The Big Ten’s Big Weekend

After a season of being maligned, the Big Ten stepped up big on the NCAA Tournament stage over the past four days. The Round of 64 on Thursday/Friday was good enough, but the 5-2 record still left something to prove. None of the wins were surprising and the losses by Maryland and Minnesota were, at least based on seeds. In the Round of 32, the conference broke through—Purdue wins a tough one with Iowa State. Michigan upsets Louisville. And Wisconsin pulls the biggest upset of the tournament with its win over Villanova.

What’s most impressive about the wins is that you can argue that the Big Three almost won in spite of themselves. Michigan’s win over Louisville came in spite of being decisively outrebounded and Derrick Walton shooting 3-for-13. Moritz Wagner was the difference, scoring 26 and the Wolverines only turned it over six times against the Cardinal pressure. This was off a Friday game against Oklahoma State, a 92-91 win that was the best game of the first round.

Purdue looked in trouble for at least the first half against Vermont on Thursday, as the Catamounts appeared to be much more the aggressor. Caleb Swanigan cures a lot of ills though, and with his 16 points/14 rebounds, he keyed a decisive Boilermaker edge on the glass. Purdue pulled away 80-70 in that game and Caleb did it again on Saturday night against Iowa State. This time it was a 20/12 performance, with the rebounding differential again the biggest reason the Boilermakers won.

In both games, Caleb got a lot of help from feisty little Vince Edwards, who went for 20-plus in both games and hit some of the biggest shots in getting momentum turned against Vermont.

Purdue is dangerous, with Edwards just being one of several perimeter weapons surrounding Swanigan and Michigan has been playing outstanding basketball for several weeks now. Both will be in Kansas City this week, where Kansas will be the favorite and have the home crowd. The Boilers get first crack at the Jayhawks, while the Wolverines play an Oregon team that looks less than impressive after a key injury damaged their NCAA title hopes.

On Saturday afternoon, I was in a gym in a small Wisconsin town watching my godson play a daylong tournament. His mom, a UW graduate, kept refreshing her phone for scores of the Wisconsin-Villanova game. If you looked around the gym, you saw groups of people huddled together, also looking at phones. Finally a roar went up. An official came over to us to ask “did Wisconsin beat Villanova?!”. While it would have been great to be able to watch the game live, anecdotes like this are what make sports special.

Nigel Hayes has come up big in both games of this tournament, including a win over Virginia Tech on Thursday night. After a poor NCAA performance last year, the senior Hayes delivered a combined 35 points/18 rebounds over the two games. Fellow senior Bronson Koenig put on a three-point shooting clinic on Thursday and then knocked down 17 more points against Villanova.

What makes the Badger win even more impressive is that it came in spite of their all-too-familiar troubles at the foul line. Wisconsin only went 7-for-16 from the stripe. It’s impossible for me to think that anyone can make a Final Four shooting free throws like this, even with the East bracket gutted, with Duke joining Villanova in making early exits. If the Badgers make their free throws, they’re going to Phoenix. If not, they’re going home.

Wisconsin, Michigan and Purdue were just the highlights of a great weekend for basketball fans in the Midwest. Butler also moves on to the Sweet 16. Notre Dame was at least able to advance. Northwestern won its first-ever NCAA game and then made a spirited run at Gonzaga. Michigan State blew out Miami in an 8-9 game and sent a loud and clear message how good they’ll be next year when everybody comes back. After a long basketball winter, the warmth of spring felt good in this part of the country.