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MUTKA: March Madness infects balanced Big Ten

Purdue guard Sterling Carter right steals ball from Indianguard Yogi Ferrell first half an NCAA college basketball game West Lafayette

Purdue guard Sterling Carter, right, steals the ball from Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) ORG XMIT: INMC103

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Updated: March 18, 2014 6:25AM



March Madness is creeping up on us. Whether or not the weatherman cooperates the silly season is less than five weeks away.

If nothing else, it gives us something to think about besides snow and below-zero temperatures.

Going into Saturday’s games only Syracuse and Wichita State remain undefiled by a loss. If I was a betting man I’d pick the Shockers as the most likely to take a perfect record into their conference tournament.

Syracuse’s “A” list of quality victims includes Villanova (22-2 record), Pittsburgh (20-6) twice, Duke (20-5), North Carolina (17-7), California (16-8), Clemson (15-8) and Minnesota (16-9), but the Orange risk potential ambushes with three road games in a brutal seven-day stretch.

The closing burst starts Saturday with Duke, which they barely beat at home, and finishes with Virginia (21-5).

Wichita State’s much less glittering resume is topped by victories over St. Louis (23-2), which won its 17th in a row Saturday; Brigham Young (17-10) and Tennessee (15-9). Fortunately for the Shockers, they no longer have to deal with Creighton (20-4), which bolted to the Big East last year after beating them for their 12th Missouri Valley Conference tournament title.

Having twice disposed of Coach Greg Lansing’s Indiana State contenders, the Shockers should mop up Evansville, Loyola, Drake, Bradley and Missouri State to take a 31-0 record into postseason play.

Parity hurts Big Ten

Closer to home, preseason pundits ranked the Big Ten as most likely to succeed in Division I, but the league has been crippled by unexpected depth. Upstarts like Northwestern, Penn State and Nebraska have risen up to smite the Goliaths, proving nobody can take a day off in this balanced league without suffering the consequences.

Home-court advantages seem to be less intimidating, but Nebraska is 11-1 in its new arena, including victories over Indiana and Ohio State. Northwestern argues to the contrary, its recent 4-1 stretch padded by back-to-back road wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Starting with an earlier shocker at Indiana, the Wildcats notched three straight league victories in hostile territory, an unlikely streak which ended Thursday at Michigan State.

Penn State gave its fans reasons to get their giddy-up after starting 0-6 in the Big Ten with victories at Ohio State and Indiana, arenas where this perennial have-not used to routinely roll over and play dead.

Proving nothing is sacred, Ohio State blew a 26-16 lead to lose at home to Michigan for the first time since 2003. Going into the weekend the Buckeyes were 6-6 in the Big Ten, something that happens in Columbus about as often as Hell freezes over.

Because of the unexpected beatdowns, only Michigan State’s Spartans were ranked in last week’s top 10, a major accomplishment considering their walking-wounded status. Coach Tom Izzo has started 10 players in 13 different lineups. Injuries to Adreian Payne (foot), Keith Appling (wrist), Gary Harris (ankle), Branden Dawson (broken hand) and Matt Costello (mononucleosis) prompted the wholesale experiments, which have kept the Spartans engaged with Michigan in the title fight.

Iowa was my preseason pick for sleeper honors, a darkhorse honor it embellished with victories over Big Ten leader Michigan and on the road at Ohio State, Illinois and Northwestern. Two of their losses in a 19-6 season were in overtime against top-10 teams Villanova and Michigan State.

Wisconsin’s 16-0 start raised everybody’s eyebrows, but the Badgers suffered through a nightmarish January with rare home losses to Northwestern and Ohio State, triggering a 1-5 stretch.

Right now it seems likely that the conference will be reduced to five entries, with the Badgers joining Michigan State. If the Spartans heal and win the Big Ten tournament in Indy I expect them to be a No. 1 seed.

Earlier, it appeared that Illinois would also qualify for the Big Dance, but went from dynamite to dud, its 13-2 record crumbing with an eight-game losing streak. Now the Illini will have to hustle to stay above .500.

IU flunks basketball

Here are eight reasons why I can barely force myself to watch Indiana on TV:

1. Except for Yogi Ferrell — only a sophomore, remember — the Hoosiers have the basketball IQ of a gerbil.

2. Their half-court offense is non-existent — they’re 10th in the Big Ten in assists because they don’t pass unless they have to. When only the dribbler is moving his statue-esque teammates are easy to defend.

3. Lack of senior leadership from Will Sheehey and Evan Gordon means they don’t correct mistakes like dribbling into heavy traffic, then throwing panic passes.

4. No inside-out game to set up 3-pointers — Indiana is last in the Big Ten in that department. When Ferrell isn’t creating, nothing much happens.

5. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers lead to too many empty possessions. They’re last in the conference, even though freshman Noah Vonleh leads the Big Ten in rebounding.

6. Inconsistency — you never know what you’re going to get. How do the Hoosiers beat Wisconsin and Michigan when they were top-10 teams while swooning to traditional bottom-feeders like Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern?.

7. Too much standing around. Too many forced shots. Saturday they managed to make Purdue look like a contender in a meeting when both state rivals were under .500 in the conference for the first time since the 1965-66 season.

8. Anxiety attacks in the second half are a growing concern. Their recent collapse against Penn State in the last two minutes at Assembly Hall was like watching deer in headlights. Not being able to inbound the ball was inexcusable.

The Hoosiers shouldn’t be this mentally soft after 25 games.



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