NCAA rewind: Big Ten provides much-needed drama

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
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Nigel Hayes of the Wisconsin Badgers drives to the basket against Kris Jenkins of the Villanova Wildcats on Saturday.

For all the talk this year about how mediocre the Big Ten was, boy, the conference sure is changing some perceptions.

In fact, just imagine how boring the first few days of the NCAA Tournament would've been without the Big Ten.

You could make the case that the four most exciting games through the first three days of the NCAA Tournament involved teams from the conference -- with the Michigan-Oklahoma State shootout, Wisconsin's elimination of defending champion and No. 1 overall seed Villanova, the Northwestern-Gonzaga thriller, and the last game of Saturday night, Purdue's fending off a furious rally by Iowa State.

In an NCAA Tournament that's seen so much chalk, the Big Ten has at least added some intrigue.

"Our league is very good," Purdue coach Matt Painter said late Saturday night in Milwaukee, where his Boilermakers held on for an 80-76 win over Iowa State, after blowing a 19-point, second-half lead. "You guys seem to get a theme, whether it's good or bad. Tell them to go play Michigan.

"People that don't think our league is any good, tell them to go play Wisconsin. They're not an eighth seed. I don't understand that. You don't understand basketball if you put Wisconsin as the eighth seed.

"We got a good league. You play Michigan State, you better bring your lunch."

Through the first three days of the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten was 7-3 -- when the conference's over-under entering the Tournament was 6.5 wins. Michigan made it 8-3, with a thrilling upset of No. 2 Louisville on Sunday to reach the Sweet 16. That's three Big Ten teams in the Sweet 16, with Michigan State looking to make it four later Sunday, when it meets Kansas.

Northwestern's Chris Collins gets a technical for rushing onto the court to argue for a goaltending by Gonzaga that the NCAA later admitted should have been called.

If not for an awful missed goaltending call in the Northwestern-Gonzaga game -- which led to a technical foul on coach Chris Collins and a pivotal four-point swing -- we might even be talking about a 9-2 record, with the Big Ten having eliminated not just one, but two No. 1 seeds.

In fact, the only Big Ten entrants not to win a game were Minnesota -- which had a good seed, in a No. 5, but a terrible draw in a Middle Tennessee team that was No. 12 -- and Maryland -- which continued its trend of late-season fades under coach Mark Turgeon.

The conference also has showcased some of the college game's most exciting players, in Michigan's Derrick Walton Jr.; Wisconsin's Mr. Clutch, Bronson Koenig; Purdue's "Biggie," Caleb Swanigan; and so on.

It's been a long time since the Big Ten won a national championship. Michigan State was the last, in 2000, as the Big Ten has lost its last six championship-game appearances. And that might not change this year.

But that can't take away from the early drama the conference, despite being just fourth in the nation in RPI, has provided an NCAA Tournament that has desperately needed it.

"Seeds don't matter," Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said Saturday, following No. 8 Wisconsin's 65-62 takedown of No. 1 Villanova, the first No. 1 to fall. "I told these guys I don't care where we're seeded. We have to win six games.

"Let's start with these two this weekend."

Purple power

Northwestern gave its fans a season to remember.

And its fans gave CBS plenty of quality camera shots -- starting with "Seinfeld" alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose son, Charlie Hall, is a freshman on the team and probably a future star in sports media, given the hilarious interview segments he shot with teammates this month.

Then, of course, there was the kid that almost broke the Internet on Saturday.

After a call that went against the Wildcats, cameras zoomed in on a Northwestern kid having the cutest meltdown, and then panned to him occasionally the rest of the game against Gonzaga.

Turns out, that kid is John Phillips, the son of Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips.

Northwestern (24-12), of course, made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, and made sure it wasn't one-and-done, with an opening victory over Vanderbilt.

Then came the fight against Gonzaga, as Northwestern rallied from way down, only to fall.

Even great stories come to an end.

"Coming into the year, one of our Chicago papers told us we were -- that we would be the third-best team in the Ivy League," junior guard Bryant McIntosh said. "And we proved that wrong right way, and just continued to build on it.

"This is a group that will be connected for the rest of our lives because of all the things we accomplished."

Coaching changes

While one Illinois team was playing for its NCAA Tournament lives Saturday, another was doing its best to steal the spotlight.

And, frankly, the University of Illinois looked kind of petty with its blatant headline-stealing in announcing its new head coach, former Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood. I mean, Illinois couldn't have waited one day to announce John Groce's replacement?

It looked bad enough that Underwood was leaving Oklahoma State just hours after falling to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament opener, and after just one year on the job. Then, to have it splashed all across Twitter on the biggest day of Northwestern basketball history, well, whatever.

In any event, by all accounts, it's a solid hire for Illinois.

Now all eyes turn to Indiana, where Tom Crean was fired. Who's going to replace him? You kind of got the sense Saturday's game between Middle Tennessee and Butler might've been a play-in game for the Hoosiers job -- between Kermit Davis and Chris Holtmann.

Davis has baggage from NCAA violations during his Texas A&M days, and Indiana may not want to go down that road again, but that was decades ago, and he seems like he might fit right into the Big Ten, with NCAA Tournament wins over Michigan State and Minnesota the last two years.

As for Holtmann, he'd be the more sensible choice, already being in the state. But the truth is, he might already have the best basketball job in Indiana, given the unpredictable -- and many say unreasonable -- nature of Indiana's athletic department.

That probably makes the odds-on favorite UCLA's Steve Alford, a former Hoosiers star who'd be hard for the old red-hairs to run out of town.

On the women’s side …

You think the men's NCAA Selection Committee had some strange seeding?

Just check out the women's bracket, where coaches are openly befuddled about the process.

Arizona State, which finished in fifth place alone in the super-tough Pacific-12 conference, received a No. 8 seed, while California, which finished 6-12 and seventh place in the Pac-12, was only penalized one seeding slot, receiving a 9.

Meanwhile, the third-place team in the Big Ten, Michigan, which was ranked in the top 25 until early March, didn't even make the NCAA Tournament.

"I feel bad for Michigan," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said.

Merchant also feels bad for her Spartans, whose season came to an end against Arizona State, with a 73-61 loss to Arizona State on Friday in Columbia, S.C.

Both NCAA Tournament Selection Committees are made up of 10 members.

The men's committee consists of 10 athletic directors, chaired this year by Michigan State's Mark Hollis. The women's committee consists of three athletic directors, and an assortment of associate athletic directors and associate commissioners.

Maybe it's time to start finding a place on these committees for more basketball experts, like former coaches, as they do with the College Football Playoff committee. They'd certainly be better equipped to realize Wisconsin's no 8, Middle Tennessee's no 12, and the Michigan women -- a good bet to win the Women's National Invitation Tournament -- probably belonged in the NCAAs.

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