Closing the Book on the Big Ten as the Nations “Best” Conference

Posted by jnowak on April 24th, 2013

In order to fully gauge the strength of the Big Ten this season, you first have to establish some criteria. What makes a conference great? The teams at the top, or the teams at the bottom? Overall depth? Non-conference performance? Teams ranked in the Top 25 throughout the year, or teams that make the NCAA Tournament? Advancement in the Big Dance? Or as much as a Final Four or NCAA Title? Everybody has a different scale, so let’s consider the Big Ten on all of these.

Did Michigan do enough by reaching the championship game to enhance the conference's perception? (USA TODAY Sports).

Did Michigan do enough by reaching the championship game to enhance the conference’s perception? (USA TODAY Sports).

  • The Top: Indiana and Michigan both spent time ranked No. 1 in the country, and the Hoosiers earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. At one point in the year — Week 15, as a matter of fact — the AP had No. 1 Indiana, No. 4 Michigan, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 13 Ohio State represented from the league. That is a pretty good concentration at the top. And all four stayed there, with Michigan receiving the lowest NCAA Tournament seed (No. 4) of the group, but still advanced to the national championship game.
  • The Bottom: It looked like Penn State would be historically bad (keep in mind the Nittany Lions lost their best player, Tim Frazier, early in the season) before salvaging their season with a remarkable upset of Michigan and another win against Northwestern. But, as you’ll see in the following Overall Depth section, every team in the conference had some wins to hang its hat on. The conference was still 64-1 overall against teams ranked #201 or lower by TeamRankings.com and 65-11 against teams ranked #101-#200. The only conference with fewer losses (zero) against teams ranked #201 or worse was the Mountain West (38-0), which played far fewer games as well.

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Season In Review: Michigan State Spartans

Posted by jnowak on April 23rd, 2013

What does it say about the state of a program when it makes another Sweet Sixteen — its 11th since 1998 — and the fan base is not all too thrilled? That’s not to say Michigan State fans don’t appreciate the feat (it really is remarkable) but it’s just an indication of how strong this program has grown under Tom Izzo, particularly in March. At times this year, the Spartans looked like a surefire Final Four team and a national title contender after many had discounted them early in the Big Ten race. But they had injuries, inconsistency from Keith Appling and a hell of a draw in the NCAA Tournament standing in their way. To further evaluate Michigan State’s year, let’s take a closer look:

Adreian Payne broke out this year as an all-conference caliber player. Will he return for another season? (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Adreian Payne broke out this year as an all-conference caliber player. Will he return for another season? (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

The Good

Right around the time Michigan State beat rival Michigan, 75-52, in a highly-anticipated intrastate rivalry blowout, we got a glimpse of just how good the Spartans could be. Everything came together that night. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne gave the team a traditional athletic one-two punch inside, and Nix could be the only player leaving after this season if Payne decides to ignore the NBA for one more year. Gary Harris had a team-high 17 points with a 5-of-9 three-point shooting performance that helped earn him Freshman of the Year honors. Keith Appling was steady on both ends, providing excellent man-to-man defense on Michigan’s Trey Burke and finding his way into the lane and finishing. And Branden Dawson gave the Spartans energy around the rim. That game summarized everything that was good about the Spartans’ season — the five different players who could provide the team with a spark on any given night, the defense (seventh in KenPom’s adjusted defense), the rebounding prowess, and the individual talent. There were other high-water marks — wins against other top Big Ten teams, an important non-conference win against Kansas  (the Spartans’ had the nation’s No. 3 strength of schedule), and Izzo’s 11th Sweet Sixteen berth — but that game was the microcosm.

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Best of the Best: Big Ten Season Superlatives

Posted by jnowak on April 18th, 2013

There’s so much to look back on from this season’s Big Ten, and who doesn’t like receiving an award? So we decided to hand out a few more. Forget Class Clown. Our superlatives are a real honor:

Where does this moment stand against the best of the year?

  • Best game: Indiana at Michigan — We’ll get to the climax of this contest in a minute, but this was a heavyweight battle. After Indiana dealt then-No. 1 Michigan just its second loss of the season in Bloomington a few weeks earlier, the Hoosiers came to Ann Arbor with a Big Ten title on the line. If the Hoosiers won, they’d claim the conference championship outright. If the Wolverines won, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State all had the chance to join the Hoosiers on the championship podium. Michigan led by three at halftime before the Hoosiers outscored the Wolverines by four in the second half. And that final play… well, you’ll just have to keep reading.
  • Best play: Ben Brust’s half-court three to force overtime and eventually beat Michigan — If Victor Oladipo had been able to finish this dunk in the aforementioned game against Michigan at Assembly Hall, it’d be my choice. But since that shot ends up on the score sheet as just another missed field goal attempt, we’ll go with a shot that actually went in. It looked like Michigan was going to escape Madison after Tim Hardaway, Jr. hit a huge three-pointer with three seconds to go, giving Michigan a 60-57 lead. But Wisconsin took a timeout, and Mike Bruesewitz hit Brust in stride. Brust took one dribble across the half-court line and drew nothing but net. The Badgers went on to win in overtime, with Brust also hitting the game-winner with 43 seconds left in OT.
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Season In Review: Penn State Nittany Lions

Posted by jnowak on April 18th, 2013

Penn State may be the most interesting case study of all teams in the Big Ten this year. Just based purely on numbers and record, they were by and large the worst team in the conference. They nearly went winless in conference play, and after Tim Frazier went down with a season-ending injury early in the year, it was unclear how this team would function at all. While it was indeed a really steep and slow learning curve, a couple really talented players emerged and kept the Nittany Lions’ season interesting. For that reason, there are few teams in the conference with as much intrigue surrounding them heading into next year. Let’s take a look back at Penn State’s season:

What happens to Penn State when Tim Frazier returns next season? (Photo credit: theschoolphilly.com)

What happens to Penn State when Tim Frazier returns next season? (Photo credit: theschoolphilly.com)

  • The good: In some ways, we’re really grasping at straws here. We’re talking about what looked like it would be the first team to go 0-18 in the Big Ten before it pulled off an incredible upset against Michigan on February 27, and then put away Northwestern on March 7 to finish with two wins in their last five games. That Michigan win, all things considered, could have been the biggest upset of the college basketball season (apologies to TCU). But on a larger scale, the emergence of Jermaine Marshall and D.J. Newbill gave fans a great deal to be excited about next year. Believe it or not, they will represent the conference’s top two returning scorers after the departures of the likes of Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke and Deshaun Thomas. Granted, their production came largely because there was little to no supporting cast around them, but scorers are scorers and Penn State will have a few of them next year. It also bears mentioning that the Nittany Lions put together a nice four-game winning streak through much of December. It was against some pretty bad teams, sure, but it’s still something.
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Season In Review: Ohio State Buckeyes

Posted by jnowak on April 16th, 2013

For a while there, it was hard to know what to think about Ohio State. The Buckeyes had a pretty nice non-conference schedule that included a game against Marquette on a neutral floor (aircraft carrier), but it was canceled because of the condensation issue. They played at Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and lost. They hosted Kansas, and lost. And then, suddenly, Big Ten play was here. The Buckeyes had no trouble beating up on the little guys, but then went to Illinois and lost. They went to Michigan State, and lost. Sensing a pattern? The Buckeyes looked good, but they never really looked great.

Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft were the straws that stirred the drink at Ohio State this year.

Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft were the straws that stirred the drink at Ohio State this year.

Until March. Then OSU looked like world-beaters. Ohio State went from a good team in a great conference to a great team in a great conference (one they were responsible for helping make great) when they rattled off 11 straight wins from February 20 to March 24. Along the way, they played their way back into the Big Ten title picture, a conference tournament championship, and an Elite Eight berth. For a while, they were the hottest team in the country. Let’s break it down:

  • The Good: Let’s start with the obvious. Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas were as good a 1-2 punch and complementary duo in the conference, if not the country, as anybody. Thomas is a pure, versatile scorer whose game will translate well to the NBA when he makes the leap. And Craft, with all due respect, is the perfect kind of player you’d want to lead your college team but who won’t likely have much of a (if any) future in pro ball. He’s a terrific student-athlete, someone Ohio State fans and alumni can be proud of, and he’s a bulldog on the court. He ran the Buckeyes’ offense very well, provided leadership, brought some of the best on-ball defense in the country, and showed by the final months of the season that he can fill it up too. When Craft was at his best, the Buckeyes looked unbeatable. That included two huge games against Michigan State, both at the end of the regular season and in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, as well as in the Big Dance. Ohio State was nearly dead in the water after losing three of four games early in February, but they turned it around to become the hottest team out of the best conference in the land. Read the rest of this entry »
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Some Way-Too-Early Big Ten Predictions for the 2013-14 Season

Posted by jnowak on April 15th, 2013

The 2012-13 season has just been put to bed, so what do we do now? Look ahead to next year, of course! It’s never too early to look to the future, so I’ve taken a few stabs at some (semi-outlandish) too-early predictions for the next Big Ten season. Take a look:

  • The conference will be deeper, but not as top-heavy — What made the Big Ten so great this year was a combination of the heavyweights at the top — Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State all hovered in or around the Top 10 for much of the season — complemented by some excellent and dangerous middle-of-the-pack teams like Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. You can expect Michigan State and Ohio State to be in that Top 10 mix again (and perhaps Michigan, depending on who stays and leaves) but it will not be as top-heavy as it was this year. Instead, expect Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Penn State to all be improved. If you thought there was no such thing as a gimme in the conference this year, the top-to-bottom slate next season will be even tougher.
Mitch McGary is poised to be an All-Big Ten player next year … if he returns. (Getty Images).

Mitch McGary is poised to be an All-Big Ten player next year… if he returns. (Getty Images).

  • The Big Ten will not have two Final Four teams – If what was regarded as the best conference in the country this year couldn’t pull it off, I doubt it will be able to send two next year. Michigan State figures to be the best bet with Ohio State trailing close behind. Indiana doesn’t have the pieces and, again, it depends on what Michigan brings back. But given Tom Izzo’s track record (he will need to guide the Spartans to the Final Four to continue his streak of each four-year player at least reaching one Final Four in their careers) and his pieces, the Spartans are the best shot. Again, the conference may be deeper, but without nearly as many national title contenders.
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Four Takeaways From Iowa’s Run to the NIT Championship Game

Posted by jnowak on April 5th, 2013

Iowa lost the NIT championship game to Baylor by 20 points last night, but Fran McCaffery had to be pleased with the way his team played in the two weeks following the disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday. Here are four takeaways from the Hawkeyes’ second-place finish in the nation’s second most prestigious postseason tournament.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Tournament-Maryland vs Iowa

Iowa Should Be Able To Build On This Season’s Run Next Year

  • Roy Devyn Marble looks like an All-Big Ten player. With the exception of the championship game on Thursday (he didn’t score his first points of the second half until about the nine-minute mark), Marble looked like a player who is poised for a real breakout year in 2013-14. After averaging 15.2 PPG and 3.0 APG through the regular season, he averaged 24.3 PPG through his first four NIT contests. In those same games, he had 4.8 APG and RPG, while tallying at least one steal in two of them. Does that qualify the championship — six points, four assists, two steals, and two rebounds — as an anomaly? It’s hard to say exactly, but his steadiness over those first four games (and against strong competition, too) was unmatched during the regular season. Entering the NIT, Marble had dropped seven 20-plus point games, and never more than two in a row. If he can perform like that in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, there will be room for him on next year’s All-Big Ten team. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten Morning Five: 03.25.13 Edition

Posted by jnowak on March 25th, 2013

morning5_bigten

  1. Michigan State‘s commanding win against Memphis was sweet in East Lansing and Michigan‘s dominant victory against VCU was just as greate in Ann Arbor, but the two teams together gave the state of Michigan something it had never seen before. With two Sweet Sixteen berths, the Spartans and Wolverines have advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in the same year for the first time ever. The two teams split in head-to-head match-ups this year, with the Spartans routing the Wolverines in East Lansing before Michigan got payback in a close contest in Ann Arbor just a few weeks later. But this weekend at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the state was unified by both teams taking the floor in their home state and advancing to the next weekend of action.
  2. With the game on the line Sunday afternoon, Ohio State and the Big Ten’s top scorer stood idly by as the team’s point guard handled the late-game duties to advance the Buckeyes to the Sweet Sixteen. It was Aaron Craft, not Deshaun Thomas, who was the focal point against upset-minded Iowa State in Dayton. Craft had an overall up-and-down afternoon, but it ended on a huge up when he drained a three-pointer with Georges Niang in his face to give the Buckeyes a 78-75 win. Craft has always been known for his defensive prowess, but his play over the last month or so has proven he can be a scorer to lead Ohio State to big things. 
  3. Mighty No. 1 seed Indiana is just relieved to be moving on after a tough game against Temple. Yes, that’s right. The Owls were in it the whole way on Sunday, all the way up until the moment when Victor Oladipo hit a three-point dagger in the waning moments in Dayton. Bob Kravitz writes that it was not so much joy that overcame coach Tom Crean after the final buzzer sounded, but relief. The Hoosiers get Syracuse in Washington, DC, next, with a chance to advance to the Elite Eight on the line.
  4. Let’s not forget that there are other Big Ten teams that are still playing, just outside the auspices of the Big Dance. Iowa has advanced to face Virginia in the NIT, another team that was hovering around the bubble at the end of the regular season. The Cavaliers have some pretty good wins to go along with some puzzling losses,  and will present a challenge for the Hakweyes when the two teams tangle on Wednesday in Charlottesville. As Scott Dochterman writes, the teams have plenty of similarities — a deep bench, a good defense, a solid home record — which should make for a tough contest.
  5. It seems like there have been constant reminders since November that the Big Ten has been the best conference in the country, and the NCAA Tournament has been just the latest in a long line of them. Michigan and Michigan State are holding it down for the Mitten State, with fellow high seeds Indiana and Ohio State also taking care of business early. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though; overall, the Big Ten’s strong start to the NCAA Tournament is one of the best all-time.
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Early Reactions to the Big Ten’s NCAA Tournament Draws

Posted by jnowak on March 17th, 2013

It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s Selection Sunday, and the 2013 NCAA Tournament bracket has just been released. Seven Big Ten teams are dancing — Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois — and plenty have a strong chance of advancing deep into the bracket. We’ll have plenty of time to break it down further in the next few days, but here are a few kneejerk reactions to each team’s draw:

Tom Izzo, a master in March, leads one of seven Big Ten teams dancing this year.  (Justin Wan/The State News)

Tom Izzo, a master in March, leads one of seven Big Ten teams dancing this year. (Justin Wan/The State News)

  • Indiana (No. 1 seed in East Region) — The Hoosiers missed out on the overall No. 1 seed (which went to Louisville, which opens in Lexington and would advance to the Sweet Sixteen in Indianapolis), but they may have found themselves with a better opportunity to make it all the way to Atlanta via this route instead. Rather than being in a region that has No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Michigan State and No. 4 St. Louis, the Hoosiers would have a second weekend group consisting of Miami, Marquette and Syracuse. It’s no picnic, but it’s an easier road than the Midwest. The winner of Temple and NC State winner will be no cupcake, either.
  • Ohio State (No. 2 seed in West Region) — It looks like that Big Ten Tournament championship gave the Buckeyes a big boost, and rightfully so. They weathered the storm that is the Big Ten field this weekend in Chicago en route to the school’s third tournament title in four years. They entered the week widely considered somewhere in the #3-#4-seed range, and played their way into #2 seed this weekend. And to think, two months ago, this team hardly had a quality win to its name. Now it’s the hottest team out of the country’s toughest conference. But how will the grueling weekend factor into their opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament? And could they get past #3 seed New Mexico, a trendy Final Four pick?

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Handing Out the 2013 Big Ten Hardware

Posted by jnowak on March 12th, 2013

The best season of Big Ten basketball in recent memory blessed us with plenty of talented players, performances and games. So, without any further ado, our choices for this year’s Big Ten awards:

Player of the Year: Trey Burke, Michigan — Burke probably locked this up when he picked Keith Appling’s pocket in the closing seconds of Michigan’s narrow win against the rival Spartans in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago. It just goes to show you can never let your guard down against Burke, who nearly left for the NBA after his breakout season a year ago. He led the Big Ten in scoring during conference games, while leading the conference in assists (6.8 per game) by a long shot. He can put this team on his back and carry it deep into March.

What awards did Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo earn this year? (AnnArbor.com)

What awards did Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo earn this year? (AnnArbor.com)

All-Big Ten First Team

  • Trey Burke, Michigan — Directed the conference’s second-best offense, and narrowly missed the Big Ten scoring title. Sharp on defense, brilliant in the lane. An NBA point guard.
  • Victor Oladipo, Indiana — All aspects of the game considered, the most fun player in the Big Ten this season. Can rebound, drive, defend and lead his team to a title.
  • Cody Zeller, Indiana — Billed as the Big Ten’s top player entering the year, it’s incredible to think that this honor and 16.8 PPG and 8.1 RPG would be any kind of disappointment.
  • Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State — The conference’s leading scorer (19.7 PPG) and the player most valuable to his respective team in the conference.
  • Adreian Payne, Michigan State — His visible growth during conference play slides him into this up-for-grabs fifth spot on the first team.

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Big Ten M5: 03.11.13 Edition

Posted by jnowak on March 11th, 2013

morning5_bigten

  1. It’s only fitting that the Big Ten championship came down to a fraction of an inch. That was the difference between the ball falling in or out in the final seconds, which meant Indiana winning or losing in Ann Arbor on Sunday afternoon, which was the difference between the Hoosiers wrapping up the outright title or sharing it with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. Indiana, though, was the favorite entering the year and emerged as the stand-alone champion. They probably have the best overall body of work, but there are plenty of teams that have also proven they could win the conference tournament next weekend in Chicago and/or make it to the Final Four in Atlanta. We’re all in for a treat this week.
  2. East Lansing said goodbye to one of the most interesting players of the Tom Izzo era when senior center Derrick Nix kissed the Spartan helmet at center court at the end of Michigan State‘s win against Northwestern on Sunday afternoon. Nix has had an incredible four-year journey, and Detroit Free Press writer Joe Rexrode has a great recap of the ups and downs as well as the relationship Nix has built with Michigan State. The partnership between Nix and Izzo is what makes this so remarkable — from Izzo’s passion about Nix’s education and Nix’s mother to how much the player has leaned on his coach over the years. Stories like these are what make college sports so great to follow.
  3. John Groce obviously knows how to win as an underdog. His wins at Ohio as a No. 13 and No. 14 seed is what helped put him on the map and eventually make his way to Illinois. But now, with the Fighting Illini likely bound for the NCAA Tournament, how will he handle life as a higher seed? Depending on how things shake out in the Big Ten Tournament, it’s most likely the Illini will enter the Big Dance on an even playing field with their first-round opponent, or perhaps as the favorite. So how can Groce conjure the March magic he’s used in the past? “The most important thing is that they’re mentally and physically fresh,’’ Groce said. ‘‘And each team’s different. There’s no script. You have to know your guys, what they respond to, what they don’t respond to. But the one steadfast constant is doing the best you can to keep them as fresh mentally and physically as possible.”
  4. There have been some serious battles in the Big Ten this season, and perhaps a little bit of bad blood. That seemed to be the case after Indiana’s close win against Michigan, when Tom Crean had a heated exchange with Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer. Crean was pretty tight-lipped about it, saying at his postgame press conference: “It’s a heated game, it’s a heated game. Ask him.” But there were reports that this dates back to some heated recruiting battles over the last few years. Whatever the case may be, with the potential for a third and even fourth meeting between the schools down the road, this is worth keeping an eye on.
  5. It has been a maddening season for Minnesota fans. Things started out so well, then fizzled once Big Ten play began, then they sort of flatlined. There were good days toward the end, but there were equally bad ones all the way up until a loss to Purdue in the regular season finale. So now the Gophers are still likely headed for the NCAA Tournament, but with no momentum. And no leadership. There’s plenty of talent and athleticism on this team — that much has never been in doubt. But over the last few months, there have only been a few games where we’ve seen that talent harnessed and applied in games. Can the Gophers turn it around in time to make something of this season?
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Big Ten Power Rankings: March 8 Edition

Posted by jnowak on March 8th, 2013

In this week’s power rankings, we consider each team’s ceiling in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. This week’s voters were Deepak Jayanti, Joey Nowak and Kevin Trahan.

  1. Indiana — Despite their flaws, including two home losses during Big Ten play, the Hoosiers remain in this top spot mostly because no one has made a real good case to claim it from them. Ohio State is the hottest team in the conference right now but doesn’t have the same body of work or depth of talent that the Hoosiers have. If Indiana can beat Michigan this weekend, they’ll leave no doubt that they were the best team in the conference during one of the Big Ten’s all-time best seasons. If they lose, they won’t really have much that makes them stand out above the rest. Ceiling for the Big Ten Tournament: The Hoosiers are built for tournament success. They’re the deepest team in the Big Ten, which makes playing three games in three days much easier to handle. They match up well enough with everybody in the conference and have two of the best players in the Big Ten. Anything but a championship next weekend in Chicago will be a disappointment.

    Despite their flaws, Cody Zeller and Indiana remain in the top spot of our power rankings. (Getty)

    Despite their flaws, Cody Zeller and Indiana remain in the top spot of our power rankings. (Getty)

  2. Michigan — It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win on the road in the Big Ten and that’s exactly what Michigan pulled out this week at Purdue. Now the Wolverines can refocus on their new biggest game of the season, this weekend against Indiana. Both teams are vulnerable, and the Wolverines have the benefit of playing on their home floor, where they have not lost this season. One last chance for Trey Burke to prove he deserves the Big Ten (and/or National) Player of the Year. Ceiling in the Big Ten Tournament: Some of the things that have made the Wolverines great — their three-point shooting and their talented freshmen — are things that can come back to bite you in tournament play. When you rely so heavily on the long ball or inexperienced players, those things can falter when you’re playing every day on a quick turnaround. But Michigan has been steady all season in both departments, and there’s no reason they can’t ride that wave to the championship.
  3. Ohio State — Look at where the Buckeyes have suddenly ended up. After seemingly playing their way out of the conference race with three losses in four games, we’ve come to realize that basically every team in the conference has at least one of those stretches this season and it’s not going to determine the fate of their season. So after huge wins against Minnesota and Michigan State and a terrific performance at Assembly Hall against Indiana, the Buckeyes have catapulted themselves back into the mix and shaken things up in the standings. All of a sudden, the tiebreakers indicate the Buckeyes could enter the Big Ten Tournament as the #2 seed. And with the way Aaron Craft is playing, the Buckeyes are defending, and they’re playing even with a subpar Deshaun Thomas, who says they can’t win it? Ceiling in the Big Ten Tournament: Like I said, with things clicking the way they are (the Buckeyes have to be the hottest team in the conference right now), who says they can’t win the whole thing? Of course they could be one-and-done (it’s hard to believe they’ll continue to roll with Thomas not reaching his average), particularly with such little depth, but they have the pieces. It may not be likely, but that’s their ceiling. Read the rest of this entry »
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