Sometimes, when the basketball is as good as it has been in the Big Ten Conference this season, you’ve just got to stop and say “Wow!”
This league — in a sport criticized for playing a regular season that supposedly doesn’t matter — left fans gasping after last week’s upsets, turnarounds, half-court shots and double-overtime thrillers.
Five Big Ten teams now are in the Associated Press Top 20: No. 1 Indiana, No. 4 Michigan, No. 8 Michigan State, No. 13 Ohio State and No. 20 Wisconsin.
Also, four Big Ten individuals are being discussed as serious national player of the year candidates: Michigan point guard Trey Burke, Indiana guard Victor Oladipo, Indiana center Cody Zeller and Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas.
No wonder BTN just posted its highest one-month ratings since the network went on the air in 2007.
“The Big Ten is so crazy,” Illinois guard Brandon Paul said. “It’s tough anywhere you go.”
The Illini (17-8, 4-7) saved their NCAA tournament hopes by first upsetting No. 1 Indiana 74-72, scoring on an inbounds pass with ninth-tenths of a second left, and then toppling No. 18 Minnesota on the road 57-53 despite going without a field goal the first 9Ĺ minutes.
“We got two big wins,” first-year coach John Groce said, “but the most important thing was how we played.
“We played the right way. We played with some togetherness and toughness. We’re starting to trust our system, and I was really proud of the fight. We had to come from double-digit deficits in both games.”
Indiana (21-3, 9-2) hung on to the No. 1 ranking Monday because it shook off the Illinois loss to drill No. 10 Ohio State 81-68 on the road with three 20-point scorers — Oladipo 26, Zeller 24 and Christian Watford 20.
“Instead of carrying our disappointment into a ‘woe is me’ mentality,” IU coach Tom Crean said, “it triggered in us how to get better. There was a different level of sense of urgency.”
Michigan and Ohio State went to overtime before the Wolverines won 76-74. Tim Hardaway Jr. made five straight 3-pointers in the second half.
But the game that still had the league buzzing Monday was Wisconsin’s 65-62 overtime win Saturday over Michigan.
Hardaway hit a 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds left for a 60-57 lead. But Wisconsin guard Ben Brust sank a 45-footer at the buzzer to force overtime, then hit a 3 late in overtime for the clinching points.
“Ben Brust thinks he can make a shot even when he is outside the building,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said.
The finish was so remarkable that Indiana’s Crean was still talking about it Monday.
“Tim Hardaway makes a big-time play with 2.4 seconds to go,” Crean said. “Then Ben Brust takes a shot from half-court that is challenged, but he shoots it like it’s going to go in. He doesn’t shoot a ‘hope’ shot. He doesn’t shoot a ‘wish’ shot. He shoots a jump shot.
“The execution that goes on in this league is really, really strong. You don’t see a lot of teams who aren’t well-prepared on how to win a game.”
By the way, that Wisconsin overtime thriller over Michigan? It came three days after the Badgers needed two overtimes to beat Iowa.
Catch your breath quickly.
The mayhem resumes Tuesday night when No. 4 Michigan plays at No. 8 Michigan State — the first time these rivals have met when both were in the Top 10.
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