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Mutka: Hoops marathon switches to NCAA sprint

CHICAGO IL - MARCH 17:  DeShaun Thomas #1 Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates after Buckeyes defeated WisconsBadgers during Big Ten

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 17: DeShaun Thomas #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates after the Buckeyes defeated the Wisconsin Badgers during the Big Ten Basketball Tournament Championship game at United Center on March 17, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Ohio State defeats Wisconsin 50-43. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 159459476

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Updated: March 29, 2013 4:03PM



CHICAGO — The basketball marathon is over. Now the sprint begins.

No more corporal punishment being dished out off the brutal Big Ten menu. Time for dessert.

“I’m really looking forward to playing somebody else,” said Michigan State’s weary Tom Izzo, after the Spartans second loss to Ohio State. “We’ve been beating the hell out of each other.”

Wisconsin senior Ryan Evans loved every minute of the grind.

“Every night’s a memory,” he said after the Badgers dispatched Indiana. “So many buzzer beaters.”

Down but not out, Indiana’s Cody Zeller is looking forward to the third season. He was already distancing himself from an undisputed Big Ten championship, the Hoosiers first since 1993. There’s no future, living in the past.

“We’ll watch some film, make some corrections,” said the cerebral sophomore. “The real season starts now.”

You could sense that Zeller is already recharging his battery.

“A really fun time of the year,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to need any extra motivation for the NCAA tournament.”

Neither will the other chosen ones.

Seven members of the Big 12 — excuse me, Big Ten — have been ranked this season. Indiana and Michigan briefly scrambled to the peak before dropping back. In 18 of the last 19 weeks, at least three conference teams have bullied their way into the top 10. Iowa never cracked the top 20, but won four of its last five to join the 20-win fraternity.

How much does Indiana have left in its tank? Having closed with four straight emotionally exhausting games against elite opponents, the Hoosiers produced a Big Ten title, but took a physical beating in the process.

“So many great teams out there,” shrugged Zeller, addressing IU’s recent struggles. “We’re not too worried about it.”

Predicting a national champion in the midst of remarkable parity requires clairvoyant skills. You could probably crusade for as many as a dandy dozen, including Indiana and Ohio State.

Indiana stated its case with a 5-0 record against top-10 opponents. The Hoosiers also won seven of nine road games in the Big Ten. Only ACC champion Miami matched their 7-2 standard in hostile conference arenas.

This has been a learning experience for freshman Yogi Ferrell, who didn’t need much recruiting to rejoin his AAU teammate Zeller. A key piece in the IU puzzle, Ferrell blossomed into an instant starter. Ranking among the top five in the Big Ten in the important assist/turnover categories, he made the Big Ten all-freshman team.

He’s listed as a six-footer, which seems like a stretch, but the short guard is long on basketball IQ.

“I’ve been progressing with the help of the older guys,” he said, giving seniors Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford some love.

Not that the precocious rookie needed much help.

Big Ten observations

Hot stuff: During an eight-game winning streak, tournament champion Ohio State has played smothering defense. Only Michigan State broke 60 points in that stretch. Tip your hat to guard Aaron Craft, who was denied by Indiana’s Victor Oladipo in his bid to repeat as the league’s defensive player of the year, but outshined him in the tournament.

Models of consistency, the No. 10 Buckeyes reached the title game for the seventh time in eight years. They are thriving with only one player in double figures. Fort Wayne’s DeShaun Thomas, who averaged 19.7 points and 6.2 rebounds, gets my vote for Big Ten player of the year.

Style points: Give them to Wisconsin, the team nobody wants to play come tournament time. Lightly regarded in the preseason, the patiently plodding Badgers’ list of ranked victims includes Illinois (74-51, 12th at the time), Indiana (64-59; 68-56), Michigan (65-62, No. 3), Ohio State (71-49, No. 13).

In February they went 6-1, a surge which included three straight overtime games.

Youth movement: Michigan reached No. 1 with a 16-and-0 start and has been hovering in the top 10 ever since. John Beilein’s rotation of seven underclassmen accounts for 50 percent of the team’s minutes in a 26-7 season. Rookies who have elevated the Wolverines to the eighth youngest Division I team in the country are starters Glenn Robinson III (Lake Central) and Nik Stauskas and reserves Mitch McGary (Chesterton/Brewster) and Spike Albrecht (Crown Point).

All three Northwest Indiana kids were AAU teammates on the SYF team coached by Wayne Brumm. Taking the connection a step farther, Spike’s brother, Stephen, who plays for Brown’s Bears, and former Michigan star Zack Novak (Chesterton) were also AAU teammates.

Michigan’s credits include 17 straight victories at Crisler Center, a record streak which Indiana snapped to claim the Big Ten regular-season title.

Unheralded: Carrot-topped Mike Bruesewitz’s numbers are under-whelming, but Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan can’t say enough about the 6-6 senior, who overcame a freak injury to start 28 games. In October he needed emergency surgery to repair a severely lacerated leg. After recovering from that he later missed two games because of a concussion.

“He’s Johnny-on-the-spot, just happy to be playing,” said the Big Ten coach of the year. “A high-energy guy.”

You can’t miss Bruesewitz on the court. He grew a red Afro during his sophomore season as a tribute to his brother, Robert, who is stationed in Afghanistan. Then he raised $5,000 for National Multiple Sclerosis Society by shaving his head on live television.

Highlight: Oladipo’s 360-degree jam in front of a sellout crowd Friday raised the roof during IU’s quarter-final victory, but teammate Christian Watford shot down the orbiting sophomore. Asked to grade his high-flying teammate’s dunk on a 1-to-10 scale, the senior forward only offered a six.

“He’s got more stuff,” Watford deadpanned.

Closing window: If Zeller and Oladipo depart along with Watford and Jordan Hulls, IU’s starting lineup next year will be dramatically different. They’ll regroup around sixth man Will Sheehey and Ferrell.

Asked whether he considers himself a supersub or a sixth starter, Sheehey replied: “Neither. Just one of the guys.”



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