Michigan State — Final Four-bound? Illinois, Northwestern aren’t about to argue
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It’s the Bucket List — 10 observations on the college basketball season:
1. Nine field goals. That’s how many Northwestern (three) and Illinois (six) combined for in the second halves of their Saturday and Tuesday games, respectively, against Big Ten big boy Michigan State. You’re not beating the last-place intramural squad at a pharmaceutical college with nine field goals over a total of 40 minutes, let alone the No. 2-ranked Spartans.
It was a tale of two different beatdowns, in a sense. The Wildcats got off to a stunning 27-point first-half lead at Allstate Arena only to go 14:24 of the second half in between field goals, both of them, coincidentally, Dererk Pardon dunks. The Illini trailed by three at the half against a revved-up Spartans team on Senior Night in East Lansing, then went 6:11 into the second half without making a basket.
Really, though, the Spartans (27-3 overall, 15-2 Big Ten) mirrored themselves by displaying a mix of NBA lottery talent (Jaren Jackson Jr., Miles Bridges), point guard leadership (Cassius Winston) and quality role players — not to mention insanely good defense — that the Wildcats (15-14, 6-10) and the Illini (13-16, 3-13) are light years from matching.
“They’ve got pros,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins called MSU “the most talented team in the country.”
I thought Michigan State was Final Four-bound in both 2014 and 2016, but those teams — especially the Denzel Valentine-led ’16 crew, which went down in the first round of the NCAAs — failed to get it done. Maybe it’s an even-year thing, but the Spartans look Final Four-bound again.
“It’s one of those years,” coach Tom Izzo said after a banner was raised celebrating the school’s first regular-season league title since 2012. “I’m not satisfied with that [banner].”
Meanwhile, Izzo chases his second national title against the sickening backdrop of scandal and cluelessness at the school where Larry Nassar roamed free despite his long history of alleged sexual abuse as a USA Gymnastics and MSU doctor. Also, allegations of sexual assaults and cover-ups ooze around the football and men’s basketball programs. As the page turns to the grand excitement of March, we mustn’t forget to remember this.
2. The Spartans have a ton of frontcourt talent. If they’re susceptible to any type of team in March, it could be one that’s rich in athletic guards — think Villanova, for example. Underwood agrees.
“But they don’t have many weaknesses,” he added, “and I think they’re really capable of winning the whole thing.”
3. Speaking of Underwood, the first-year Illini coach — whose Stephen F. Austin teams won the Southland Conference back-to-back-to-back — was compelling in his reaction to the Spartans’ celebration.
“I want [the Illini] to be able to do that,” he said. “I want them to play for being able to kiss the floor in front of 15,000. That’s when you’re invested in the program, and that’s the growth I’m looking for.
“When I was at Stephen F. Austin, guys were so invested that they couldn’t start the game because of the tears and the emotion. And I didn’t have a dry eye. … When you’re that invested and committed, then you win.”
4. A bit lost in the shadows of his star teammates is Michigan State sophomore Nick Ward, a lefty post man whose production — 13.1 points and 7.6 rebounds in just 19.7 minutes per game — is worthy of a double-take. Ward and Purdue man-mountain Isaac Haas (14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 23.2 minutes) make so much out of their playing time, they’re as important as anyone on their respective teams.
5. Purdue has lost three of four heading into Thursday’s game at Illinois, but this is still no worse than the second-best team Matt Painter has had in his 13 seasons in charge of the Boilermakers. And with its high-percentage shooting from inside and outside the arc, along with the rim protection provided by the 7-2 Haas and 7-2 Matt Haarms, this could yet prove to be Painter’s best team. In a down year for the league depth-wise, it’s not a stretch to say the Big Ten could put two teams through to the Final Four in San Antonio.
6. Oklahoma’s six-game losing streak has been amazing. The Sooners, once a top-five team, now are desperately clinging to the NCAA Tournament bubble. They remind me of the much-hyped Ben Simmons-led LSU squad that fell apart and missed the tourney two years ago.
Unlike many others, though, I’m not moving off freshman point guard Trae Young as the national player of the year. As long as he’s leading the nation in both points (28.3) and assists (9.2) per game, he’s deserving — and then some.
7. Best twosome in college basketball: Villanova’s Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Grayson Allen, Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier, or North Carolina’s Joel Berry II and Luke Maye? Argue amongst yourselves.
8. My All-American team at this precise moment: Young, Brunson, Bagley, Ayton and Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett. Practically a coin flip on Bluiett vs. Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop for the fifth spot.
9. A week ago, I wrote this: “Give me Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Penn State’s Tony Carr, Nebraska’s James Palmer and Diop and get the heck out of our way.” But is that the all-Big Ten squad?
Much like Oklahoma’s Young is Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ — clearly one of the league’s top players, and without a doubt it’s best post player, but on an also-ran team. Is Happ so good that he simply can’t be left out of the Big Ten’s top five? And if he’s in, who’s out? Again, argue amongst yourselves.
10. Never not a great time: the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis. Many around the college hoops world will tell you “Arch Madness” is as top-notch a conference tourney environment as there is. I’d never presume to tell you that you should go there late next week and watch the Valley’s best team, Loyola, try to win its way into the Big Dance for the first time in 33 years. I’m just saying to not do it would be kind of nuts.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.