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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bohnenkamp

CBT's B10 Recap: Teams Thrilled To Be Past Each Other

Brad Underwood is going to be glad to get into the NCAA tournament.

The crucible of the one-and-done atmosphere seemed refreshing to the Illinois coach after going through the rigors of the Big Ten.

“Yeah, it will be refreshing to get a couple days away,” Underwood said after the Illini lost to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. “And, no, we're not playing another Big Ten team. I'm tired of this league right now. I'm tired of these guys.”

There was some humor in Underwood’s comments, but a grinding conference season has prepared the lllini — and the rest of the conference’s nine qualifiers into the tournament — for what comes next.

Five days in Indianapolis to determine the conference’s automatic bid certainly was an indication that anything was possible for Big Ten teams.

Conference co-champs Illinois and Wisconsin were eliminated before they barely got a chance to unpack. They were two of three teams that got a double-bye — Rutgers was the other — that were eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Ninth-seeded Indiana reached the semifinals before losing to Iowa on a last-second 3-pointer by sixth-year Hawkeyes guard Jordan Bohannon. Seventh seed Michigan State reached the semifinals before losing to third seed Purdue, the only double-bye team to get a win in the tournament.

Iowa, the fifth seed, so dominated its first two games that the Hawkeyes have earned the national tag of “team you really don’t want to see in the NCAA field.” And when they completed the four-wins-in-four-days run to win the tournament, they looked like the favorite to last the longest of anyone in the next couple of weeks. A deep run would be lovely for the folks in Iowa City following last season’s disappointing setback to Oregon in the Round of 32. On that note, the entire conference is looking for redemption following last year’s tourney which saw nine teams make the draw but only Michigan move on to the second weekend.

There is no reason to expect a repeat this time.

“I think it just is an example of what this conference is and what it's been — the most difficult conference top to bottom,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after his team’s 75-66 win over Purdue in the championship game. “Like I said, not only is every team really good and really hard to beat, but every team is dramatically different. I think that's what makes it exciting for the players, exciting for the people that are watching and it's why we've got so many teams in (the NCAA Tournament).”

The Hawkeyes are peaking at the right time, without question.

“Like, this is going to be a tough out for anybody,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said after the Hawkeyes made 19 3-pointers on Northwestern in a 112-76 win.. “If they make 20 threes, though, you're not going to beat them, obviously. Did we give up some open looks? Yes. But they also made … when Bohannon's making 30-footers and those guys are shooting the way they are with what (sophomore forward) Keegan (Murray) can do, it's going to be very hard for anybody to beat them the way they played today.”

The Big Ten season is even longer than it seems.

It starts with a two-game appetizer in December when everyone is still thinking about football — Iowa played at Purdue to open the season the night before its football team played Michigan in the Big Ten football championship game — and then continues with the 18-game run through January and February into March.

It’s why when the teams get to the tournament, they’re all tired of each other.

“I don't know if people realize how this league is every single game — all the ranked teams, and the teams that aren't ranked, are only not ranked because they're losing to ranked teams,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “The gauntlet of this league and what our guys had to do and play through.”

The Big Ten hasn’t had a national champion since Michigan State in 2000 — current league member Maryland won in 2002 when it was in the ACC — but there are contenders, and certainly some tough outs in this season’s tournament.

The fifth-seeded Hawkeyes come to mind first, having won eight of their past 10 before coming to Indy and blowing out Northwestern, getting a double-digit win over Rutgers and then getting the last-second win over the Hoosiers. They average more than 84 points per game, fourth best in the nation. They draw a Richmond team on a heater of its own, coming off a season-saving Atlantic 10 tournament title out of the sixth seed.

“They're going to give a lot of people trouble — after they give us trouble tomorrow — in the NCAA Tournament,” Painter said of the Hawkeyes before falling on Sunday.

Murray is a national player of the year candidate after averaging 23.4 points, fourth best in the nation. He had a career-high eight 3-pointers against Indiana, adding to a resumé that is likely going to lead him to the NBA at the end of the season.

“He's a load,” Indiana coach Mike Woodson said. “I mean, there's just nothing he can't do with the basketball in his hand.”

Four seed Illinois and third-seeded Wisconsin played their way into good NCAA seeds with strong regular seasons. Both have national player of the year candidates — Illini center Kofi Cockburn and Badgers’ guard Johnny Davis, the conference’s player of the year.

Both have had their issues at times this season, and early exits from this tournament didn’t help.

“I mean, we've got to look ahead,” Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins said. “Like Coach was saying, just get some rest, get back to work and change our mindset to the NCAA Tournament and what's next to come for us. It's not going to be a Big Ten team, it's going to be a team in a different conference, at a different venue, so we've got to brace ourselves for that and just move on from this.”

It will be Chattanooga, a mid-major team good enough to give the Illini a test.

Wisconsin lost to 13th-place Nebraska to end the season, costing the Badgers the outright championship, then fell to Michigan State in the tournament. The Badgers will meet Colgate and — if they advance — the winner of a 6-11 contest of LSU and Iowa State.

“We're not defined by two games,” Wisconsin guard Brad Davison said. “We're more defined by the 30-some games before that we've been there, done that. We've won a lot of close games. We've battled, we've done things the right way and we've had pretty good outcomes throughout the year. We look at this as learning opportunities, a lot of things we can do better and now we've got some time to rest and recover and fix those things that we don't have.”

Purdue finished just a game behind Illinois and Wisconsin, but regained its rhythm in the conference tournament and drew Ivy champ Yale in the first round. Painter said the momentum of the weekend should useful now that it’s one-and-done: “The winning can really help you in the NCAA Tournament.”

And on that note, Iowa was the one who left Indianapolis with the most wins.

“This,” Bohannon said, “was what the Big Ten Conference prepared us for.”

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