I was fortunate enough to be in Chicago yesterday for the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament. The Big Ten’s best teams. Four games in one day. My trip started out rather inauspiciously, as my cab ride from O’Hare took nearly as long as my flight from Los Angeles, but Friday I was rewarded for my efforts with a fantastic day of basketball. Back-to-back-to-back-to-back games. So, without any further ado, that day that was.
Michigan State 77 – Ohio State 70
There was a time when Tom Izzo’s Spartans were said to play their best basketball in March. Well, this might be one of those Marches. Izzo’s Spartans looked every bit the number one seed that they are in a seven-point victory over Ohio State, a game that wasn’t really that close.
There is a certain composure to this Michigan State team, a sense of poise. You can see it in the players’ faces, in their body language. Watching the Spartans play, you get the sense that even in close games, they expect to win. And more often than not, they do. That look was present in two games against Michigan this season and it was there again Friday against Ohio State. Despite a close game for most of the day, you just got the feelings that things would go green.
Michigan State was victorious despite not getting a typical performance from Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston. Winston still led the way with 18 points, and hit some big shots in the second half, but it was back-up point guard Foster Loyer who carried the Spartans early. Loyer finished with a career-high 14 points on 5-7 shooting, including nine crucial points in the in the first half when the Spartans were searching for answers offensively. Loyer kept the Spartans in the game early, and Winston, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goines salted the game away late, allowing the Spartans to advance to the semi-finals Saturday.
It was also a game in which the Spartans welcomed back center Nick Ward. Izzo commented after the game about the importance of getting Ward back, but also about the challenge of working him into the rotation without disrupting the flow the Spartans have had over the past few weeks. You could make the argument that Michigan State plays better with Xavier Tillman starting in the middle, and Tillman will likely retain his starting role, but there’s no disputing that with Ward healthy and coming off the bench, the Spartans are even more formidable.
After the Spartans held off a late Ohio State rally to secure the seven-point decision, Buckeye coach Chris Holtmann said that, “They (Michigan State) have a chance to have a really special postseason.” That special postseason could start with Big Ten tournament championship.
Wisconsin 66 – Nebraska 62
Watching Wisconsin play usually means being treated to watching one of college basketball’s most polished players, Ethan Happ. There is a gracefulness in Happ’s game that’s hard not to appreciate. I did say usually, right? Because for one of the few times this season, Happ wasn’t on his game. Whether it was the defensive focus that Nebraska placed on Happ or if it was simply, in the words of his coach, that he was “out of sorts,” Happ didn’t have his typically strong game. Fortunately for Happ and the Badgers, he had teammates who picked up the slack, as Wisconsin got strong performances across the board, but particularly from Khalil Iverson and Akeem Ford, who finished with 14 and 11 pints respectively.
Wisconsin needed Iverson and Ford to step up, because while Nebraska’s intensity may have been questioned at times throughout the season, that wasn’t the case Friday. Nebraska came to play. Led by Glynn Watson, James Palmer and Isaiah Robey, who accounted for 51 of Nebraska’s 62 points, the Huskers pushed Wisconsin all night, and it wasn’t until two late threes by Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice that the Badgers finally distanced themselves from the Huskers.
The odds are that Happ will bounce back, and if Wisconsin continues to get good production from its other players, particularly from Iverson, the Badgers will be a tough out.
Minnesota 75 – Purdue 73
In a great day of basketball, the day’s third game was the best game of the day, as Purdue and Minnesota engaged in a frenetic, back-and-forth, end-to-end affair that wasn’t decided until the game’s final seconds.
In a game of ebbs and flows, the Gophers looked like the better team the majority of the night. Jordan Murphy put on the performance of the day, leading the way with 27 points and eight rebounds, and with his teammates seemingly unable to miss from deep early, connecting on five-of-nine first half three-point attempts, the Gophers took a three-point lead into the locker room.
Purdue managed to stay in the game despite a rough night from Carson Edwards, and after a spirited, late-game comeback led by Nojel Eastern inside and Ryan Cline outside, Purdue had the ball and a chance to win when Edwards launched a contested, but makeable three-pointer from the corner at the horn. Indicative of Edwards’ day, the ball just rimmed out, ending the Boilermakers’ tournament run.
In the end, despite Purdue’s frantic comeback, it was just too much Murphy, who carried the Gophers to the only victory for a lower seeded team on the day.
Michigan 74 – Iowa 53
One of the storylines heading into the Big Ten tournament was, “What to make of Michigan?” The Wolverines finished the season with a 26-5 record, just one game off the conference championship, but they also had not played well in losing to Michigan State twice in the last two weeks. Were the Wolverines struggling? Had they peaked too early? Or did they simply not match up well against the Michigan State?
After a 21-point win over Iowa Friday night, you’d be inclined to think the latter, as Michigan got out of the gate early, withstood an early run by Iowa, then methodically, if not spectacularly, ran away from the Hawkeyes.
It was a balanced attack for Michigan, with five players finishing in double-figures, led by Iggy Brazdeikis with 15 points. One of those players in double-figures was Xavier Simpson, who played spectacularly. Simpson scored ten points on a perfect four-of-four shooting while dishing out 11 assists against only one turnover. Simpson also held Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon scoreless for the first time this season. Michigan was hot early and was able to play with the lead throughout. And as Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey noted after the game, “They’re (Michigan) really good with the lead.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for the Wolverines was the return of Charles Matthews, though. Matthews looked a little rusty, and at times was a little gassed (in the words of his coach), but he seemed to move well and was involved in Michigan’s offense, more or less, to the extent that he usually is.
Not only is Matthews perhaps Michigan’s best all-around player and one of their better defenders, but his presence allows Coach John Beilein to do many different things – particularly adjusting to foul trouble. After the game Beilein praised his impact on the defensive end of the court, likening him to a centerfielder in baseball or a safety in football.
“A big difference maker,” Beilein called Matthews, and that he is. Matthews may have only scored five points over his 25 minutes, but his return gives the Wolverines a boost heading onto Saturday’s semifinals – and beyond.