I flew to Chicago for this week’s Big Ten tournament. Ostensibly to cover Michigan. But just because the Wolverines didn’t stick around long, that didn’t mean I had to leave, too. With front row seats for Friday’s slate of quarterfinal action, here’s my recap of a great day of basketball.
Purdue Outlasts Rutgers
Purdue head coach Matt Painter said of Rutgers, “They’re experienced and they just play harder than whoever they’re playing. So we knew we had to meet their intensity.” That intensity is noticeable.
Sitting close to the action, you see the game completely differently than you do from a distance - or from your couch. The game is played at a frenetic pace. The speed and physicality are striking. Watching Rutgers play from up close, that speed and physicality is amplified even more.
Rutgers started against Purdue the same way it finished against Michigan - playing confidently and controlling the action. Rutgers was also committed to making sure that Purdue’s Zach Edey wouldn’t go off on them. Not content double-teaming the presumptive national player of the year, the Scarlet Knights threw three - sometimes four bodies at Edey. It was clear early on that Purdue would need more than just Edey if it hoped to advance.
After the game, Painter said of his team: “We possess elite size, and we’ve surrounded that size with talent.” That supporting talent carried Purdue to victory. Mason Gillis (game-high 20 points) and David Jenkins Jr. (12 points) came up especially big for Painter and the Boilermakers, combining for 32 points and connecting on five-of-six three-pointers.
A closely contested affair throughout, an Edey jump-hook with 3:21 to play finally gave Purdue some breathing room. The shot extended Purdue’s lead to eight points, matching its largest lead of the game. From there, the Boilermakers withstood a frenetic, full-court press finish, and ultimately prevailed with a hard-fought, 70-65 victory.
Rutgers most likely punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament with its opening round victory over Michigan. If there was any doubt whether the Scarlet Knights deserved a tourney berth, those doubts were erased with its performance against top-seeded Purdue in the quarterfinals.
For Purdue, the victory exorcised some demons (Rutgers had defeated Purdue in five of the last six meetings between the teams), but also got its postseason feet wet, so to speak. Now, its pursuit of a Big Ten tournament championship and Final Four begins.
Ohio State Turns Back Michigan State
Bruce Thornton is a problem. Somewhat overshadowed by other Big Ten freshman, including teammate Brice Sensabaugh, Thornton is serving notice in the Big Ten tournament that he shouldn’t be overlooked.
With Sensabaugh, Ohio State’s leading scorer, on the bench and in street clothes, if the Buckeyes hoped to compete with Tom Izzo’s Spartans, Thornton would have to raise his game to another level. Fortunately for Ohio State and its fans, that’s exactly what he did.
Coming off an opening round victory over Iowa in which he scored 17 points, Thornton led the Buckeye charge again, this time with 21 points and six assists. It wasn’t just his scoring that ultimately tipped the scales in Ohio State’s favor, but the way he controlled the action. Thornton got help from freshman Roddy Gayle Jr. (15 points on five of eight shooting) and senior Justice Sueing (14 points), but it was his floor leadership that keyed the Buckeye attack.
Behind Thornton, Ohio State led for the majority of the game, but that’s not to say that Michigan State didn’t challenge.
Trailing by nine at the half, the Spartans came out of the locker room red hot. Baskets by Joey Hauser, Tyson Walker and Jaden Atkins cut Ohio State’s lead to four points. After a block by Mady Sissoko and driving layup by AJ Hoggard, Ohio State’s lead was cut to a single basket and the Spartan-heavy crowd was in full throat. The game seemed to be trending Michigan State’s way.
Thornton had other ideas, however. He and the Buckeyes withstood the Spartan charge and calmly built the lead back to ten points - later extending it to 13 points. A final Michigan State surge cut the lead to six with five minutes to play and brought the crowd back into the game. But once again, Ohio State again withstood the Spartan challenge. A pair of free throws and a three-pointer by Gayle Jr. and the lead was back to 11. Michigan State wouldn’t challenge again.
With the win, the 13th seeded Buckeyes live to see another day. Things won’t get any easier, however, with top-seeded Purdue and Big Ten player of the year Zach Edey waiting in the wings.
Penn State Tops Northwestern in Overtime
In the day’s best game - and best finish - Penn State and Northwestern battled into overtime before things would be settled.
Points weren’t easy to come by in this one - particularly early on. But while shots may not have been falling at a record-setting pace, it was an extremely entertaining game. A tension-filled, hard fought, back-and-forth affair that featured plenty of big plays and big moments.
Penn State’s Jalen Pickett (15 points) and Northwestern’s Boo Buie (16 points) led their respective teams’ efforts, but each had help. Penn State’s Seth Lundy (16 points) and Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer (15 points) both came up big. Lundy, in particular, hit some huge shots down the stretch. Including a game-tying jumper with less than a minute to play in regulation and a dagger of a three-pointer in the final minute of overtime.
“It feels like he can make every shot, right?” Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry said of Lundy after the game. No doubt Northwestern head coach Chris Collins felt the same way.
Lundy’s three in overtime gave the Nittany Lions the lead - one it wouldn’t relinquish. But holding onto that lead wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t until a Chase Audige desperation jumper missed the mark that the Nittany Lions could celebrate.
With the victory, Penn State continued the theme of the tournament: The power of the underdog. The Nittany Lions were one of six lower seed to prevail in the tournament’s first eight games. If the Nittany Lions hope to continue their wild ride, they’ll need that trend to continue.
For Northwestern, it’s on to the NCAA tournament for just the second time in school history (both under Collins). “It’s not over for them,” Shrewsberry said of Northwestern. “They’re going to play next week and they’re going to cause people problems.”
Indiana Outguns Maryland
Like most of the games in this year’s Big Ten tournament, the Indiana/Maryland quarterfinal match-up started out a closely contested affair. Maryland got out of the gates early, and behind a balanced scoring attack, built an eight-point lead late in the first half. It was beginning to look like the Terps would be the seventh lower seed in eight games to prevail.
While Maryland was coming at Indiana in waves, the Hoosiers relied on their stars. Behind strong performances by Trace Jackson-Davis (24 points, nine rebounds and four blocks) and Jalen Hood-Schifino (19 points, six rebounds and three blocks) the Hoosiers caught, passed and eventually pulled away from the Terps.
If a game ball was handed out, it would have gone to Trace-Jackson. The senior big man is a pleasure to watch. Never rushed. Always composed. Always plays at his place. And with a plethora of post-up moves and a comfortable manner in the paint, the All-American is a handful for anyone to cover.
Trace-Jackson kept Indiana in the game early and helped the Hoosiers pull away late. When Terps’ center Julian Reese went to the bench with four fouls, Trace-Jackson took the game over. Tallying 15 of his 24 points in the second half, Trace-Jackson led Indiana’s charge to the semi-finals.
Saturday was an exciting day of basketball, with closely contested games, furious finishes and a pair of double-digit seeds advancing the semi-finals. But it’s the other two semi-finalists, Purdue and Indiana, that look to be the best teams - and look destined to meet for a third time in Sunday’s final.