A Big Ten sense of normalcy


INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan will play Ohio State in one semifinal of the Big Ten tournament on Saturday; Wisconsin against Michigan State in the other.

Which looked about as likely two weeks ago as Amedeo Della Valle's defense saving the Buckeyes from conference tourney extinction.

Wait, that happened?

Right, of course it did.

Because this is the Big Ten, and when you least expect something to happen in this conference, it happens.

Many months ago, before the Wolverines lost Mitch McGary, before the Buckeyes lost their offense, before the Spartans lost their team to the infirmary, and before the Badgers temporarily lost their mojo, Michigan State was picked to win this thing, with Michigan and Ohio State right behind. We don't know where Wisconsin was picked because the Big Ten only ranks the top three teams in the preseason so as not to offend the less fortunate who might be chosen last, a practice seen only in the Big Ten and bitty ball.

Anyway, when the tournament convened here in Indianapolis the last thing anyone expected was the expected. So naturally the expected happened.

Which is so Big Ten 2013-14: unpredictable even in a predictable finish.

Through the chaos and the quagmires, the cream has risen to the top, even if it did curdle a little bit along the way.

Michigan, which has survived the loss of McGary, started 8-0 in league play and then proceeded to lose three of its next five. The Wolverines rallied to win the regular-season title, a title no one else seemed much interested in winning with all the ups and downs.

And of course then came here and nearly lost to Illinois.

"I think we still have some strides to make defensively," said Nik Stauskas, who set up the game-winning shot with a pass to Jordan Morgan. "I think that's when we're going to be at our best, once we start locking down defensively."

Which, of course, is the polar opposite of Ohio State's problem. The Buckeyes can defend and have been able to defend all year. It's just the scoring part that gives the Buckeyes pause. That about did them in around mid-January when a four-game slide turned into losing five of six, and eventually ended with the nadir of a season sweep at the hands of Penn State.

This being the Big Ten year where up is down and down is up, Ohio State came to Indianapolis, got down by as many as 18 to a top defensive team in Nebraska, and came back to win.

"What were we, down 18 with 10 [minutes] to go today?" Thad Matta asked. "The stakes were high on this one."

They were slightly elevated for Wisconsin, too. The Badgers started the season a red-hot 16-0 and then the bottom temporarily fell out, with three losses in a row, five in six games, including the inexplicable and borderline unforgivable defeat at home to Northwestern. Wisconsin recovered for eight consecutive Ws but dropped the season finale at Nebraska, in Cornhusker court-storming fashion.

Which set up, what else? A blowout against an NCAA tournament-desperate Minnesota.

"We've had some ups, we've had some downs, fortunately more ups," Bo Ryan said. "It's not like making a few shots doesn't cure some things during the course of a game."

Of course if anyone has epitomized the topsy-turvy world of the Big Ten, it is the once-favored Spartans. Done in by injuries, the only sure thing about Michigan State is that there has been no sure thing. The Spartans' schedule from mid-January to the end of the regular season reads like a roller-coaster of results: a win followed by a loss, a loss followed by a win, every scored followed by the addendum, "when the Spartans are healthy ... "

Perhaps when is now. Michigan State put a hurting on Northwestern in the nightcap, which was maybe the only expected result of this unexpected Big Ten season.