I wasn't able to make it to Conseco Fieldhouse until about halftime of the game between Michigan State and Iowa, but I showed up just in time to see one heck of a finish. No, it wasn't quite the show Kemba Walker of UConn put on, but with so much on the line, these teams were leaving it all out on the court, even if it was just the first day.
I caught up with Scout's reporter for Northwestern and got his take on the earlier game between Northwestern and Minnesota. Talk about a team that has been through a lot this year.
Coming into the year, Northwestern had high hopes to finally break into the NCAA tournament. But setback after setback held them back, and now, sadly, that seems like a longshot. Thursday, however, Northwestern guard Juice Thompson lit up the scoreboard for thirty-five points and propelled NU into a matchup with Ohio State Friday Morning. I wish I could have been there for that. I'm sure that would have been pretty exciting.
I had a feeling this morning that Iowa would give Michigan State some trouble and maybe even upset them. When I arrived at the arena, the game was tied at 38 and the fans for each school, which weren't too great in number, were on the edge of their seats.
The game went back and forth as each run drew more and more excitement. But in the end, turnovers cost the young Hawkeyes. It just looked like Michigan State had more resolve down the stretch. And let's face it. Kalin Lucas can play some basketball.
Michigan State's fans knew it was an important win though. They played a tough schedule this year, but some tough losses have them on the bubble. Most of the people I talked to felt like the game against Iowa was a must-win to keep their tournament hopes (and Tom Izzo's consecutive NCAA tournament appearance streak) alive. So after the game, you could feel the sigh of relief from the Spartan fans.
The last game of the night was one of the most interesting. On one side you had Penn State, led by senior point guard Talor Battle. On the other hand, you had an Indiana team that has battled injuries to its key players and is still getting its footing under Tom Crean. I expected the game to be a little more lopsided, but then again it IS March and there's plenty of… well… madness.
The public address announcer stated during the game that the total attendance (through the gates) for the day was just over 16,000 fans. Safe to say, over half of those fans were at the Indiana game, and most of them were Indiana fans cheering on their home-state team. For as rough of a year as Indiana has had, their fans still show up in masses to cheer and support them.
During halftime, Big Ten Network commentator Gus Johnson, known for his energetic commentary and game calling, led a contest between fans from three different schools in which they announced a big buzzer-beater in Big Ten history.
I was a little disappointed not to see Nick Anderson's shot against IU on the screen, but then again it would probably draw more "boo's" than any call the officials made all night. It was a fun break from the action, and a couple of them were actually pretty good.
Anyway, the second half of the game between Penn State and Indiana was a game of runs. Penn State would surge out to a ten point lead, then Indiana would cut it to two or three points before PSU would go on another run.
Indiana seemed to be playing catch-up most of the night, and they never were able to gain enough momentum to get over the hump and get a lead on the Nittany Lions. Part of that could be the disparity in fouls. The loudest cheer of the night by far came with just under three minutes left in the game.
Indiana, with six team fouls already, drove to the basket and drew a whistle on the Penn State defender. You might be thinking, "What's so significant about that?" Well, it turns out that that was the first foul called on Penn State ALL HALF. With the ovation the Indiana faithful raised, you would almost think that they just made a go-ahead bucket in the last minute.
:Anyway, that moment was the light side of the foul situation. I sat directly behind the Indiana bench, and to say the Indiana coaches weren't pleased with the fouls is sugar-coating it quite a bit.
In the end, Penn State hit a couple key baskets in the last minute and came away with a 61-55 win over Indiana. I could sense the disappointment and frustration in the Indiana team as it walked off the court.
A win would have put them in a game against Wisconsin tomorrow, a tough matchup no doubt, but it would also have at least given them some momentum as they try to resurrect a program that has such a storied past. Win or lose, the Indiana fans still cheered their team as they walked out of the arena.
After everything concluded at Conseco, members of the media and the Big Ten organization headed to a get-together just down the road. I arrived just in time to meet up with a couple of acquaintances including Illinois SID Kent Brown and watch the Big Ten Network's premiere of the Icon feature on the "Galloping Ghost" Red Grange.
It was humbling to see a majority of the media focus on the monitors in the restaurant and watch one of the greatest athletes of all time. I got talking to Kent, and it turns out that most of the footage for the special came from the University of Illinois itself.
It is amazing how, after all these years the school has such a great record of a guy who played nearly 90 years ago. And watching the film, it shows just how much football has changed. But no doubt, Grange was more than deserving of his award as the Big Ten's Number One Icon.
That was just day one. Friday is when the action really heats up, and it's when Illinois makes its debut. If the rest of the weekend is anything like Thursday, this tournament is bound to be something special and provide plenty of surprises, excitement, and entertainment. Stay Tuned!