When Michigan State and Purdue — the two teams that a little more than a week ago played for a conference championship — made shocking first-round exits, it looked like it was going to be an all-around miserable March for the Big Ten.
After all, the first round also featured Michigan, Iowa and Maryland all seeing large second-half leads crumble. Wisconsin scored just 16 points in its first half of NCAA tournament play.
But when the dust settled from what many believe might have been the maddest first weekend March has ever seen, the Big Ten was doing just fine, with three teams playing in next weekend’s Sweet Sixteen.
Yes, the conference lost what was probably its best chance to win a national championship in the Spartans. Middle Tennessee State shot the lights out on Friday afternoon to send Michigan State to one of the biggest upset losses in tournament history, the Spartans becoming just the eighth No. 2 seed to ever fall to a No. 15 seed. Denzel Valentine’s goal of winning a national championship was over before it got started, Tom Izzo shed some tears and everyone’s bracket was destroyed. The Big Ten Tournament champs looked like one of the top contenders in Indy. Not even a week later, they couldn’t stop a team that couldn’t miss.
And the taste following Purdue’s loss to Little Rock was just as sour. Michigan State never led in its game, but the Boilermakers blew a 14-point lead with five minutes remaining in the second half, letting Little Rock score 21 of the last 28 points in regulation and losing in double overtime. It was the latest in a string of blown double-digit leads this season for Purdue. It was also the last.
But with the two main contenders bounced, another emerged.
Indiana, which let’s all remember won the regular-season title in the Big Ten, entered the NCAA tournament with little hoopla after making an embarrassing first-game exit from the conference tournament with an upset loss to Michigan. That loss continued the Hoosiers’ historically poor showing in that event and snapped a five-game winning streak. But the Big Dance has been a different story. A 25-point blowout of Chattanooga was to be expected, though the Hoosiers certainly deserve a hat tip for totaling nearly 100 points.
But it was the second-round game against Kentucky that proved Indiana might make this an extended run. The two old rivals meeting so early in the Dance had everyone talking — mostly about how both teams probably deserved higher seeds — and the game lived up to the hype, looking like a contest that should have been played in a later round. Even without being able to hit from 3-point range — the Hoosiers were just 3-for-13 from out there — Indiana found a formula to beat the perennial title-contending Wildcats, with a strong defensive effort and a huge performance by freshman big man Thomas Bryant, who scored 15 of his 19 points over the game's final seven and a half minutes.
The Hoosiers opened eyes around the country with that win, and though a Sweet Sixteen showdown with North Carolina is going to be a very tough game, if people could redo their brackets, they’d probably have Indiana advancing pretty far.
Bronson Koenig delivered one of the NCAA tournament’s most exciting moments to date Sunday night. And now Wisconsin is looking like some sort of hybrid Cinderella/blue blood gunning for its third straight trip to the Elite Eight.
The Badgers battled back from a nine-point deficit in their Round of 32 game with No. 2 seed Xavier and got some extremely clutch plays in the final minute, with Koenig first hitting a game-tying 3, Zak Showalter drawing an offensive foul on the other end and then Koenig dropping in a buzzer-beating, game-winning corner 3 to send Wisconsin to the Sweet Sixteen in upset fashion.
Koenig, one of two key holdovers from the teams that went to back-to-back Final Fours, embodied the Badgers’ season on Sunday. He’s been inconsistent for the majority of the year but caught fire against Xavier, hitting a career-high six 3-pointers, including that marvelous game-winner. And so after a 9-9 start that featured a 1-4 start to Big Ten play, Wisconsin is one of the 16 teams left standing, and it’s doing it under Greg Gard, who was coaching in just his third game as the team’s permanent head coach.
The Badgers’ first-game exit from the Big Ten Tournament wasn’t pretty, and they have just a No. 7 seed in this tournament. But it suddenly seems like a Wisconsin team without Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker could make a run at reaching the heights those players did in the past two seasons.
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Badgers gear right here]
And then there’s Maryland. The team that everyone thought would be one of the main contenders for a national title when the season began is still having trouble convincing observers that it's still capable of doing that. But regardless of how they’ve looked, the Terps are still dancing. They advanced to the Sweet Sixteen after a couple ugly wins over South Dakota State and Hawaii. A huge lead evaporated in that first game, but Maryland held on. Sunday against the Rainbows, the Terps took a long time to get going, trading leads with the No. 13 seed until it went ice cold. Maryland took advantage of a stretch where Hawaii missed 16 of 17 shots to punch a ticket to the next round.
There’s still plenty of reason to be wary of the Terps, who next face overall No. 1 seed Kansas. Maryland won Sunday in spite of 1-for-18 3-point shooting, double-digit turnovers and a lost rebounding battle. But Melo Trimble scored 13 points from the free-throw line, and he’s at his best when he’s parading to the stripe. And obviously, all that talent is still there. If they can all hit shots on the same night, nobody can beat them. But that’s been a rarity more than a common occurrence this season. And the best team in America awaits.
Sure, Iowa and Michigan were disappointments. The Hawkeyes are still without a Sweet Sixteen appearance this century, and they were lucky to be in the Round of 32 after collapsing against Temple and needing a wild Adam Woodbury putback for a walk-off win in overtime. Then Iowa was demolished by Villanova in the second round, where the lead at one point was as big as 34 points. And Michigan had its own double-digit second-half lead against Notre Dame, only for the Fighting Irish to roar back and send the Wolverines — who barely made the field of 68 to begin with — back to Ann Arbor.
But in the end, the Big Ten has it pretty good, with three teams in the Sweet Sixteen. The Elite Eight might be a different story, with two of the three squaring off with No. 1 seeds. But for now, though it’s not the six-team bonanza that the ACC is bragging about right now, the Big Ten should be happy with its representation. Even though it might not be the teams we thought would be here — and even though Michigan State is still trying to figure out what the heck happened — Indiana, Maryland and Wisconsin are still dancing.
Maybe it’s something about red?