Day three of the Big Ten Tournament is in the books and we now have a championship game set for 3:30 p.m. on CBS. The Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan Spartans both sprinted out to huge leads in Saturday's semifinal action, only to hang on for victories. The Wolverines and Spartans will meet for a third time this season, with Michigan winning both previous games by single digits.
The first three days of the tournament brought a few surprises and shined some light on the strengths and weaknesses of the top teams in the conference. Here are five things we have learned so far as we move toward crowning a Big Ten Tournament champion:
1. The Buckeyes should probably press more often
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said he always gets asked about the team pressing full time. The idea seems pretty logical. Earlier in the season, the Buckeyes trailed Notre Dame by eight points with less than a minute to play at Madison Square Garden. The Buckeyes turned up the pressure and forced multiple turnovers in the backcourt, leading to an improbable comeback victory. If that wasn't impressive enough, the Buckeyes erased a 17-point deficit in East Lansing on January 7 with the help of the full court press.
Ohio State was placed in a similar position Friday against Nebraska. After leading much of the first half, the Buckeyes were totally flat in the second half. That is until they fell behind by 18 and were forced to pick up full court. Ohio State forced eight second half turnovers en route to the biggest comeback in Big Ten Tournament history.
Matta said he would not press full time because he does not like the prospect of giving up easy baskets on the back end. With this Ohio State team, however, Matta may be well served to mix up his philosophy. A team that often gets stagnant offensively could use the press to its advantage. Ohio State seems to get easier baskets when they are playing with energy and forcing turnovers.
The injection of energy Amedeo Della Valle gave Ohio State with 12 points and a career-high three blocks off the bench allowed Ohio State to survive and advance to Saturday's semifinals before bowing out to the rival Michigan Wolverines.
2. Michigan's back
We probably already knew this after the regular season, but it's worth stating again. (The Media's) Big Ten Coach of the Year, John Beilein, continues to pull the right strings for "The Team Up North" and have the base in Ann Arbor more excited for hoops these days.
The Wolverines made the national championship game in 2013 for the first time since the Fab Five roamed campus. They added to that in 2014 with the program's first outright Big Ten regular season title since 1986.
The Wolverines kicked off Big Ten Tournament play by squeaking out a victory over upset-minded Illinois. Beilein showed his ability to draw up a great offensive set when his team needs a bucket. Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas calmly ran a ball screen with senior forward Jordan Morgan, who finished with a kind bounce off the rim.
Michigan continued to roll against Ohio State on Saturday, although they had to overcome a strong comeback push from the Buckeyes. Stauskas was unreal, finishing with 18 points on 4-of-8 shooting from three-point range.
The Wolverines look here to stay for years to come and they can capture a probable No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with one more victory in Indianapolis.
3. Michigan State is still a threat for the Final Four
Spartan head coach Tom Izzo certainly has not been pleased with his team's play as they get closer to Selection Sunday. The Spartans have battled injury all season and they have struggled to put everything together now that everyone is nearly at full strength.
Izzo said this isn't the same smash mouth team he is used to having, but the Spartans looked impressive in their 67-51 victory over 11-seed Northwestern. Junior forward Branden Dawson dominated the paint with 16 points and nine rebounds and First Team all-Big Ten performer Gary Harris chipped in with 13 points. The Spartans again looked like the team we thought they were as they pulled out to a huge lead against Wisconsin, before holding on late as the Badgers gave it their all in a valiant comeback effort.
If Michigan State gets some consistent guard play from Keith Appling and Travis Trice, the Spartans' physicality will give anyone trouble in the big dance. The combination of Denzel Valentine, Adreian Payne, and Branden Dawson can not only bang with anyone inside, but they all possess the ability to step away from the hoop and knock down shots from the perimeter.
The trio combined for 44 points on 17-of-25 shooting against Bucky Badger in the second semifinal Saturday, giving the Spartans a ticket to Sunday's Big Ten Championship.
4. No alarms and no surprises
Despite the wildness that normally comes in the month of March, the Big Ten has not given us too many shockers so far. The Northwestern Wildcats pulled the stunner of the tournament, knocking off the Iowa Hawkeyes, 67-62, in first round action. However, Northwestern just wasn't game enough to advance any further.
Three of the top four seeds remained heading into semifinal action, with Ohio State being the only team to make it to Saturday without the help of a first round bye. Michigan had to squeeze a few victories out, but the Wolverines are now eyeing a sweep of the Big Ten crowns.
With Villanova's early exit in the Big East Tournament, there appears to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in play for the Wolverines to snag. According to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, Michigan is in place to take the prize if they can get past rival Michigan State on Sunday.
The biggest surprise of the Big Ten Tournament so far may be Ohio State heading home before the championship round. Before Saturday, Ohio State was 4-0 against Michigan in Big Ten Tournament play. The Buckeyes just weren't able to close the deal after rallying back and taking a late lead.
5. Only six Big Ten teams will be dancing
There are a solid four high-ish seeds in the NCAA Tournament from the Big Ten: Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Naturally, these four teams are the ones that competed in the Big Ten semifinals.
Nebraska is likely receiving a spot in the dance as well. The Cornhuskers won 11 games in conference play, including quality wins against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and on the road at Michigan State. It would be pretty unfathomable to deny an 11-win team from arguably the best conference in America. Not to mention it is pretty clear that the Cornhuskers pack enough offensive firepower to make a Sweet 16 run.
The last two teams in consideration are Iowa and Minnesota. Lunardi had Minnesota in his last four teams out of the tournament heading into Friday. They did not have a very good showing against Wisconsin and likely will be left on the outside looking in Sunday night. Iowa has lost six-of-seven, but they hold victories over Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Minnesota. They are not playing their best basketball right now but they should be playing next Thursday or Friday.