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Published: Thursday, 3/14/2013

Showcase ends rugged season for Big Ten Conference basketball

Teams vying for Big Ten title

BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Matta Matta
AP Enlarge

CHICAGO — This is your brain on Big Ten basketball.

"I am so damn tired," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said Sunday after the regular season’s final bell.

The best Big Ten race anyone can remember did not pass without inflicting its share of scars.

It was so bruising that Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan cracked that he "sent a guy through on a cut on Tuesday and they saw him on the other side of the court on Thursday"; so no-pebble-unturned competitive that Purdue’s Matt Painter said it seemed like "your opponent knows what you’re doing better than some of your players do"; and so good that eight teams could crash the NCAA tournament.

Yet the madness is just beginning.

The league’s dozen teams will look to find a second wind in the Second City as the 16th — and most hyped — Big Ten tournament opens today at the United Center.

"We're looking forward to maybe one of the great conference tournaments of all time," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

It begins at noon with an 8-9 matchup between Illinois and Minnesota — two programs that spent time in the top 10 this season — and continues with the No. 6 team in the country playing a first-round game. In the Big Ten, Michigan’s national ranking is almost as high as its conference tournament seed. 

The fifth-seeded Wolverines play last-place Penn State.

In all, the league’s top basketball conference closed the regular season with four top-10 teams for the first time. No. 3 Indiana, Michigan, No. 8 Michigan State, and 10th-ranked Ohio State all hope to launch deep March runs this weekend.

A debate even roils over whether the league is too good for its own good, whether the teams will be too sapped to dance after beating each other up over 18 conference games.

"Like everything else in life, if we win a lot of games in [the NCAA tournament], we'll tell you it helped, and if we lose a lot of games, we'll tell you it beat the heck out of us," Izzo said. "I think competition always helps you."

In fact, with no true Goliath this season, this could be the year the Big Ten ends its national title drought — a streak dating to Michigan State’s championship in 2000. Michigan and OSU both appear in the fray, although UM must redirect its season first. Though the Wolverines played one of the nation’s toughest schedules, they went 5-5 down the stretch — including a road loss to Penn State — and could need a decent showing this weekend to ensure their early NCAA games will be played in Auburn Hills, Mich.

OSU, meanwhile, looks to keep a good thing going. Since a blowout loss at Wisconsin, the Buckeyes have won five straight, including a defensive-minded upset at IU last week that showed their postseason ceiling may be higher than once thought. OSU opens the Big Ten tournament on Friday against today’s winner between seventh-seeded Purdue and No. 10 seed Nebraska.

"A lot of people had us dead to rights a month ago, and we haven't lost since then," Matta said. "I love the fact they kept working."

Now, Matta said he told his team, "You’ve got to be one of the hottest teams in the country."

"I always say I want us to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year," he said. "I think we’re closing in on it."

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.



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