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So I figured out why they had to raise the floor three feet in order to put the basketball floor in the center of Ford Field . . .

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. . . because if they hadn’t, I would have been watching 10 floating heads bob around the court for two hours yesterday. This photo was taken from my seat for the Kansas-Davidson game. We were in the fourth row from the top of the section of temporary seats they installed around the court. The viewing angle was less than ideal, necessitating the raised floor.

I’d say this arrangement is probably OK for a Final Four, where nearly everyone in the building will be absolutely thrilled to be there. But it wasn’t the best setup for a regional final, where many fans were just local basketball fans and there were a substantial number of empty seats in the upper deck.

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America’s newfound hoops hero: Stephen Curry trying to free himself. The most remarkable shooter I’ve ever seen play in person. A quick-release jumpshot with beautiful rotation and arc. And a plethora of moves to get the shot off. He wasn’t quite as efficient as he had been in previous games–25 points on 25 FG attempts, 4-16 from 3-point range–but this was against one of the elite defenses in the country.

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At various points during the game, this ominous Death-Star-like object appeared above the court. Is the NCAA subconsciously admitting they’ve gone over to the dark side?

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Davidson fans going nuts. For a school with a student body of 1,700, I can’t believe how many fans they had there. Seemed like there were at least 5,000 of them.

Reportedly, many students left North Carolina at 3 a.m. Sunday morning, got to Detroit just in time to see the game, and then got back on the bus to go home. That’s commitment, baby.

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These were either die-hard Davidson fans or two people trying to get picked for a Wendy’s commercial.

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The last shot that went awry for the Wildcats (the ball is up there somewhere against the background of the crowd), denying them the the eternal glory that would have come with crashing the Final Four in a year otherwise dominated by the major powers.

(I happened to notice today that the four #1 seeds were ranked 1-4 in both preseason polls. As improbable as all four seeds getting to the Final Four is, I’d say that the four top-ranked teams from five months ago all getting there is an even more unlikely scenario.)

It was a catch-22 for the Wildcats: run Curry off screens to try to free him, but risk him never touching the ball, or put the ball in his hands (as they did) and risk a double-team (as Kansas did). In the end, they got one fairly clean look at a 3-pointer to beat one of the top teams in the country. That’s about all you can ask for.

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The final score. For all the (deserved) attention for Curry, I was actually more impressed with Davidson’s defense. They seemed to have a real knack for grabbing steals and loose balls. They forced Kansas to turn it over 14 times in 63 possessions (22.2%) and managed to get 9 offensive rebounds in 30 opportunities (30.0%) against the larger Jayhawks. And they didn’t let the more athletic perimeter players for Kansas beat them to the hoop too often

They’ll lose senior point guard Jason Richards, who showed a remarkable ability to get to the hoop before Kansas figured out they could lay off him because he couldn’t shoot, but this could still be a very good team next year that won’t sneak up on anyone.

It would’ve been great to see MSU play at Ford Field, but going to this game was a thoroughly memorable experience. And we can always dream about seeing our Spartans play in a Final Four less than two hours from East Lansing next year, right? (See how quickly I’ve gone into offseason optimism mode?)

As for the other game yesterday, I was en route to Detroit during most of it, but the highlights I’ve seen and the box score would indicate that Memphis’ dominant performance against the Spartans was no fluke. An 18-point win against a pretty talented Texas team. Rose and Douglas-Roberts combined for 46 points on just 22 FG attempts (21-25 at the line).

Certainly, we want MSU to be able to compete toe-to-toe with any opponent in the country. But no one should think that MSU lost to some decent team from a lower-tier conference. They lost to a team that has the potential to dominate any team in the country when they’re playing to their full potential.

Postscript: I was going to do a slide show like this for the Big Ten Tournament, which would have involved several extremely humorous jokes playing off the fact that Bo Ryan looks like the Badgers’ mascot.  But I didn’t have the emotional ability to relive the tournament when we got back from Indianapolis.  Maybe next year . . .

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What’s say, we talk about some college basketball teams not hailing from East Lansing today . . .

Big Ten Roundup

  • Tony Bennett to Bloomington? That’d be a fine move for Indiana based on what I know about Bennett. But, from a Spartan perspective, I’d rather see them go with a more up-tempo guy like Bruce Pearl. Playing against deliberate, disciplined teams in Big Ten play may build character, but I could go for a little variety. Washington state ranks 335th out of 341 Division 1 teams in average possessions per 40 minutes this year.
  • UMHoops has a review of the Michigan season composed by a guest blogger. Said blogger notes that Beilein clearly made the decision to implement his own system from the get-go, even without the personnel to make it work well this year. I’d say that was the correct decision. Cost them some bad losses this year, but may speed up a return to contention over the next couple years as the returning players will be able to mesh with the recruits Beilein brings in.
  • Badgercentric reviews all the things that went wrong for Wisconsin in their loss to Davidson last night. As I watched the game, I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “I know the Wisconsin Badgers. The Wisconsin Badgers are a friend of mine.* And this team is not the Wisconsin Badgers.” (*Well, an acquaintance, at least.) For once, a Wisconsin opponent seemed like the more efficient and composed team on the floor. The biggest oddity to me was that Ryan never got the team to pound the ball down low to take advantage of the size mismatches Wisconsin had.
  • Thus ends the Big Ten’s existence in 2007-08 NCAA men’s basketball play. (Note: Forgot about the Buckeyes in NIT play.)  Two teams in the sweet sixteen was a good showing given that the Big Ten only got 4 teams in the tournament this year, vs. the 5-6 teams that’ve participated in most recent seasons. And there’s every reason to think the conference is on the upswing. With the exceptions of IU and maybe Ohio State, there’s reason to think every other team in the league should be at least as good as they were this season, if not better. (Wisconsin loses Butch and Flowers, but has a permanent exemption from ever having their future prospects discounted due to the graduation of one or two key players.)

An Evening at Ford Field

I’ll be headed to Detroit tomorrow to take in the Midwest regional final between Kansas and Davidson. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been to a Final Four (2001 in Minneapolis) and opening round games (2006 at the Palace), but never to a regional final.

Regional finals often seem to produce the best pure basketball games in tournament play (see, for example, MSU-Iowa State in 2000 and MSU-Kentucky in 2005). You’ve reduced the field to eight quality teams. The teams are in a rhythm having already played three tournament games, but haven’t yet faced the hype machine that kicks into action between the second and third tournament weekends. And the enduring glory of a trip to the Final Four is on the line.

I’ll be donning a red t-shirt tomorrow and appointing myself an honorary Wildcat for the day (if LeBron can do it, so can I, right?). I thought, therefore, I should do a quick scouting report on Davidson.

Having won three NCAA games as a #10 seed, Davidson has been designated as this year’s Cinderella. But both the world’s leading expert on mid-majors and the Wildcats’ tempo-free statistics say this is simply a very good basketball team. Witness:

  • 29-6 overall record
  • A perfect 20-0 record in Southern Conference play
  • Single-digit nonconference losses against UNC and Duke
  • A 25-game winning streak
  • A rank of #20 in the kenpom ratings
  • Ranks of #15 and #37 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency

The highlight of their tempo-free statistical profile is in the area of turnover percentage. They give it up on only 16.9% of possessions while forcing their opponents to do so on 24.0% of trips down the floor. That’s an extra five shots per game in a 70-possession game.

They makes those extra shots count with an effective FG% of 54.1%. Sophomore Stephen Curry has, of course, become a national phenomenon by scoring 103 points on just 65 FG attempts in three tournament games. Curry has averaged 25.9 points/game this season, coming into tournament play sporting shooting percentages of .546/.468/.898 (2pt/3pt/FT). Those are nearly unbelievable numbers for a guy who ranks 12th in the nation in the percentage of his team’s shots he takes while he’s on the floor.

What struck me in watching Curry last night is how he seems to glide through picks, rather than sprinting through them the way Neitzel does. It’s almost as if he’s lulling the defense into a sense of complacency before he launches his quick-release, picture-perfect jumpshot.

Complementing Curry to form a lethal backcourt is senior point guard Jason Richards, who averages 12.9 points and 8.1 assists per game. He’s put up 27 assists vs. just 4 turnovers in the three tournament games and ranks 10th in the nation in assist rate at 38.1% (assists divided by made field goals).

Also noteworthy: The Wildcats rebound very well on the defensive end for a team without a starting player taller than 6’8″ or bigger than 220 pounds. They hold their opponents to an offensive rebounding % of 29.0%.

In spite of all of this, Kenpom predicts a 79-67 win by the statistically-dominant Jayhawks (example: 14.5 percentage-point spread between offensive and defensive 2-point shooting percentages). Let’s hope Davidson can squeeze that margin a bit and provide a little more March magic to help distract us from last night’s Spartan collapse . . .

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. . . when your team goes on a 17-0 run and the needle on the odds-of-winning-the-game meter barely budges from zero.

The stats for the full game don’t have a lot of meaning in a game like this one, so I’m not going to a do a full breakdown. It’s how the game started that put this one out of reach almost from the start. Nearly everything that could have gone wrong for MSU did go wrong in the first half:

  • Memphis hit 4 of their first 6 three-pointers to pull MSU out of their attempts to play a combination of zone defense and sagging man-to-man. Memphis didn’t hit another 3-pointer the entire game, but it didn’t matter at that point.
  • Memphis pulled down 8 of their first 10 offensive rebounding opportunities. They made MSU look completely overmatched physically, which is a tall task.
  • Lucas made several bad decisions in pushing the ball in transition that led to easy baskets going the other way for Memphis.
  • Even when MSU forced difficult shots, Memphis hit them. Rose and Douglas-Roberts both made a series of spectacular mid-range shots in the first half and combined to shoot 16-23 on 2-point attempts for the game. The dribble-drive offense is fairly unstoppable when players are hitting shots consistently even when they’re not getting all the way to the basket.

It’s disappointing how easily MSU seem to fold in the first half, but the way Memphis came out scoring the basketball, I really think there was no way the Spartans were going to keep up. Give the MSU players credit for fighting back to within shouting distance in the second half, but a lot of that, quite frankly, was Memphis easing off the gas pedal.

Other thoughts:

  • Joey Dorsey sure is a class act, huh? His taunts of Neitzel ensure the Tigers are now the villain I will be rooting against through the remainder of the tournament.
  • Is Goran Suton invisible? Packer offered up kudos to Allen for his 20-point performance throughout the second half–and deservedly so–but made almost no mention of Suton (23 points, 9 rebounds). Oh well, the refusal of the media to acknowledge the quality of his play at least provides a continuing rationale for the existence of this blog.
  • 26-35 (74.3%) from the free throw line for the Tigers. None of them were pressure shots, but their strokes looked fine to me.
  • If Morgan was still thinking at all about leaving for the NBA, this game should confirm he’s got some work to do on his game to compete with players of similar size and athletic ability.
  • Walton: zero points, 4 fouls. He has a lot of work to this offseason to regain at least a basic level of offensive confidence.
  • 69-possession game. I think that number’s inflated by the fouls at the end. And an up-tempo game doesn’t help too much when you’re taking the ball out from under your basket, rather than making outlet passes off defensive rebounds.

It hurt to watch Neitzel’s career end on a game in which he struggled so badly against the stellar defense of Antonio Anderson. Give him credit, though, for staying within the offense right up until the end tonight; he finished with 7 assists.

Hopefully, the memory of this game fades and he’s remembered as he should be–as the player who put a team on his back for a season and kept MSU’s NCAA Tournament appearance streak alive. We Spartan faithful owe you an undying debt of gratitude, #11.

I’ll wait a few days to make any judgments about this season as a whole, but tonight’s loss was certainly a disappointing punctuation mark to it.

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We interrupt Memphis week to bring you this dispatch from the larger world of college basketball: Yet Another Basketball Blog notes the following:

  1. With two teams still alive, the Big Ten has already matched the number of NCAA Tournament wins (5) we’d expect based on their tournament seeds.
  2. For the second consecutive year, the ACC has sent only one team to the Sweet Sixteen

Given the dominance of the ACC over the Big Ten in their annual nonconference challenge, is it possible that the seemingly boredom-inducing conference play of the Big Ten actually serves as better preparation for the NCAA Tournament than the more visually attractive stylings of the ACC?

Admittedly, we’re dealing with only a two-year time frame here (and, to be fair, the Big Ten only sent one team to the Sweet Sixteen last season). But don’t let anyone tell you the Big Ten is inherently inferior to the ACC. When it comes time to play for the big chips, we do just fine.

Update: Nittany White Out has an expanded and more passionate defense of the Big Ten’s play in the NCAA Tournament relative to the other major conferences.  Right on, I say.

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On to the Sweet Sixteen. Michigan State knocks out Pittsburgh, 65-54. Unofficial box score.

Early on, it looked like MSU might come out on the wrong side of some early fouls. Morgan and Naymick both picked up two fouls and had to sit out the rest of the first half. But Neitzel’s 3-point shooting and Suton’s work inside kept us in the game through the first 20 minutes, while Pittsburgh struggled to create quality shots.

Michigan State went on an 8-0 run to start the second half. That 10-point lead was eliminated by Pitt over the next 7 minutes, but MSU pulled back ahead–fueled by an 8-point scoring spurt by Neitzel over a two-and-a-half minute span–to win pretty comfortably in the last couple minutes.

Statistical highlights:

  • MSU won the battle of the boards. They gathered 10 offensive rebounds in 27 opportunities for a healthy 37.0% offensive rebounding %. But the real work came on the defensive end, where they pulled down 27 of Pitt’s 36 misses for a stellar 75.0% defensive rebounding % against one of the top ten offensive rebounding teams in the country. Suton led the way with 9 rebounds, and Naymick chipped in 7 defensive rebounds–many of them in traffic.
  • Neitzel (21), Lucas (19), and Suton (14) all played to their strengths on offense. Neitzel hits 5 of 8 three-pointers, most of the contested looks. Lucas used his quickness to convert in transition and with the shot clock running down. Suton used his length to create scoring opportunities over the shorter Pitt defenders, converting 7 of 11 FG attempts. The efficiency of this trio was enough to offset the fact that Morgan (4 points on 4 FG attempts) could never get into a rhythm.
  • Let us not forget the contributions of Idong Ibok. For as awkward as he looked when he tried to score, he gave this team 13 tough minutes on a night that needed them, pulling down 3 offensive rebounds in the process.
  • 14 turnovers in 61 possessions (23.0%) for MSU. There were a few too many bad turnovers again, but the rebounding and scoring efficiency were enough to offset them. Walton turned it over 3 times as he struggled with several double teams. I hate to pick on him tonight, but the offense really bogged down when he was running the show. Even when he managed to drive to the hoop, it took too long to develop and his shot was blocked. His defense remains a strength, but he also picked up some bad fouls that led to additional Pitt free throws. He may be overcompensating for his offensive struggles by playing a little too physically on defense.
  • On the defensive end, MSU never really let Pitt get in a rhythm. Pitt made just 2 of 17 three-point attempts (.118) and 15 of 35 two-point attempts (.429). Take away Levance Field’s 6-12 FG shooting, and the rest of the team made just 11 of their 40 FG attempts (.275). Hard to say how much of the shooting woes were a function of Pitt being worn out from playing their 6th game in 11 days. The Pitt big men missed a number of close looks inside and the perimeter players missed badly on several jumpshots where it appeared they just didn’t have their legs under them. But MSU made sure they didn’t get many clean looks, either.
  • Pitt stayed in the game on offense by using their quickness to create free throw attempts. And they made 18 of their 19 FT attempts (.947).

As good as Neitzel and Lucas were, combining to score 20 of MSU’s final 25 points, I’m going to name Suton the Spartans Weblog Player of the Game. Not only did he assert himself on offense, he also managed to hold Sam Young to 15 points on 4-12 FG shooting. That’s fairly remarkable, as Young clearly had a massive quickness advantage. I did note that the other MSU defenders were hedging a bit toward Young to cut off his driving lanes. I thought Izzo would go small more, but he played two big men for all but 7 minutes of the game, choosing to exert the Spartans’ will on Pitt, rather than reacting to their athletic advantage in the frontcourt. It worked.

A gutsy team performance tonight, with 10 players seeing at least 5 minutes. (Gray made the most of his 5 minutes, by the way, defending Young well and making a nice pass to Naymick for a dunk.) They needed a little more one-on-one play on offense tonight than usual (only 12 assists on 25 FG makes), and Neitzel, Lucas, and Suton all came up big–scoring 54 of MSU’s 65 points. And they forced Pitt to be even more reliant on individual plays–just 4 assists for the Panthers.

MSU will play the Memphis-Mississippi State winner Friday night. You can scout at least some of that game at 4:45 Sunday afternoon. The other games in that time slot are Louisville-Oklahoma and UNC-Arkansas. Hopefully, CBS forgoes the big ACC name in favor of the game of direct interest to us. Kenpom predicts a 72-62 Memphis win, so you might want to focus a bit more on scouting the Tigers.

Big Ten Update

The conference sports a 5-2 record in the tournament, with the Badgers also advancing to the Sweet Sixteen by beating Kansas State handily. Purdue, meanwhile, fought valiantly but couldn’t keep up with Xavier in the end.

Note that the purportedly defensive-oriented Big Ten has actually been better on the offensive end now that they’re playing teams outside the conference. In all 7 tournament games they’ve played, Big Ten teams have scored at least 1.00 points per possession. It was defense that did IU and Purdue in, as they gave up 1.26 and 1.12 points per possession to their opponents, respectively.

And the 7 games involving Big Ten games have averaged a whopping 68 possessions per game. Apparently, Big Ten teams can run a bit. We should try this is conference play some time!

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9:10 pm, Saturday. Pepsi Center, Denver. CBS.

Pittsburgh comes in at 27-9 on the season. They finished 10-8 in Big East regular season play, but won the conference tournament championship, beating Cincinnatti, Louisville, Marquette, and Georgetown along the way. That’s an impressive four-game sweep. Their best win on the season was a 65-64 OT win over Duke in New York. All in all, their record looks pretty solid, with the only obvious bad losses being a 25-point loss to Dayton on the road and a home game they dropped to Rutgers.

Pittsburgh’s statistical strengths lie on the offensive end of the court. They rank 8th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency–vs. just 58th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Their offensive prowess can be summed up concisely: They take a lot of shots. They don’t turn the ball over (TO% of 18.1%; 29th in the nation) and they grab a lot of offensive rebounds (off reb% of 39.7%; 10th in the nation). They excel on the offensive glass despite fielding a pretty short lineup. None of their regulars is taller than 6’8″ and they rank just 234rd in the nation in kenpom’s average-minutes-weighted-height stat.

6’7″ freshman DeJuan Blair leads the way on the offensive glass. He averages 9.2 rebounds/game and ranks 6th in the nation with an offensive rebounding % of 16.8%.

Pittsburgh would be absolutely unstoppable on offense if not for mediocre shooting stats. Their effective FG% of 51.1% ranks just 118th in the nation and their free throw rate 23.8% is only 217th best in the country. Leading scorer Sam Young (18.1 points/game) is also their most efficient scorer. The 6’6″ junior sported shooting percentages of .539/.393/.681 (2pt/3pt/FT) going into the NCAA tournament.

Point guard Levance Field, a 5’10” junior, had been a pretty inefficient scorer this season (3pt% of .258), but he hit 4 of 7 three-pointers and scored 23 points in Pitt’s first-round win over Oral Roberts.

Pitt’s defensive resume is fairly mediocre. Their lack of height apparently hurts them more on the defensive glass. They rank just 185th in the nation in defensive rebounding (opponent’s off reb% = 33.1%). Their defensive has tightened up, though, in postseason play. They’ve held four of their last five opponents to an effective FG% below 50%.

I’m going to take the easy path in terms of the Spartans Weblog Key to the Game and say it’s rebounding. Both teams are very good on the offensive glass but far from dominant on the defensive end. If either team can control the rebounds on the defensive end, that could be enough to swing the game toward them. Marquise Gray’s sprained toe could hurt here. For all his struggles, the one thing he can do is pull down defensive rebounds (def reb% = 21.8%).

Secondary keys:

  • The big guys have to stay out of foul trouble against the smaller, but physical, Pitt frontcourt players. This is not a game you want to bring Ibok or Herzog into. And if Gray plays, the toe injury probably exacerbates his already-suspect defense.
  • Suton needs to use his height to create some low post baskets. We know he has the ability to score over people with a variety of low post moves. Suton’s scored exactly 6 points in his last four games, after having scored in double digits in 4 of the previous 5 games. He needs more touches. He needs to be assertive in asking for the ball and the guards need to get it to him.
  • I’d mention that Morgan needs to use his size and athleticism to score against smaller defenders, but he played better last game when I said we shouldn’t count on him. So let’s stick with that.
  • Neitzel needs to keep shooting. He’d made 20 of 46 three-pointers (.435) in the 5 games prior to the 1-8 performance from beyond the arc on Thursday.
  • Find a way to stop Sam Young.  Apparently, Suton will guard him to start (see Rexrode link below).  That’s a tough match-up.  Morgan becomes the more likely defender as the game goes on, but that invites foul trouble given Morgan’s history.  You wonder if Izzo might use Walton to mix things up at some point.

Related links:

Dave Dye notes Izzo’s career record of 11-2 in the second game of NCAA tournament weekends. One of those two losses was to #1 seed North Carolina in the second round last year. Izzo is the master of creating and implementing game plans on a short turnaround.

Joe Rexrode has the defensive match-ups for tomorrow night. MSU will have a lot more size on the floor to start the game, creating mismatches on both ends of the floor.

Check out Pitt Blather for a perspective from Panther land.

Kenpom predicts MSU to win 69-67 in 64 possessions. This one shapes up to be a physical battle. Positive spin: MSU should be prepared, having played 20 games in the most physical conference in the land. Negative spin: They lost seven of those 20 games, often struggling when games became physical half-court battles.

If we can find a way to stop Young, I think we can find enough way to score now that our turnover problems are under control (TO% below 20% in 8 of the last 9 games).  I have a feeling we’ll all be spending a pretty tense two hours in front of the TV tomorrow night. But I’m hopeful our Spartans will bring a healthy dose of vim to this one.

GO GREEN!

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Big Ten Round-Up

Wisconsin pulled away from Cal State Fullerton to to win 71-56. The Badgers used their size advantage to dominate on the glass on both ends of the court. 18 for 38 on offensive rebounding chances (47.4%). 32 for 39 on defensive rebounding opportunities (82.1%). Uncharacteristically, the Badgers turned it over 17 times in 71 possessions (23.9%), indicating they can play a bit sloppily if forced into a more up-tempo game. Badgercentric offers his perspectives on the game; he says Krabbenhoft was player of the game for hitting some shots early to keep Fullerton from pulling ahead. #11 seed Kansas State is up next, coming off their upset of #6 seed USC.

Purdue ran by Baylor, 90-79, in a very un-Big-Ten-like 74-possession game. Eight players scored at least 8 points for the Boilermakers, who shot 9-20 from three-point range (45.0%). Off the Tracks didn’t like the 13 turnovers, but a turnover % of 17.6% (13/74) isn’t too shabby. He notes that the Boilermakers let Baylor dictate the tempo and simply beat them at their own game. #3 seed Xavier is up next.

Indiana takes on Arkansas tonight at about 9:45. The Hoosier Report has posted an interesting conversation with Hawg Blog, an Arkansas fan blog. Much of the dialogue focuses on coaching controversies past and present. The Hoosier Report points to Gordon’s shooting slump (8-47 on three-pointers since the win against Purdue) as something that must be corrected for the Hoosiers to advance in NCAA tournament play.

Three wins in three games for the Big Ten so far. If Indiana can pull out a win tonight (which is not the predicted blogger outcome), the conference will be off to a great start in proving we’re not as weak as some national pundits seem to think.

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