INDIANAPOLIS – Minnesota had to win at the Big Ten tournament in order to make the NCAA tournament. How much it had to win depended on your preferred bracket guru. As part of muffling the noise and pressure involved in all that, the Gophers figured taking them all would take the mystery out of things.
“If we win the conference tournament,” guard Austin Hollins said, “the rest takes care of itself.”
They took care of one step Thursday against Penn State, while the first day at Bankers Life Fieldhouse also took care of the state of Indiana's NCAA tournament hopes. A look back at the first round action:
Illinois 64, Indiana 54. The late-season mini-revival for Illinois continued, though that may spill into some post-traumatic stress disorder in the quarterfinals on Friday. Tracy Abrams set a new season-high with 25 points to boost the Illini to a fifth win in six games. But John Groce's team mostly can attribute that streak to defense, with Indiana shooting just 35.3 percent and becoming the fourth Illinois opponent in the last six games to post fewer than 60 points. That will be tested significantly against Michigan in the next round. When the teams last met March 4, the Wolverines shot 56.9 percent for the game and a preposterous 16-of-23 from three-point range. “I told them they can enjoy this one between now and the 45-second bus ride back to our hotel and then we have to start to turn our focus on to a very good Michigan ball club,” Groce said.
The Hoosiers, meanwhile, succumbed to problems that haven't been fixed all season. Erratic three-point shooting swung from 6-of-10 efficiency before halftime to 0-of-10 after it. And 16 turnovers led to 22 Illini points. The questions in the locker room revolved around getting motivated to play in the NIT, but there's no guarantee Indiana will even land there after a 17-15 season.
Ohio State 63, Purdue 61. The Buckeyes appear to be a team everyone is waiting to be dangerous again. But they were not perhaps the preferred version of dangerous all the way to the end Thursday, benefitting at the end from Purdue's lack of execution and then holding their breath as a last-second three-pointer threatened their tournament life.
Ultimately, Ohio State should get credit for getting the stops it needed, however it got them. First came Purdue botching a handoff with eight seconds left as it pursued a potentially game-tying score, with the Buckeyes pouncing on the loose ball for a turnover. Then it was Ohio State, up three, fouling and sending Purdue to the line with two seconds left. After a make, Ronnie Johnson's intentional miss deflected out of bounds with 1.2 seconds to go, giving Purdue a chance to win. But Terone Johnson's three-pointer was short, sending Ohio State into the quarterfinals against Nebraska. “As I told these guys walking out, it's good to see us win one of these ugly games,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. “We've been in this position, couldn't finish them out. We didn't play as well as we wanted to today and I give Purdue all the credit for that.”
Minnesota 63, Penn State 56. One part of what the Gophers needed to do to secure an NCAA tournament bid was clear: Beat the Nittany Lions, or else plan on a very uninteresting Selection Sunday. That part appeared to be under control, even with leading scorer Andre Hollins saddled with his fourth personal foul early in the second half. At that point, Minnesota led by eight and the lead eventually swelled to 14. And then, bit by bit, the crumbling began, thanks in large part to three missed free throws in the final minutes when Penn State made it a two-possession game. But the Nittany Lions made a very, very curious decision not to extend the game with a foul, down three with 44.4 seconds to go. They did harass Minnesota until the shot clock neared zero...but that's when Andre Hollins sized up a three-pointer from the wing and drained it for the dagger with 11.7 seconds to play. Thus the Gophers were on to Wisconsin in the quarterfinals, where a win indeed might secure the coveted NCAA invite. “Obviously it's an issue on everybody's minds,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I thought if we won tonight and things went our way, we could be in. That being said, we did come in here to win a Big Ten championship.”