Be Careful What You Wish For

By Jeff Rapp, April 1st, 2010

They call it the Sweet 16 but the experience of participating in regional action of the 2010 NCAA Tournament left a bitter taste in the mouth of one Big Ten combatant – Ohio State – and the reason, in a sense, was the success of another league member.

The Buckeyes won a share of the Big Ten regular-season in part because Michigan State took advantage of a late-season ACL injury to star Purdue forward Robbie Hummel and won a huge contest at Mackey Arena. Other than that, the Ohio State players didn’t have much reason to care about MSU’s fortunes.

OSU won the only matchup between the schools in a 74-67 win in East Lansing on Feb. 21. Their paths did not cross during the Big Ten Tournament as the third-seeded Spartans were bounced from quarterfinal action in a loss to Minnesota while the top-seeded Buckeyes won the prize.

But in St. Louis March 26-28, after Michigan State squeaked by New Mexico State and Maryland in the first two rounds and OSU bester Cal-Santa Barbara and Georgia Tech, it was Sparty who stole the show.

The Buckeyes, who earned the 2-seed in the Midwest Region, were sent home after a 76-73 loss to Tennessee in the first regionals semifinal at the Edward Jones Dome. Fifth-seeded Michigan State slid by Northern Iowa in the second contest on Friday night and the Spartans then nipped UT on Sunday to return to the Final Four.

It had to be a bitter pill to swallow for the Buckeyes, who had every reason to claim their superiority over MSU until the near-miss against Tennessee.

Interestingly, the OSU players seemed genuinely happy to hear the weekend prior that the Spartans had advanced. In fact, this reporter told several of them in the Bradley Center locker room in Milwaukee. Moments after Ohio State took down Georgia Tech, Michigan State eked by Maryland 85-83 on a lat-second three-pointer in Spokane, Wash.

“Who hit the shot?” asked OSU’s Evan Turner. “Korie Lucious? That’s great for them. That’s great for the Big Ten. What did Wisconsin and Purdue do?”

Wisconsin lost that same day to Cornell and Purdue, at the time, was entrenched in battle with Texas A&M. So at the moment the Buckeyes knew that at least Michigan State would join them in the Sweet 16.

“That’s great,” Turner said. “If they take care of business maybe we’ll see them again. Don’t get me wrong, though. We still want to beat them. I’m sure they’re nice guys, but … ”

Buckeye forward David Lighty also was glad to hear about the Lucious heroics.

“Whoa. That’s crazy,” he said. “They’re representing the Big Ten, so I’m excited for them.”

“Obviously you want to root for the Big Ten and Michigan State is a good basketball team,” added OSU guard Jon Diebler. “They’ve got one of the better coaches in the county in Coach (Tom) Izzo and he does a great job of getting his players ready to play. A lot of people were questioning, I think, whether they were playing their best basketball, but they’ve been there.

“They made it to the championship game a year ago, they’ve got most of their team back and you can’t beat experience. It really helps at this time of year, and I think their players understand what it takes to win.”

Will Buford also was all for seeing the Spartans advance, no knowing, of course, they would steal OSU’s thunder in St. Louis.

“That’s good if they can come out,” said the Ohio State sophomore. “It shows what the Big Ten is capable of. I just wish them good luck, but we’ve got to worry about our game.”

Diebler was asked if Michigan State’s presence in the bracket added to the excitement.

“Absolutely. I think it’s exciting because of how we played each other. We only played each other once this year but I’m sure they’d like to play us again.”

McCaffrey Era Begins In Iowa City

Iowa, of course, was nowhere near the NCAA Tournament and the program’s bottom-feeder status caused the higher-ups to let go of coach Todd Lickliter.

The likable Lickliter left a successful stint at Butler three years ago to take the job but was just 38-57 at Iowa including a mark of 15-39 in Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes won just 10 games this season and played a very deliberate, yawn-inducing style.

That prompted newly named coach Fran McCaffrey to blare a different tune when he was introduced at a press conference on March 28.

“Our players are going to have fun, they’re going to enjoy what they do on the floor,” said McCaffery, who brought Siena back into prominence. “This place is going to be rocking again.”

McCaffrey has some work to do. Iowa not only was bad last season, the team seemed to lose its homecourt advantage and also was pummeled by rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota. Attendance slumped to just 9,550 per home game.

Iowa fans have been hearkening back to the days of Dr. Tom Davis for a while now, especially as Steve Alford and Lickliter struggled to add to the program’s winning tradition. Davis coached in Iowa City for 11 years and advanced the Hawkeyes to nine NCAA Tournament appearances in that time with a pressing, uptempo style.

Big Ten fans may already know McCaffrey considering Siena knocked off Ohio State in last year’s NCAA tourney and battled Purdue to the wire in the first round this March.

’Backing Their Reputation

Like every football team in the Big Ten, Penn State enters the spring practice session looking to fill openings and begin to answer offseason questions. However, what is unusual is that Linebacker U. goes into the offseason with no sureties at that sacred position.

Along with classic names such as Matt Millen and Jack Ham, Penn State has produced lots of very productive LBs in recent years. In fact, five of the top 12 single-season tackle performances at Penn State have occurred over the past half-dozen seasons. They are as follows: Dan Connor, No. 2 all-time with 145 tackles in 2007; Sean Lee (fifth, 138, 2007); Paul Posluszny (10th, 116, both 2005 and 2006); and Josh Hull (10th, 116, 2009).

Heading into this season, though, it’s hard to know who is capable of logging a 100-tackle season. In 2009, Lee, Hull and Navorro Bowman, who was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten performer, had almost exactly a third of Penn State’s tackles (33.7 percent) and tackles for a loss (34.8 percent).

Not surprisingly, though, the Nittany Lions have some capable replacement candidates, four to be exact.

The most experienced is senior Bani Gbadyu (6-1, 231 pounds). He started five games last season as Lee nursed injuries and ranked sixth on the team in tackles with 37.

Meanwhile, redshirt senior Nathan Stupar (6-1, 236) had a pair of starts and logged 31 stops. Most likely to join them in the starting lineup this fall is senior Chris Colasanti (6-2, 238), an Austin Spitler type who could make a big jump.

And the Lions also have another ’backer with major potential to breakout in redshirt sophomore Michael Mauti (6-2, 231), who missed last season after suffering a torn ACL in preseason practice in August. Mauti was well on his way to significant time before the injury. He played in every game as a freshman in 2008 and had 26 tackles.

Mauti, though, is still rehabbing and may have to ease his way into a role.

Big Ten Notes

* With Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State making it through the first weekend, the Big Ten had more teams advance to this year’s Sweet 16 than any other conference. In fact, only the Big 12, Big East and SEC had two member schools make it that far.

The other conferences represented in the Sweet 16 were the Missouri Valley, Horizon League, Ivy League, Atlantic 10, ACC, Pac-10 and West Coast.

* Few pundits seemed to believe the Big Ten was as good as any conference this season even after the league finally won the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Instead, the plaudits tended to land on the Big East and Big 12.

But the NCAA Tournament showed the Big Ten deserved to be in the discussion.

“We’ve got some pretty good teams,” Turner said. “For one, I think a lot of teams in the Big Ten have been together for a while. We preach defense. Every single game in the Big Ten, pretty much, is close. Playing against a Big Ten and then an out-of-conference team you feel like there is not as much defensive pressure on you. You’re kind of up a little bit as far as the mental part.”

* Izzo continues his mastery of the NCAA format. He has led the Spartans to six Final Fours and a like number of Big Ten championships since he took over at Michigan State for mentor Jud Heathcote in 1995.

MSU made it all the way to the title game last year. The school last won the national championship in 2000 with Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and company. Ohio State actually shared the regular-season Big Ten crown with MSU that year.

* One men’s basketball coaching change already has occurred in the league and another is being rumored.

Minnesota boss Tubby Smith continues to be linked to the opening at Oregon and some reports claim he is the top candidate for the job. However, Smith is denying reports he has been offered the head coaching or even had contact with the school.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Monday that Oregon was getting ready to offer Smith a contract worth $2 million per year. The Press also is reporting that Minnesota is working on an extension with Smith, who has three years remaining on his current contract. Smith is making $1.8 million annually.

* Manny Harris didn’t wait too long after Michigan’s season ended with Turner’s 37-foot shot in the Big Ten Tournament to decide he is jumping to the NBA.

The 6-2 junior guard held a press conference to announce his decision and become one of the first underclassmen to gain early entry into the draft. Harris does not yet have an agent but plans to hire one soon. He leaves UM after leading the Wolverines in scoring the last three seasons.

“After long discussions with the U-M staff and my family and friends, I have decided to pursue my dream of professional basketball and leave U-M early for the NBA,” said Harris. “It is important for me to thank the University of Michigan, Coach (John) Beilein and his staff, my teammates, my professors, as well as all those in the athletic department who have helped me over the last three years. My growth as a person and player wouldn’t have been possible without them.”

“Manny believes it is his time to move on to the NBA and we fully support him,” Beilein said. “It was a tough decision for him and we are prepared to assist him in every way we can as he begins this new chapter in his life. Manny has assured us he plans on successfully finishing this semester, which would put him in a position to graduate from Michigan with just one more academic year.”

Draft Express has Harris projected as a late second round pick but has him going undrafted.

* Ohio State played three of the Final Four teams during the regular season, tangling with Butler, West Virginia and Michigan State. All three contests were on the road.

The Buckeyes lost 74-66 at Butler on Dec. 12 without Turner, who suffered a broken back in OSU’s previous game. Ohio State lost 71-65 at WVU on Jan. 23. The win at Michigan State put the Buckeyes back in the Big Ten race.