Big Ten

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


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?

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

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


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?