INDIANAPOLIS— Honestly, I’m not sure which meltdown was worse.
While the focus after Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinals naturally shifted to the two winners (the top-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes and the underdog Minnesota Golden Gophers), the ultimate story here at Conseco Fieldhouse is the two teams that lost, Illinois and Purdue.
And not just the fact that they lost, but the way that they lost.
Purdue, the nation’s No. 5 team, was beat down, clobbered, exposed, embarrassed, and hammered (oh, and those are only the descriptions in the FIRST half of my thesaurus) by the Gophers in a 69-42 thrashing that wasn't nearly that close.
With three minutes remaining in the first half, the Boilers trailed 31-6, which seems to be a score more suited for Ross-Ade Stadium than Conseco Fieldhouse.
Jump shots clanged off the rim. Bounce passes went through wide-open hands.
(Still no word on whether anyone inserted Butterfingers candy bars into the pregame meal, but nothing would surprise me.)
Uncontested dunks were given up. Free throws were bricked.
Shots were rejected. Players were injured. (Purdue guard E’Twaun Moore turned his ankle before returning later in the second half, while 5’9” Lewis Jackson was helped to the locker room after trying to take a charge against 6’9” Ralph Sampson III. Jackson quickly learned why that wasn’t such a bright idea, and his status for the NCAA tournament remains unknown.)
Uncontested dunks were given up. What? I said that already? That’s okay, it bears repeating.
“There’s particular games that happen when the wheels fall off and you have a bad day,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter. “The game of basketball will humble you, and today we were obviously humbled.”
In other obvious statements, the sky remains blue.
The numbers are so pitiful, they’re really not worth typing. Purdue made five more field goals in the first half than I did from my seat behind the Boilermaker bench. The 11-point first half was the worst 20-minute effort since the university began keeping track in 1950. (Minnesota, in contrast, shot over 61 percent from the floor before halftime.)
The Boilers didn’t hit a three-pointer until less than eight minutes remained in the game and less than half of the crowd was still in the building.
The funny thing is that as I watched the tragedy (or was it comedy) unfold, I realized that the Illinois meltdown I’d witnessed two hours earlier was actually far more costly than the record-setting ineptitude the Boilermakers were suffering through.
Here’s why: Purdue’s seeding for the NCAA tournament will take a major hit due to the flat-out lack of competitiveness Painter’s team showed in a nationally-televised debacle. Illinois, however, may completely MISS the tournament despite playing in an epic, thrilling, two-overtime, back-and-forth battle with favored Ohio State that couldn’t have been any closer.
The Illini played their hearts out…left it all on the floor…battled to the very end…insert your favorite sports cliché here…but a loss is a loss is a loss, and Illinois can’t feel secure about its postseason hopes because of the 88-81 heartbreaker.
The hardest part for the Illini faithful to stomach right now is that their team had the ball with the game tied, the shot clock turned off, and a chance to win—both at the end of regulation AND at the end of overtime—but couldn’t close the deal in either instance.
More shockingly, Illinois didn’t even get a shot off in either potential game-winning scenario. In regulation, Bruce Weber inexplicably allowed his team to drain eight of the 11 remaining seconds after Evan Turner’s game-tying hoop before calling timeout.
And then, unfortunately for the team wearing orange, Weber didn't bother to tell them that three seconds wasn’t enough time for Demetri McCamey to catch the ball going away from the hoop, dribble the other direction, split a double team, fake a shot, dump a pass to the baseline, and then allow a teammate to get a layup attempt off.
“In hindsight, maybe we could do some different things,” Weber offered.
I agree, Coach.
(Memo to the Illini: after watching the Ohio State-Michigan game the day before, I suggest checking to see if Evan Turner can give you some clock-management tips over the summer. I hear John Beilein offers lessons also, but you may want to stay away from that particular advice.)
Anyway, in overtime, it was more of the same. This time, after Turner knotted the score at 75 with 22 seconds to play, Weber eschewed the timeout, but the clock management from his players was just as poor.
“I saw there was a little bit of time on the clock and tried to throw it to Mike Davis real quick,” McCamey explained in the postgame press conference. “I should have shot it and at least tried to get a shot attempt up.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Oh, and it may go without saying, but when an opponent gives the league’s best team and the nation’s best player extra lives and lets them off the ropes, the result will be disappointing.
So, what does this all mean for Illinois?
Well, if there were moral victories in sports, Illini fans could buy NCAA tournament tickets right now.
If taking a more talented team to the limit was all Illinois needed to qualify for March Madness, then there’s no debate.
However, if the musical chairs game on the oh-so-tenuous bubble doesn’t break the right way Sunday, the tournament committee sequestered a few blocks away may finish off the hopes Illinois mostly dashed as it held the ball past not one, but two crucial buzzers the day before.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Weber admitted. “Obviously I think we had a good showing here, but that doesn’t mean anything. Hopefully it’ll work out because I think we’re one of the top 65 teams in the country, and if we get in the tournament I think we can do some damage.”
For the record, I think he’s right. But, when Illinois missed its chance to upset Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament’s first-ever multi-overtime game, their late-game failures may turn out more costly than even Purdue’s egg-laying embarrassment in the nightcap.
They might be watching the Boilermakers in the Big Dance…from home.
For more Bleacher Report coverage from the Big Ten Tournament, follow Tim on Twitter at @TimCary.