Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Time For More Hijinx?
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
And down the stretch they come.
The final 10 days of the Big Ten regular season were supposed to be a leisurely and congratulatory trot for the mighty Indiana Hoosiers, a Secretariat-like stroll down the backstretch with roses being flung at a dominant champion.
The Hoosiers are still the odds-on favorite to take the crown and Tom Crean may yet blow kisses from the winner’s circle – what a treat that would be for all of us – but right now the track has been muddied a bit.
Even at their current No. 1 national ranking and perch atop the league standings at 12-3 (24-4 overall), the Hoosiers made this little exhibition a tad more interesting by getting clobbered on the glass and losing 77-73 at Minnesota on Tuesday.
The next night, Michigan did the unthinkable and tripped up at Penn State in an 84-78 defeat. That would be previously 0-14 Penn State – a team that hadn’t won this calendar year, hadn’t tasted victory since a Dec. 29 triumph over Duquesne, and hadn’t beaten a Big Ten foe since January of 2012.
Back-to-back nights of top-five teams losing to unranked teams in the Big Ten? Unheard of, right?
Actually, it’s a perfect example of how the 2012-13 college basketball season has transpired – and likely a preview of the Madness that is just ahead this March.
In fact, unranked teams have toppled top-five teams 19 times this season. Nineteen.
Kansas has been the victim multiple times. Duke just got clipped at Virginia last night. Arizona, Syracuse, Florida … the list goes on and on.
There’ve been so many court-stormings this season you would think they were spreading out winning lottery tickets at midcourt.
And here’s the thing: This week’s developments in the Big Ten not only open the door for several other teams to catch IU, nothing particularly nutty needs to happen for a multi-team tie for the title. Heaven and earth need not be moved.
Michigan State and Wisconsin, perhaps the hottest team in the league, have moved to the inside lane and are just one length behind Indiana at 11-4. The horse coming up on the outside, believe it or not, is Ohio State.
I know, I know, the Buckeyes weren’t exactly awe-inspiring in their 63-53 survival at Northwestern last night, but they have a couple reasons to believe they are still in the hunt.
For one, they are 11-5 and are the only contender not required to play this weekend. They can sit back and see if anybody stumbles, even rest a bit heading into the adrenaline rush that is the final week of league play and the postseason.
Second, the Buckeyes can pull Indiana down one more peg by beating them Tuesday night at Assembly Hall.
Granted, that is one tough task. Considering how the Hoosiers wiped OSU off its own floor in an 81-68 decision on Feb. 10 and made Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo appear unstoppable, it would be an eye-opening upset.
The Buckeyes are just 2-7 against ranked teams this season and an underwhelming 4-5 on the road.
However, it’s possible Indiana peaked in Columbus and is beginning to feel the weight of an 18-game race in America’s best basketball conference.
After the impressive victory at Ohio State, Indiana destroyed Nebraska and Purdue at home and also prevailed in a game of national intrigue at Michigan State, 72-68, with Oladipo again making clutch plays on both ends of the court. Still, that game was mistake-filled and the Hoosiers were outhustled after having a week to prepare for Minnesota.
It’s likely IU will take out its recent pain on visiting Iowa on Saturday, although the Hawkeyes are perhaps a signature win away from adding themselves to the NCAA Tournament outlook. So Big Ten warfare also is a possibility, but let’s go ahead and assume Indiana handles that game.
Now fast forward one day and you’ve got a Big Ten ledger that features Purdue at Wisconsin and Michigan State at Michigan. Let’s go ahead and checkmark Wisconsin.
Michigan State, on the other hand, is in for a tough time. While it isn’t often that Sparty loses three straight games – the aforementioned Indiana game and trip to Ohio State didn’t go too well for Tom Izzo’s crew – the Wolverines will be especially revved up this weekend.
Michigan, sitting at 10-5, certainly wants to erase some of the embarrassment of the loss at Penn State, and, as an added bonus, UM can still recall the 75-52 knot put on its forehead two weeks ago courtesy the hated Spartans. Plainly put, the Wolverines need to regain some mojo and they will tap into a homecourt where they are undefeated this season. They’re the pick.
Now, Michigan State can’t go on losing forever, and a home game with Wisconsin on March 7 offers a chance to get back on track. MSU closes out with another home game against Northwestern, meaning there is a very real chance the Spartans end up at 13-5.
Wisconsin finishes at Penn State, and that warning shot has already been fired. Don’t look for Bo Ryan’s team to slip up given the situation. Again, a very good chance UW also is 13-5.
The Buckeyes can get there, too, but, of course, they will need to pull a rabbit out of a hat at Indiana, which has not lost to a ranked team this season. However, the Hoosiers have lost at home. Wisconsin took care of them 64-59 at Assembly back in mid-January. UW defended tenaciously and was rewarded after holding Indiana to 37-percent shooting from the field.
That is the blueprint for the Buckeyes, to slow down the nation’s second-highest scoring team (82.2 points per game) and keep the outside bombing quieted.
It won’t be easy in the least, but it’s still pretty amazing that if likely scenarios play out this weekend, the Buckeyes will head to Bloomington with at least a chance to stay afloat.
Even if OSU pulls off the upset and shoots hope back into the league contenders, there is one more giant step that remains – Michigan taking down Indiana at Crisler Arena on March 10. Did I mention the Wolverines haven’t lost at home this season?
Michigan also has a trip to Purdue March 6 but still has designs on winning out to go 13-5.
That’s right, this doesn’t happen for Ohio State without lots of help from Michigan. It would be poetic, though, considering Ohio’s State win at Michigan State last March created a three-way conference championship and allowed UM to share in the desserts.
I know what you’re thinking: C’mon, Rapper, you’re being way too hopeful.
Maybe so, but one of the most memorable seasons in Big Ten history should have a little more drama in the final week, and what would be more appropriate than a five-team logjam at the top?
Indiana is the best team in the league and should figure out a way to win this thing outright, but you’ve still got to finish the deal – and that final clinching win can prove elusive.
Ask members of the 1990-91 Buckeyes.
Randy Ayers’ squad had all the pieces – scoring, rebounding, defense, versatility. They had a superstar leader in Jim Jackson, a consistent post force in Perry Carter, five starters who averaged double figures, and a capable bench led by veteran sixth man Chris Jent. The team won its first 17 games that season and swept its top adversary Indiana.
Everything was in place for an outright championship, only the Buckeyes lost their last two games of the year in roadies against Purdue and Iowa. OSU still received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a geographically favorable draw but was dumped out by St. John’s in the Sweet 16.
Are the Hoosiers one of the best Big Ten teams we’ve seen in a while as they appear to be now – or are they about to emulate the ’91 Buckeyes?
The current OSU team may be part of that answer – and it happens to have the coach with the best career winning percentage in March of any program in the conference.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.