In the waning second-and-a-half before the merciful end late Tuesday, two related thoughts entered Drew Crawford’s mind. One was that Purdue’s Ronnie Johnson was open for a possible game-tying attempt from long range. The second was a bit more personal for Northwestern’s fifth-year senior guard: Get your ass out to the three-point line, Crawford reflexively told himself.
He ran as fast as he could and stretched a right arm out as far as he could. Johnson’s heave collided with Crawford's right hand, and the shot went directly to the Welsh-Ryan Arena floor. Every muscle in Crawford’s body went taut as he walked toward center court and unleashed a primal yawp to punctuate the game-sealing block.
The Wildcats had won their third game in four outings. It was a double-overtime game in which both sides barely reached 60 points and in which Northwestern didn't lead at any point until the second extra session. In the Big Ten standings, it meant Northwestern for the moment sat ahead of Ohio State, Indiana and Illinois. And that meant, most basically, that one of the nation’s best conferences is likewise one of its weirdest.
“I just think you get into the grind when you get into Big Ten play, and there’s always a team that’s going to be out to get you,” Purdue guard Terone Johnson said. “You can’t relax on any night. That’s just something you have to know going into every game.”
So little has gone entirely as anticipated for nearly any Big Ten team. Maybe Iowa is the only unit whose performance and general well-being matches expectations. And maybe it's only verging on a state of emergency for Wisconsin, which was hailed as a national title contender only to lose two in a row that it had a chance to win in the final seconds.
Still, even Michigan State’s frontrunner status and inarguable Final Four potential has endured injuries that have made this Tom Izzo’s most challenging season. Ohio State has lost four in a row after winning 15 in a row. Michigan is 5-0 in league play after losing a preseason All-America. Borderline NCAA tournament contenders Minnesota and Purdue are in the top half of the standings. Indiana was flawed to begin with, but the Hoosiers are even more dizzyingly incomprehensible than imagined, beating Wisconsin one night, losing to Northwestern at home the next and then nearly upending Michigan State on the road after that.
To explain it, one might shrug and simply point to the RPI rankings that have the Big Ten as one of the two most onerous leagues in the nation. Lumps are bound to come. Or it may be that some teams settled on identities either by diligence or accident while others precariously entered conference play still figuring some things out, and the results reflect the uncertainty.
Michigan more or less expected Nik Stauskas to assume a spotlighted role with Mitch McGary limited. That has been the Wolverines’ DNA all along. But it was no shock that four non-conference losses piled up as McGary’s status remained undefined. Now, to coach John Beilein, it is perhaps no shock that his team found fluidity once it ruled McGary out for the year and the questions and apprehensions faded.
“I don’t know if there have been any adjustments other than there was consistency of who was at the center position,” Beilein said. “People have been in their roles now for over a month. It’s been five weeks since (McGary) played a game. Five weeks to get a rhythm -- who’s playing, where they’re playing and how they’re playing.”
Then there is Northwestern, which has moved forward from an 0-3 start in Big Ten play by bringing things to a near stand-still. For the season, the Wildcats rank 338th nationally in tempo with 62.6 possessions per game, per kenpom.com. That seemed within reason for a thin roster one year removed from a decade in the Princeton offense, no matter how much first-year coach Chris Collins infused his personality into things.
In the three games prior to the double-overtime win over Purdue, however, Northwestern went from slow to nearly inert. The Wildcats slogged to an average of 58 possessions across those games. As a corollary, wins against Illinois and Indiana represented two of the team’s top three defensive efficiency efforts of the year. The sheer nuttiness of the predicament was best summed up by Purdue coach Matt Painter late Tuesday night.
“They score more points, they struggle,” Painter said. “They score fewer points, they do a better job.”
Indeed, it all dovetailed Tuesday, when neither the Boilermakers nor Wildcats cracked 50 points in regulation and Crawford made a game-saving defensive play for another win and the weird sensation of having a better conference record than an Ohio State team that, not long ago, was ranked in the top five nationally.
“Coaching is your ability to be successful with the hand you’re dealt,” Collins said. “Sometimes you can be too stubborn. My personality is to run and shoot and score and get up and down. But that’s not going to be a formula that’s going to be good for this group. My job is to put our guys in a position to be successful with the guys that we’re playing with. I’m trying to put these guys in a position where we can win in this league, and we’ve kind of found a formula that works for us.” The same can’t be said, comprehensively, for others. So one of the nation’s best conferences becomes one of its most perplexing. Beads of sweat still lingered on Collins’ forehead as he made his postgame remarks late Tuesday, and then he walked to the back of a club room where a group including his wife, Kim, awaited. Kim latched on to her husband and swung him back and forth in a celebratory bear hug. As her grip loosened, the coach of a team delivering unexpected results in a bewildering league took a step back. And then Chris Collins just shook his head.