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NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Indiana

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This crazy, beautiful (regular) season of Big Ten basketball

Sure, Sparty came out on top, but the journey to get there was a wild one.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center in Madison. Wisc., the Michigan State Spartans cemented their claim as regular season Big Ten Champions with a down-to-the-wire 68-63 win against the Wisconsin Badgers.

Tom Izzo’s Spartans began the season as the No. 2 team in the AP Poll, and ended the regular season in the same spot. As expected, they took home the regular season crown and are now headed to New York City for the conference tournament—one where they’ll have the No. 1-seed.

Yeah, this was a predictable (and safe bet) outcome for how the top-spot in the Big Ten would finish once the season wrapped up. But to get to this point, there were tons of surprises, upsets, and down right zaniness.

The biggest of the surprises are none other than the Ohio State Buckeyes. In Chris Holtmann’s first season at the helm, he strung together nine straight conference wins to begin his time at OSU. That’s the most ever by a head coach in his first year at a Big Ten institution since Sam Barry recorded 11 straight victories for Iowa in 1923. Overall, OSU ended the regular season with a 23-7 (14-3) record, including a huge 80-64 win over then-No. 1 Michigan State on Jan. 7.

Sparty won 16 of 18 games against Big Ten foes, but got the doors blown off in Columbus against OSU. The place where the Spartans fell to the Buckeyes, was also the place where the Bucks, who were 9-0 to start conference play, would get beat by a buzzer-beater, banked-in three pointer by Penn State’s Tony Carr.

Ohio State’s kryptonite this year were the Nittany Lions. In the second meeting between the two, which happened on Feb. 15, the Buckeyes got down by as many as 30 before falling, 79-56. That loss was followed up by another loss (against Michigan), which enabled the Spartans to jump back into the driver’s seat for control of the Big Ten standings.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Ohio State
It Takes Two: Between Holtmann and Bates-Diop, they are the catalysts to the Buckeyes’ success.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

But, the overall journey was pretty amazing. On Feb. 23, the semifinalists for the Werner Ladder Naismith Coach of the Year Award were announced. Making the cut was Holtmann. Sure, Texas Tech’s Chris Beard, Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Auburn’s Bruce Pearl are on that list, too, but who really expected the Bucks to be in the hunt for a conference title, let alone being a contender in the NCAA Tournament? In the first week of December 2017, OSU’s national championship odds hovered between 300-to-1 and 200-1; Michigan State’s odds were around 4-to-1.

On both sides of the ball, forward Keita Bates-Diop played a pivotal role in Ohio State’s success. He recorded 18 double doubles on the season, and showed up huge in games against Michigan State and Purdue. KBD’s heroics in conference play propelled him into shortlists for the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year and Wooden Award. Without him in the equation, the Bucks wouldn’t have had a consistent rebounding presence as well as a constant No. 1 shooter.

But flashback to late November. Who would’ve expected Ohio State to be this good this year? Especially after they let a 15-point lead slip away to Butler in the final six minutes of the PK80 Invitational. At that time, the Buckeyes felt like an NIT team; but within a few weeks, they flipped the script and became a force to be reckoned with. A combination of Holtmann bringing the spark, in addition to Bates-Diop growing into a top conference performer, was what it took to get the tour de force campaign underway.

The game where everything came together for OSU was against then-No. 3 Purdue on Feb. 7. The Boilermakers led for most of the night, and carried a 14-point lead in the second half. However, a lineup change (and a change of tactics) was enough to chip the lead away, leading to KBD getting a put-back basket with less than three seconds left in the game to seal the one-point, 64-63, win in West Lafayette, Ind.

While Purdue didn’t struggle last season and carried a No. 20 ranking in the preseason AP Poll, they were a constant presence at the top of the conference standings. At one point, Matt Painter’s program was the No. 3 team in the land. The loss to OSU kicked off a three-game skid for the Boilermakers—one that featured road losses to the Spartans and Badgers. Before the skid, Purdue was nearly taken down by last place Rutgers on the road.

Teams that looked nearly unstoppable one week, were trying to get off the slippery slope of losses the next. Ohio State and Purdue were two examples of that this season—but, if we’re being honest, the fact that both these teams made pushes well inside the top-10 is something to hang their heads high about. Michigan State, while carrying the torch as the conference leader, spent the better part of February avoiding big upsets. They escaped by Indiana, Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue and Wiscy.

Then we take a look at Nebraska, who has flown under the radar as the No. 4 team in the conference. By holding off Michigan for that fourth spot, the Cornhuskers join MSU, OSU and Purdue as teams that get the double-bye at the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. Like Ohio State’s climb, who thought Nebraska was going to be a top-4 team in the conference back at the start?

Whatever Tim Miles did since the end of last year, he should keep doing it. The Cornhuskers ended 2016-17 with an abysmal 12-19 mark overall. In the conference, times were rough for the Lincoln, Neb., program as they saw only six wins in 18 games. (That was one less win than what Thad Matta’s program had against B1G foes.)

This season, Nebraska went 22-9 overall, and brushed off an early loss against St. John’s. For most of the year, that loss to the Red Storm looked bad; the team went on an 11-game losing streak before getting monumental wins against top-5 programs, Duke and Villanova, in back-to-back games.

Unlike years past, a condensed Big Ten schedule took place, forcing teams to play two conference games in early December to compensate for the early start time of the conference tournament. On top of that, teams had to play a handful of games in a tighter window. As you can imagine, playing more games with less time to rest causes all sorts of problems. If you look back to OSU’s season finale against Indiana, both teams looked exhausted.

The season took a bunch of twist and turns, and ended with a predictable team winning the regular season crown. But, like anything, the journey getting there was the fun part.

That’s especially true with Buckeye Basketball being back again. Now, we’ll see what kind of craziness March brings us. It always does.

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