With less than seven minutes to go in a defensive battle between No. 3 Ohio State and No. 11 Michigan State last Saturday at Value City Arena in Columbus, the Buckeyes finally appeared to be crawling out of a gamelong hole. They hadn't lost at home since sophomore forward Jared Sullinger began wearing an Ohio State uniform, and the 6' 9", 265-pound All-America wasn't about to let the streak die now. Frustrated all night by Michigan State's smothering defense in the paint, Sullinger moved out to the right side, stepped back and buried a 15-foot jumper to narrow the margin to 44--40. The red-and-gray-clad crowd of 18,800 roared its approval, sensing a favorable momentum shift. The Buckeyes' 39-game home winning streak was still salvageable. Separation in the conference standings was still possible.
This is an article from the Feb. 20, 2012 issue
But that was the last field goal Ohio State would make for the next five minutes. As the Buckeyes clanged one shot after another, the crowd grew quiet. Michigan State, which had outrun, outshot and outrebounded the Buckeyes all night, pulled away to win 58--48 and move into a tie with Ohio State for first place. "The way we defended, it was a great team effort," said Spartans senior forward Draymond Green.
In a season that was supposed to be dominated by stars—recall the preseason hyperventilating about the return of lottery locks such as Sullinger, Baylor's Perry Jones III and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and the return to predictable dominance that was supposed to follow—teamwork has ruled. No squad is a better example of that teamwork than No. 2 Syracuse (page 40), which has no players among the top 17 in scoring in the Big East. And no conference has been better at that than the Big Ten, a league that emphasizes execution, efficiency, toughness, physicality and hard-nosed half-court D. How many other places will you hear players talk about the need to avoid selfishness on defense?
"We do get a little selfish sometimes on the defensive end," said Sullinger last week. "When somebody's player gets hot, [that defender doesn't] help as much and so another player gets hot. We have to understand that if you stop the whole team as a team, we'll make that step from a good team to a great team."
By almost any measure—rankings; strength of schedule; RPI; possible NCAA tournament bids (analyst Jerry Palm predicts nine); the advanced metrics of stats guru Ken Pomeroy, who has four Big Ten teams in his top 11, including Ohio State at No. 1—the Big Ten is the best conference in the land. Every team in the bottom half of the standings has beaten at least one team in the top half. Eight teams are within four games of first place. "The competitiveness of the teams one through 12 is as strong as I can remember," says Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, who's in his 11th season as the Badgers' coach.
Pomeroy's three most efficient defensive teams in the country are from the Big Ten: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Even with Saturday night's uncharacteristically sloppy game (15 turnovers), the Buckeyes are turning the ball over only 11.6 times a game. Impressive as it is, that number puts them just fifth in the Big Ten. That's one reason winning in the conference is so difficult, says Illinois coach Bruce Weber: "You don't get those easy transition baskets. When you have the defensive emphasis, when you have systems where they take care of the basketball and they're not coming down and throwing up quick shots and stuff like that, it all adds up to making it difficult to win and to be consistent. To win a championship, you really have to earn it."
There are other reasons this conference's gantlet is like no other. Every team plays a different style. "Some teams run, some teams walk it up," says first-year Penn State coach Patrick Chambers. "Bo Ryan makes it a possession game. Northwestern plays a Princeton style. You really see every possible style of play within 12 teams."
And then there's the fan base. With the exception of private Northwestern, which regularly packs its 8,117-seat Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Big Ten features big public universities, big arenas and big crowds. With 2.48 million spectators last year, the conference led the country in attendance for the 35th straight season.
Conference student sections—which boast colorful names like the Orange Krush (Illinois), the Izzone (Michigan State), the Paint Crew (Purdue) as well as the Grateful Red (Wisconsin)—typically number in the thousands. (Indiana's Crimson Guard, at 7,600 strong, would burst the capacity of Stanford's 7,233-seat Maples Pavilion.) Chambers credits Ohio State's 2,000-member Buckeye Nuthouse—located directly behind the benches—for his distressed vocal cords, if not, entirely, for his team's 78--54 loss in Columbus on Jan. 25. "In that environment, you can't think straight," he says. "That's why my voice is cracked. It's not because I'm yelling at my team, it's because on the road they can't hear me."
The Big Ten road may be unmatched in its hostility, but as Ohio State learned last Saturday, no home team is safe. Consider: After losing its best player, forward Trevor Mbakwe, to a tear of his right ACL in late November, Minnesota got off to an 0--4 conference start, then went into Indiana's Assembly Hall and beat the No. 7 Hoosiers 77--74 on Jan. 12. Wisconsin, which is rumored to be constitutionally bound to never lose at home, has lost three conference games at the Kohl Center this season. One of the teams that surprised the Badgers at Kohl was Iowa, which hasn't had a winning season since 2006--07. The Hawkeyes have shown signs of life under second-year coach Fran McCaffery, who stirred memories of Bob Knight when he slammed a chair to the court while yelling at his players in the midst of a 95--61 blowout loss to Michigan State on Jan. 10. His team responded, beating then 13th-ranked Michigan 75--59 at home four days later.
Penn State (11--15, 3--10), which shares the league cellar with Nebraska (11--13, 3--10), still doesn't have a road win, but in State College the Nittany Lions beat then No. 25 Illinois by two and Purdue by 20. "And that's your bottom of the league," says Weber, whose young and inconsistent Illinois squad is the only team to beat both Ohio State and Michigan State but is just 5--7 in the conference. "I think a lot of stuff can still happen, with all the craziness."
No team has experienced more craziness than reemergent Indiana, which has evolved from overlooked to underdog to big dog, all in a few weeks. How many teams get to see their own fans rush the court, as Indiana fans did after the then unranked Hoosiers knocked off No. 1 Kentucky on Dec. 10, and see an opponent's fans rush the court, as Nebraska fans did after the Huskers beat the then 11th-ranked Hoosiers 70--69 on Jan. 18, in the same season? "The last few years when people beat us, there was no chance they were going to storm the floor," says junior guard Jordan Hulls, who won just seven conference games in his first two years at Indiana. "But that just shows you how much the program has turned around."
For all the future promise of teams like Indiana, the two Big Ten teams with the best chance to go deep in the NCAA tournament next month are the two that clashed in Columbus on Saturday night. Even after Ohio State's out-of-sync performance against his team, Izzo still considers the Buckeyes (21--4, 9--3), who fell to No. 6 in the AP poll, the best in the conference. "I really like their team," he says, "because they got guys that play their roles at each position."
The Buckeyes, who start four sophomores and a senior, don't have the experience or perimeter firepower of the squad that lost to Kentucky in last year's Sweet 16. But they are more athletic and better on defense. Sullinger, last year's national freshman of the year, still dominates the post with a wide body, long arms and a great understanding of angles. But he has expanded his game to include the occasional three-point shot. (He's made 10 of 22 this season.) "He's a better basketball player than he was last year, and he's more efficient than he was last year," says Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "And quite honestly I think he's more comfortable in his role."
Matta's two other key players are senior guard William Buford, who contributes 15.0 points and 4.7 rebounds a game, and sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, a ball hawk who entered Saturday's game forcing turnovers on an astonishing 7.46% of opponent's possessions, according to the "turnometer" analysis of SI.com's Luke Winn. "Sullinger is tremendous, but they also have a great game plan, and he's always had really good players around him," says Michigan coach John Beilein. "That's what really makes Ohio State go. If he was there by himself and they didn't have a plan for him, he'd be a very good player—he'd still play in the NBA—but Ohio State wouldn't have that success."
Togetherness is also behind the success of Michigan State. The Spartans (20--5, 9--3), now ranked No. 7, have already won more games than last year's disappointing squad, which started the season ranked No. 2 but couldn't overcome injuries and poor chemistry before losing in the first round of the NCAAs. This year's Spartans are holding teams to 37.5% shooting, the best in Izzo's 17-year tenure, and are leading the Big Ten in rebounding margin (+10.5). As a veteran of six Final Fours, Izzo knows better than anyone what it takes to get back there, but he isn't ready to anoint this team as that kind of group ... yet. "This isn't one of my most talented teams, but if you look at chemistry, tenacity, our rebounding—our defense may be more solid than any team I've had," he says.
What gives this team its dazzling possibility is the leadership of Green, a 6'7" do-everything forward whom Izzo has called "the perfect Spartan," "my voice" and "the smartest basketball player I've ever had." Green is both the team's best player—he leads the team in scoring (15.0) rebounding (10.5), steals (1.4) and blocks (1.0) and is second in assists (3.5)—and its glue-guy captain. His assignments off the court, says Izzo, include "hotel, plane and bus," meaning he's the one who makes sure his teammates are properly focused for practice and games. He's the one who convinced Izzo to lighten up at practice last Friday to save players' legs, a strategy that Izzo said was critical in the win at Ohio State. And Green was the one, at halftime in Columbus, who got into the face of sophomore point guard Keith Appling, who had already committed three turnovers, and told him, in effect, to quit dribbling so much. "Draymond's great at that stuff," says Izzo. "He's not afraid of his own voice."
Nor is he afraid of bold words. After spraining his left knee against Illinois on Jan. 31, Green said only "death" would keep him from playing in a home game against rival Michigan. On Feb. 5 he made good on his guarantee of a win, scoring 14 points and grabbing 16 rebounds—equaling Michigan's total—in a 64--54 victory. "I love Michigan State," he says. "I want to do everything I can for this school."
In his four years in East Lansing, he has played tight end in a Green-White football scrimmage; sold the school to, among others, women's golf recruits; and seen all but a handful of Spartans sports teams in action. Those he hasn't—wrestling, gymnastics and ice hockey—he has scheduled into his calendar before he graduates this spring with a degree in communications.
In the meantime Green, who went to Final Fours in his first two seasons, wants to get Sparty back to the season's final weekend. "Last season was a tragedy," he says. "I don't want that to be my legacy when I leave here. They say you're only as good as your last game."
If the Spartans can continue to be as good as they were against Ohio State, their last game may be a long way off.