Kansas City, Mo. — Back in January, the talk about the Big Ten centered on how the conference was weak and having a down year.
Fast forward two months and three Big Ten teams are among the final 16 standing in the NCAA Tournament: Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin.
And with Michigan and Purdue at the same regional site — the seventh-seeded Wolverines taking on No. 3 seed Oregon and the fourth-seeded Boilermakers facing No. 1 seed Kansas on Thursday night — discussion of the conference’s criticism was among the major topics.
“We probably started out just a little bit in the nonconference games not as strong as we’ve been,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We got 14 teams now and other teams were — comparing the schedules is really apple and oranges in the beginning of the year. But that’s the only comparison that people can make. The (NCAA Tournament Selection) Committee made it as well.
“Time is a friend of truth. As time went on, just figured the truth would come — I thought we were really good. I know we have great coaches, great resources, that in time it would be the answers and it has been the answer with three teams. We probably could have had more, if some teams were seeded differently maybe we would have more.”
Purdue coach Matt Painter noted his team’s missed opportunities and nonconference losses to Villanova and Louisville added to that perception before pointing out Wisconsin’s rough regular-season finish and Indiana’s plethora of injuries.
“So some things happened within your league and you don’t do that, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have quality basketball,” Painter said. “Wisconsin, there is no way on earth they’re an 8 seed if you watch them play and see how efficient they are. They’re really, really good and you see how Michigan has played and obviously Michigan State won their first game against Miami.”
Sights and sounds from Michigan practice
Michigan senior forward Zak Irvin said having three Big Ten teams still playing in late March vindicates how strong the conference actually was this season.
“Maybe we didn’t have a team in the top five or the top 10, there were so many solid teams throughout the Big Ten,” Irvin said. “Going anywhere on the road or playing at home, nothing was a guaranteed game.”
Purdue guard Dakota Mathias echoed Irvin and said he wasn’t surprised with the Big Ten’s success in the NCAA Tournament.
“Top to bottom Big Ten is one of the best in the country,” Mathias said. “We’ve got three teams here now and even our last-placed team improved a lot. I’m not sure where all the disrespect came from, but it’s not valid.”
Bit of history
It’s a play that has linked Michigan forward D.J. Wilson and sixth-year Oregon guard Dylan Ennis.
In November 2014 when Ennis played for Villanova, Wilson, a 6-foot-9 freshman, set a screen and rolled down the lane where a pass from Derrick Walton Jr. was waiting. All that stood between the rim and Wilson was 6-2 Ennis.
And as Wilson went up for the dunk, Ennis rose up with him and turned in a highlight-reel worthy block.
“It stayed with me for a while, especially when I was at ’Nova and I transferred here and it popped up again,” Ennis said with a big grin. “It was a great block but it was years ago. I definitely remember it but it’s not going to get me 10 extra points or us the win.”
Video of Ennis’ emphatic rejection quickly went viral, a moment he ranked as one of his best on the big stage.
“I’m a guard going to go up and block shots. I just did it since I was a kid because I have such long arms,” Ennis said. “I’m just glad I wasn’t on the other end. I’m sure people might bring it up to him but it’s not going to affect our game in any way.”
Former Wolverine and current Purdue guard Spike Albrecht has kept tabs on Michigan throughout the season and was shocked when he heard about the team’s plane mishap before the Big Ten tournament.
“Duncan Robinson sent me a Snapchat of them in the grass or whatever and he said, ‘I can now officially say I survived a plane crash,’ ” Albrecht said. “I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Then I looked on Twitter and seen everything, so I started texting the guys and they were texting me back and saying how crazy it was and how much worse it could’ve been. Fortunately everything was all right and they all got out of there with nothing but minor injuries at the worst.”
Albrecht said he’s been FaceTiming and talking with his former Michigan teammates throughout the week, especially after finding out the two teams were going to be in the same regional site.
But as far as a possible rematch, Albrecht wasn’t looking that far ahead considering Purdue is facing No. 1 seed Kansas.
“I mean, right now we both got really tough matchups, especially for us,” Albrecht said. “But if that were to happen it’d be a fun game.”
Michigan won both meetings against Purdue this season, with an 82-70 win in Michigan’s home finale and a 74-70 overtime victory in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
For much of the season, Oregon started three players from Canada: forwards Dillon Brooks and Chris Boucher and Ennis.
Brooks, Oregon’s star forward and leading scorer, and Ennis are both from Ontario while Boucher, the team’s top shot blocker who is injured, hails from Montreal.
“I think we always had the talent and the skill as America or international players,” Ennis said. “I think we’re just being more noticed now and there’s a lot more publicity going into Canada basketball and I think a lot more players are getting their names out there. I’m happy to see Canadians playing down here.”
Ennis said he played against former Wolverine and Philadelphia 76ers guard Nik Stauskas, who is from Mississauga, Ontario, growing up and has followed his career.
“When I go back to Canada and if I see him, we’ll talk,” Ennis said. “I’m sure he’ll tweet or Instagram about this game rooting for his Michigan team. ... But Canadians keep up with Canadians, so I know he’s definitely going to be rooting for his guys.”