This is one tough conference.
The game I expected to cover last night was assigned to someone else, so I ended up driving to West Lafayette and using my tickets. I expected a fun night where we would take care of business at home. It was senior night after all. We would assert our will, win by 10-15 points, and get ready for Michigan State on Sunday. It even looked that way in the second half. When Chris Kramer scored on a fast break thanks to the perfect pass from LewJack we were up 44-34 with about 15 minutes left. At that point I expected to slowly pad the lead, then play the final minute with the four seniors on the floor.
I'm still waiting for that.
Remember this and move on guys...
I am giving a ton of credit to Northwestern this morning. They are absolutely alive for their first ever NCAA Tournament berth and I will be pulling for them hard in Columbus this weekend and in Indianapolis next week (unless we face them). These Wildcats are fearless, they play hard, and they deserve to go to the tournament. They would already be there if not for a couple of late collapses. As long as they keep winning things are breaking their way they have a chance. Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Miami have removed themselves from the bubble discussion his week with some bad losses, so they are getting plenty of help in that department. If you are a Wildcat fan you cheer have to like hell for Butler to win the Horizon League tourney, Gonzaga or St. Mary's to win the WCC, and Memphis to win the conference USA so there are as many at large bids out there as possible.
Positives from Senior Night
The Paint Crew - Seeing the students in action this season makes me wish I was still in school. On my senior day in 2002 we played an equally bad Penn State team and there were maybe 100 students there with me. We didn't do anything special either for John Allison, Rodney Smith, Maynard Lewis, and Joe Marshall. Yesterday the Paint Crew had appropriate tributes for all four seniors. As I walked to my seats I ran into a kid that had painted a Bosnian flag on his chest. The Buckets Tribute, California flag, and dollar bills for Green were excellent as well.
The Paint Crew has gone above and beyond this season. I am a big fan of the Defense Lives Here sign, though it didn't get much use last night. To those who are returning next season, I urge you to keep it going strong. We now have one of the best student sections in the country, and you should also be commended for raising more than $2,000 in the Coaches vs. Cancer challenge against the Izzone. Please come out strong in Indy next week here at the Big Ten Tournament. I'll gladly join you if I can find tickets.
Keaton Grant - He was the one guy that really seemed on last night. Even late, he hit a critical 3-pointer that gave us one last gasp before the defensive breakdown in the final seconds. Everyone else seemed to just get stuck offensively. We couldn't even get JaJuan going down low, though much of that was due to Northwestern's defense.
Negatives from Senior Night
Officiating - I don't think it had any bearing on the game because it was not the officials' fault we went over nine minutes without scoring a point. It's also not their fault we couldn't hit free throws in crunch time. Still, these guys were terrible last night. As I shouted at one juncture, they were a vast cornucopia of suck (See Boilergal, I told you it was going in here!). During the lengthy review of the disputed 3-pointer I had my entire section laughing with comments of, "Are you guys reviewing all the calls you missed!" They would gesture, "Yes, you missed that one. That one too. Definitely that one. It's taking so long because you've missed so many!" The only one I didn't bust out was, "You might want to take a pregnancy test because you've missed 2 periods already!"
Seriously, the officiating this season in all Big Ten games has been horrible. I know Purdue fans aren't alone in thinking this either. Again, they weren't the reason we lost last night, but can we please do something about this? I am beginning to wonder if it will help or hurt so many Big Ten teams getting into the tournament just because we'll finally get away from Big Ten officials.
Rebounding - THIS is a main reason we lost last night. Northwestern is the worst offensive rebounding team in the league by far and they simply dominated the glass in the second half. We were out of position for rebounds all night long. Northwestern had 16 second chance points off of 10 offensive rebounds. 12 of those points came from 6 offensive rebounds after it was 44-34. That doesn't even count the two offensive board possession where Northwestern didn't score, but they took 1:40 off of the clock by working the shot clock down each time and rebounding their miss twice. This was simply a pathetic effort on the glass against a team that has rebounding as a glaring weakness.
Turnovers - Northwestern deserves an ENORMOUS amount of credit for not turning the ball over last night. They had just five turnovers, and three of those came in the last four minutes when we were frantically trying to come back. For a team that has had issues with holding leads this year they did not crumble even when they were down. I have nothing but respect for them now, and I do not want to face them in Indianapolis. They patiently ran their offense and attacked the slightest breakdown for easy baskets inside. I don't even think our defense was that bad. Northwestern simply ran their offense that well.
Our entire offense in the last 15 minutes - That was just brutally ugly. We stopped moving without the ball. We took horrible shots. We didn't rebound. We were hesitant to take shots that were open. We had no offensive flow. This is just a laundry list of things that took me 1,000 words to get to because I didn't want to address it. How many times did we drive in the line only to stop and turn it over because Keaton or LewJack was indecisive? We simply cannot handle Northwestern's defense this year. They have made us look silly twice now, and if I were the team that gets us in the opening round of the NCAA's I would definitely study both northwestern games. They are just a very poor matchup for us because we look totally confused against their defense.
Well, there goes our dream of a top 4 seed unless we beat Michigan State and at least make the Big Ten Tournament final. It is my hope that every Big Ten team that makes the tournament does well because then it will show how brutal this conference is. If we get eight teams in, which is possible, we need to win six opening round games and get four to the sweet 16. Michigan State is a deserving champion and they may finish with four losses and a few close escapes. Even now, I don't think there is much doubt we're one of the three best teams in the league, yet we may finish with seven conference losses. Even had we been completely healthy all season we would still have at least four. We also had close escapes at Northwestern, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The top nine teams in this conference are tough as nails, and even Iowa has been a pest on its home floor for many teams. The same is true for Indiana. The Big Ten Tournament is going to be fun next week because every game may turn out to be an elimination game. Even Indiana has a role because I can certainly see them rising up and knocking off the #6 seed to ruin their year. They play hard and have nothing to lose. I don't even say that derisively. They had no business being in the game with Michigan State Tuesday night and they damn near won it! Whoever gets the #6 seed will not have an easy time with them.
It is also clear to me that we are the sole team that will decide our fate in March. This season feels like a step back because of the conference losses and everything. This is true even though the conference is exponential tougher this year and we've fought through so many injuries. When we are on like we have been against Ohio State and Michigan State recently I think we can beat anybody in the country. If we play like we did in the second half last night we are a first round upset waiting to happen.
This needs to be a wake up call. Northwestern is a very good team, but we flat out sucked last night. We have to move forward and refocus to play our best basketball of the season now. I have long said that I don't care if we're not playing well during the regular season as long as we play well in March. Well, that time is now here. We are more than capable of winning the Big Ten Tournament next week and making a deep run in the NCAA's. We're also more than capable of playing like crap and losing our next three games to have a very disappointing finish. It's up to us now.