How does one explain the ‘up-to-the-middle-and-around-again, who's on first and who can't win' character of the Big Ten. It is, well, 100 percent pure nuts.
And who forgot to send me the hot potato memo? Perhaps the only rule in the Big Ten this year is that every hot streak must come to an end – every deviation must return to the mean.
Wisconsin and Michigan fell back to Earth after once sitting atop the conference. The same goes for Illinois. Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota have begun to dwindle back to the pack from the other side – once lonely but now homely in their respective local gymnasium success.
Now Ohio State – fresh off arguably the best week any Big Ten team has played all season – reversed its fortunes with an uncharacteristically poor long-range shooting performance and a loss in the Kohl Center. Go figure, the way they shot the lights out of late.
So perhaps the only unwritten rule, by now a credo of the conference playground, is a simple one. Seek shelter in foreign jungle gyms.
That probably goes without saying in a conference whose top seven teams are now a combined 35-5 on their own floor. It does not seem to matter so much who you play or when you play or maybe even what you play — decibel climbing, roof raising, or just a simple game of basketball — the only question is where you play it.
Which brings us to Wisconsin. Once again the Badger Madgic in the Kohl Center proved too much for a worthy opponent, as UW moved to 37-2 in conference home under Bo Ryan and continued its undefeated streak in Madison against any Big Ten team not named Illinois.
There is a saying over in East Lansing concerning a Tom Izzo pitch to potential Michigan State recruits. "Play all four years for MSU and you will go to the Final Four." Any player Izzo has coached there can attest to that. It is science — or at the least, history.
In Madison, however, that recruiting pitch might be tweaked towards every potential student recruit — every science whiz, band member, cheerleader and undeclared undergrad. Come to Wisconsin and stay all four years and you will lose to one Big Ten team. Not a bad promise to make when selling tickets, something the Big Ten attendance leaders have about as much problem doing as local bars have of selling beer to everyone else not present.
But in a season in which the Badgers lost two of three home games in an unheard of fashion, dropping one to North Dakota State of all teams, the Grateful Red has now witnessed a brand new feat of accomplishment as well. In the Buckeyes, a Bo-coached bunch toppled their third ranked opponent in a conference home game this season. Despite all the success in just under five years, that had never been done. Michigan State and Indiana were the first two, and although one could argue the Hoosiers are no longer a top 25 caliber team, that list does not include the Big Ten-leading Hawkeyes, who were unranked when Wisconsin dispatched them by 14 in early January.
For much of the Ohio State game you could have set the clock by Terrence Dials. Six of seven offensive possessions went straight to the Buckeye big man to kickoff the second half, and at one point his stats read 10-for-12 while a bewildered platoon of defenders tried to figure out any method to slow him down.
Then something happened. Dials began to tire. The shots he had made look so easy for the first three-fourths of the game were no longer falling for him. The Badgers climbed back and suddenly Ohio State had tightened up without its big man finishing shots to bail them out.
Meanwhile the Badgers were logging minutes of their own. Alando Tucker never left the game and Brian Butch — visibly exhausted at certain points — kept chugging along to 31 minutes of play. Only once this season had Butch logged 30 minutes in a game, and that one went to two overtimes.
Amidst all of this the Kohl Center crowd became as raucous as it has been all season. There are multiple levels of loud in that building ranging from ‘big-game boom' to ‘Kiss Cam swoon', from ‘Rubberboy halftime horror' to ‘Tanner Bronson big-time 3-ponter.' But this was a different level altogether. It was no wonder the Buckeyes needed a whiteboard and an assistant to call their plays from the bench. A coordinated series of fire alarms wouldn't have so much as turned a head.
Then the bomb dropped, and although an explosion of sound could not have deterred the Badger faithful, the thunder was evident for all to see. With 1:33 remaining and trailing by four, Dials got the ball in the paint and attempted to end his missed layup streak. Earlier in the evening he might have dunked it — overpowering any Badger in his path. It was not the beginning of the game, however.
Only Alando Tucker stood in his way, having not so much as rested his legs for any period of play. As Dials went up straight into the face of the UW student section to cut the Badger lead in half, Tucker drew from the reserves every ounce of athleticism he had left in him and cleanly stuffed the much larger Dials — a man among boys who appears more like an NBA veteran than a college one.
It is easy to speculate what might have happened if that same play unfolded in Columbus or even on a neutral court in Indianapolis. Perhaps Tucker still makes the play. Perhaps he does not. But if anyone looks for a reason why Alando had more in his tank in the statement that probably delivered the victory — well, I can give you about 17,142 of them.
The same goes for Butch, who not only shot the ball well late in the game but gave Dials all he could handle down low in the closing minutes. Or there was Ray Nixon, who only shot the ball cleaner and became more aggressive as the minutes passed and the crowd awoke.
It was a perfect case study for why teams are so successful at home in this conference, as well as why college basketball might be the most exciting atmosphere in sport in this country — one in which the fan truly is a part of the game.
And to the doubting outsiders who say that the Big Ten has talent, but not Final Four talent, or that the conference is simply chock full of parity, come on out to the Kohl or Carver-Hawkeye or Assembly Hall or the Breslin Center. Those less than stellar road records, that topsy-turvy conference race and that maniacal madness all have a method of their own. The inability to close on the road is more a testament to the atmosphere and the confidence it instills within hosts rather than futility or parity.
At least we know that much.
Matt Lewis, a frequent contributor to Badger Nation, is the editor of creative sportswriting site TheHeptagon.com.