CHICAGO – Indiana is standing tall again.
Michigan and Michigan State are right there with the Hoosiers, and Ohio State and Wisconsin aren’t exactly backing down from anyone, either.
The Big Ten tournament starts today, and it’s not hard to see why Spartans coach Tom Izzo declared it one of the best ever. And by best ever, he didn’t just mean best Big Ten tournament.
“We’re looking forward to one of the great conference tournaments of all time, if you ask me,” Izzo said. “When you look at the ranked teams and the teams that aren’t ranked and everyone else, it should be a heck of a Big Ten tournament in Chicago.”
The league is tops in the Sagarin ratings and boasts five teams ranked in the Top 25, including four in the top 10.
One of those top 10 teams – No. 6 Michigan – didn’t even get one of the four first-round byes. Instead, the Wolverines face Penn State today after falling a point short of sharing the conference championship with a 72-71 loss to Indiana on Sunday.
They need to regroup and figure out a way to get past the Nittany Lions, a team that rallied from 15 down in the second half to beat Michigan a few weeks ago.
Besides Penn State, Michigan might also need to get by Wisconsin and Indiana to reach the Big Ten tournament title game. Those three teams have combined to hand the Wolverines (25-6) four of their six losses, and No. 22 Wisconsin (21-10) is lurking in the second round Friday after taking the fourth seed.
No. 3 Indiana (26-5), the top seed after winning its first outright conference championship in two decades, will face the Illinois-Minnesota winner. No. 10 Ohio State (23-7), the second seed, gets Purdue or Nebraska, while eighth-ranked and third-seeded Michigan State (24-7) awaits Iowa or Northwestern.
“Michigan’s playing for a share for a title. Unfortunately, they slide out. Now, they have to play on the first day. It just shows you how deep this league is, how good this league is,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “The top four teams get that bye, which is critical, and I know Michigan wanted that. But it’s pretty amazing how tough this conference has been.”
Standing at the top right now is Indiana after a long climb, and winning the conference tournament would be another notch for a program knocked to the ground not too long ago. It’s something the Hoosiers haven’t done since the Big Ten started holding a tourney in 1998.
“You just told me something that I didn’t know,” coach Tom Crean said. “That’s how little concerned we are about the negatives, what hasn’t happened. It’s really not anything we’ll reflect on.”
He did, however, reflect on how far Indiana has come since he took over in 2008. That’s something he’s not shy about doing.
Indiana endured crippling NCAA sanctions in the wake of the phone call scandal involving his predecessor Kelvin Sampson and struggled to get back to the top. The Hoosiers won only six games his first season, but they made a big jump a year ago, orchestrating a turnaround that matched the biggest in Big Ten history on their way to a 27-9 record and a trip to the Sweet 16. With star Cody Zeller leading the way, they were ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll and spent a good chunk of the season there.
When they rallied from five down in the final minute to beat Michigan on Sunday, it was just another big step for a program that had picked itself up and dusted itself off. Now, the Hoosiers again are staring at some major obstacles, and as they prepared to take that next step, Crean couldn’t help but take a look back.
He mentioned the “players that helped get this back” and the support for the team.
“We had hundreds of people waiting at the gym [Sunday] night when we got in,” he said. “We had probably 100 to 150 people waiting at the airport when we got there on a Sunday night in the rain. That’s what it’s about. It really is. The thing to me is we’ve always said there’s no way this program could have endured what it did without the support – not just the support but the passion, the legitimate passion that our fans have had.”