time out at the Barn in Minneapolis, the dominant Wolverines should feel good about hearing their name Sunday night.
Penn State might have had the most difficult task of the day, squaring off with hometown favorite Indiana. The fans from Happy Valley were only outnumbered by—oh, I don’t know, let’s call it many, many thousands. Conseco Fieldhouse turned red, and quickly, so did the IU supporters’ faces as the first six team fouls of the nightcap were called against the 11th-seeded Hoosiers.
Despite the cries of outrage from the bleachers—and even after a technical foul against Indiana coach Tom Crean—the one-sided nature of the whistles as the game began seemed to take IU out of whatever rhythm they came in hoping to establish.
The Nittany Lions were the aggressors throughout, which Coach Ed DeChellis said was the game plan.
“We wanted to try to be aggressive early with our press, try to speed up the game." DeChellis said. "We wanted to try to be in attack mode offensively and defensively.
Penn State’s strategy of “landing the first punch” worked to perfection, and for all intents and purposes, the game was over by halftime. Indiana rallied to make the score respectable (66-51), but it really wasn’t that close. Of course, DeChellis wouldn’t refer to the game as easy, by any stretch of the imagination.
“Your ‘easy’ and my ‘easy’ are two completely different things”, he told a reporter who asked about the comfortable margin.
The hardest part for a bubble team is the waiting—and this nebulous idea of “a good quarterfinal showing”, which seems to be on everyone’s minds.
Is Penn State in the tournament regardless of how they play against Purdue? Are they out regardless? Or are they “in if the season ended today”, but a less-than-stellar performance could drop them right back to the other side of the bubble? Is there any such thing as a "good loss" to one of the conference's elite teams? Only the committee knows if staying competitive tomorrow could help a team that ultimately falls short.
Listening to the coaches talk after each game, it’s easy to see that “Bubble Central” isn’t a fun place to hang out. After all, each of today’s winners (Minnesota, Michigan, and Penn State) will be an underdog in Friday’s quarterfinals. Throw in the distraction of answering questions about a bubble that no one really completely understands—instead of spending time figuring out how to slow down Kalin Lucas or Robbie Hummel, for example—and it almost seems like the deck is stacked against the Big Ten’s middle class.
So the day is over—the seeds have held—and it appears obvious that any upsets tomorrow will ensure the lucky team a trip to the NCAA promised land with that all-important second tournament win. And from the way Minnesota, Michigan, and Penn State performed today, they’re not planning to be one-and-done in Indianapolis.
As Jamelle Cornley said after scoring a game-high 22 against the Hoosiers, “we packed enough clothes to make sure we stay until Sunday. We need to make sure that we are taking care of business.”
Yes, the key words in Conseco Fieldhouse this week seem to be "until Sunday". For now, America is stuck with the doublespeak of college basketball coaches. Talking about playing one game at a time—while every listener knows it’s not true. Preaching about not looking ahead—and then going back to the hotel to fret over the latest RPI or projection.
Makes it hard to win games in the Big Ten tournament when some amount of focus is obviously on next week, not this one. For now, all the bubble teams can control at this point—is taking care of business.
They did Thursday.