INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been a wild weekend at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament, and now we're all set for the title match. Michigan State is gunning for a record fifth tournament title, while Purdue is searching for its first crown since 2009.
But as the country focuses on what should be an entertaining championship game, here are a handful of under-the-radar storylines I noticed over the past four days.
The first two days of the tournament reinforced two themes from the regular season
We knew 13th-seeded Minnesota and 14th-seeded Rutgers, who combined for three victories in conference play, were abysmal outfits, so when the two teams dropped their tournament games by a combined 50 points, no one was surprised. Heck, Rutgers didn't even wait 24 hours after its season ended to fire its coach. The depth of the Golden Gophers and Scarlet Knights' despair is also reflected in their respective positions in KenPom's efficiency rankings: Minnesota is 217th and Rutgers is 290th. On the bright side, Rutgers will probably avoid an inauspicious designation: the first power conference team to finish outside KenPom's top 300.
On Thursday, the Big Ten showed off the depth of its middle class. No. 9 Northwestern took No. 8 Michigan to overtime. No. 12 Illinois controlled No. 5 Iowa all game before holding off the Hawkeyes late. No. 10 Penn State played No. 7 Ohio State to a draw before the Buckeyes edged out a four-point decision. No. 11 Nebraska dominated No. 6 Wisconsin, the defending Big Ten Tournament champion. For the only the second time in the 19-year history of the tournament, two double-digit seeds advanced to the quarterfinal round. And in the quarterfinals on Friday, Michigan upset No. 1 Indiana on Kameron Chatman's buzzer beater, the first time since 2003 (and the fourth time overall), a No. 1 seed was knocked out in the quarters.
Tom Izzo can really, really coach
Nearly all of the media were afforded the opportunity to sit somewhere along the court, and I was lucky enough to be placed behind one of the team benches. It's fairly easy to pick up on all sorts of interesting tidbits when one is seated less than 15 feet away from players, coaches, and other team personnel.
For example, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery came off as less than impressive. For the first first 30-35 minutes of the Iowa-Illinois game, McCaffery was mostly calm/sarcastic despite his team's poor play. But as the game got tighter and Iowa suffered a series of malfunctions, McCaffery -- no stranger to losing control on the court -- erupted on more than one occasion, with Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury the popular player targets of McCaffery's F-bomb-laced profanity and prolonged staredowns.
When Iowa faltered down the stretch, it really came as no surprise. Maybe McCaffery's coaching style was a factor, and maybe it wasn't. But I wouldn't dream of terming what I witnessed productive coaching, and given that the Hawkeyes have lost six of their last eight games, perhaps Iowa -- much like Slider in Top Gun -- is holding on too tight.
McCaffery's style of coaching and the state of his team stood in stark comparison to Michigan State's coaching staff, specifically Tom Izzo.
Over the course of the tournament, the dynamic that exists between Izzo and his players -- as well as the 'good cop, bad cop' style that Izzo and his coaches occasionally employ -- provided a window into how Izzo's staff gets the most of its players despite some very tough love.
Early in the Spartans' quarterfinal matchup with Ohio State, Izzo pulled Eron Harris and began intensely chiding him for defensive miscues. Like McCaffery, Izzo mixed in some profanity, but at no point did it feel like Izzo was publicly shaming Harris, which is a line I felt McCaffery was close to crossing. And as Izzo rode Harris, senior forward Matt Costello put his arm around the junior guard, who was also listening to calm encouragement from assistant coach Dwayne Stephens. As Izzo finished his diatribe, Harris put his left arm around Izzo, said something to the effect of, "I'll stop screwing up" and checked himself back into the game.
A similar sequence unfolded early on in Michigan State's game against Maryland. Harris got tangled up with Maryland forward Jake Layman. Both players received technicals even though it was Layman who twisted Harris' arm into what appeared to be a very uncomfortable position, but Izzo repeatedly lit into Harris. Harris responded by scoring eight points through the game's first eight minutes.
There were other instances of Izzo playing the 'good cop' while an assistant teed off on a player. The competitive but healthy relationship between the coaches and players speaks volumes about the ability of Izzo and his staff to connect to the players. Izzo demands that the players are invested as much as he is; otherwise, their spot in the lineup will be taken by someone who does care.
Big Ten basketball fans are well-informed, committed, and weird
Thursday through Saturday, I reserved time each day to walk around Bankers Life Fieldhouse and chat up fans of different schools. As luck would have it, the first guy I approached on Thursday turned out to be a captivating fella. Meet Jim from Cedar Rapids, IA, who has attended every Big Ten Tournament game ever. If Jim, who plans on traveling to Washington D.C. for the 2017 tournament and to New York when the Big Ten's conference gathering moves to the Big Apple in 2018, stays true to his word and attends Sunday's game, he will have attended all 199 games to be played since the Big Tournament started in 1998.
Jim also had some thoughts on Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, whose Hawkeyes had a surprising run to the Rose Bowl after going 19-19 from 2012-14.
"He’s funny. He’ll have these bad years, then he’ll have a good year and people will forget about the bad years," said Jim, who also traveled to Indianapolis in December to see Ferentz's squad play Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game. "The fan base was ready to run him out, but what do you do know? He’s back in the good graces again."
Later in the day, I met Jen and Derek, two Illinois fans from Chicago. Jen, who has been going to the Big Ten Tournament each year for a decade, was willing to cut John Groce some slack this season because of injuries, though her patience is running thin.
"After years of not making the (NCAA) Tournament, you get to the point where that’s not enough," Jen said, noting she'd rather not see the program fire Groce and hire another coach from a mid-major program. (Groce, a former Ohio State assistant, was the coach at Ohio University for four seasons prior to Illinois.)
Derek and Jen both preferred Indianapolis over Chicago when it comes to hosting the Big Ten Tournament.
"It's easier to get around (in Indianapolis)," Jen said. "We even live in Chicago, and getting to the United Center is a pain. It's just not an easy place to get to."
Derek added: "You’re not walking out of the United Center to get a pizza and a beer. You’re stuck there. I like it here way more."
Other fan encounters: Friday, I talked with a Michigan State supporter from Iron Mountain, MI (Izzo's hometown), who consumed and approved of the Spartans' Big Ten potato. ... Saturday, I conversed with Jon and Michelle from Grand Rapids, MI. Jon was a Buckeye fan because his parents are Ohio State alumni. Michelle, who was about to take in the first college basketball of her life, was a Michigan and Michigan State fan...just because. How is that allowed?
Michigan's run to the semis probably avoided a second straight NCAA Tournament-less season
By escaping Northwestern in its opening game and upsetting top seed Indiana on Friday, Michigan most likely played its way into the NCAA Tournament, a strong statement by a program that missed the Big Dance a year ago after early defections to the NBA robbed the Wolverines of the critical talent base that paved the way for Michigan reaching the Elite Eight in 2014 and the national championship game in 2013.
Following the 2013 season, sophomore Trey Burke and junior Tim Hardaway Jr. left school and were first-round picks. A year later, sophomores Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary and junior Glenn Robinson III departed. Stauskas and McGary were selected in the first round, and Robinson III was a second round pick.
Additionally, Caris LeVert, who averaged 13 points per game in 2013 and was once pegged a future first round pick, played in only 33 of a possible 66 games over the past two seasons. However, the future is bright -- Michigan is similar to Ohio State; just about everyone will be back next season -- and the Wolverines are already used to playing without the services of LeVert.