This week’s Bucket List — 10 observations on the college basketball season:
1. Three years in a row during the mid-1990s, Purdue won the Big Ten regular-season championship outright. That stretch marked the high point in the outstanding career of longtime Boilermakers coach Gene Keady. It also was where Purdue ceased, quite frankly, to be a conference power. Since 1996: zero outright titles (and a single shared one, in the 2009-10 campaign).
As one of the better Boilermakers teams of the last two decades rolls toward the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State is trying to avoid flaming out of contention for a bid. The Spartans probably will right the ship enough to get to the Big Dance, but they’re also-rans in the league standings — and there’s nothing unusual about that. Since the 1999-2000 team won the program’s only national championship under Tom Izzo, guess how many outright league titles Sparty has claimed? Try one.
Indiana has won two outright titles in the last four years, but overall the Hoosiers have produced an equal measure of disappointment (see: this season) under Tom Crean. Michigan has receded since, three seasons ago, winning its only outright title of the 2000s. For the fourth straight campaign, Ohio State is buried in the middle of the pack.
Is it any wonder no Big Ten team since MSU in 2000 has cut down the nets at the Final Four?
There’s really only one program in the league that has regularly met, or exceeded, expectations since then: Wisconsin. Alone in first place heading into Thursday’s game at Nebraska, the Badgers are trying to win their fourth outright title of the 2000s while — amazingly — securing their 16th consecutive top-four finish.
The Big Ten’s top program: Wisconsin, and it isn’t even close. But the conference kids itself if it thinks it sets the standard on a national level.
2. If ever there were a clear distinction between “player of the year” and “most valuable player,” we’re seeing it in the Big Ten this season. Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan is tearing up the league, establishing himself beyond a doubt as its top player. Yet Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ is leading his first-place team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks in Big Ten play. If that doesn’t scream MVP, what the heck does?
3. Happ, Swanigan, Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson and Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss all are 16/1 picks for national player of the year, according to Bovada. In other words, none of them has a chance.
Above that foursome: Kansas’ Frank Mason III (5/2), Villanova’s Josh Hart (4/1), UCLA’s Lonzo Ball (6/1), Kentucky’s Malik Monk (7/1), North Carolina’s Justin Jackson (15/2) and Duke’s Luke Kennard (12/1). Realistically, it’s still a two-man race between Mason and Hart.
4. Speaking of UCLA’s Ball, have you become familiar with the freshman point guard’s family story? Younger brother LiAngelo is a high school senior bound for the Bruins, and youngest brother LaMelo is a sophomore who scored — are you sitting down? — 92 points in a varsity game earlier this week. Mercy.
5. Still trying to wrap my brain around how Kentucky allowed itself to be outrebounded 54-29 in a blowout loss to Florida last weekend. The Wildcats are monstrously talented, but at times they lack effort and toughness.
It has to be frustrating for coach John Calipari, though not as frustrating as his 2013-14 squad. That group entered the season ranked No. 1, goofed around for four months, entered the NCAA Tournament with double-digit losses and a sorry 8 seed — and made it all the way to the national title game. Go figure.
6. What a difference former Simeon star Ed Morrow makes for Nebraska. The Huskers were off to a 3-0 start in Big Ten play when the burly sophomore hurt his foot against Northwestern. Their season has imploded from there, the team tumbling into the bottom three of the league standings.
7. Which reminds me: Planet Purple to Scottie Lindsey … come in, Scottie Lindsey. Northwestern needs its best player back in the lineup in the worst way.
8. Saturday is must-win time for Illinois at home against Penn State. If John Groce can’t get his players to dig as deep as they did last time out in a victory at Northwestern, the Illini will lose — and there might not be anyone left in the coach’s corner.
9. Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene flat-out refuses to let his scoring average dip under the magic 30 mark. The 5-9 junior is at 30.7 per game after recent explosions — all in victories — for 50, 41 and 41.
10. Did you hear what happened to Saint Louis Wednesday night? After the Billikens lost at St. Bonaventure, they exited the arena to board the team bus and — poof! — it had disappeared. The driver? Forty miles away, arrested for DWI. If only late SLU coach Rick Majerus were alive to crack wise about it.
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