Big Ten

Still dancing: Poor NCAA tournament start became strong showing for Big Ten

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Still dancing: Poor NCAA tournament start became strong showing for Big Ten

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Spartans' season, Denzel Valentine's career end in unbelievable fashion]

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: From Maui face plant to Sweet Sixteen, Hoosiers have come a long way]

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?

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.