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Big Ten PG:And Then There Were Four

Welcome to Big Ten Point Guard!

Final Four stars: Kansas' Thomas Robinson, OSU's Jared Sullinger, Louisville's Peyton Siva and Kentucky's Anthony Davis

Hopefully, each week I’ll have a quick read on the Big Ten basketball scene as well as what’s happening in the nation at large. Most weeks this will appear on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.

Below we will look at how each of the four Big Ten teams fared in the regional weekend of the NCAA Tournament as well as what lies ahead in the Final Four.

Ohio State defeated top-seeded Syracuse 77-70 in the East Region championship game on Saturday in Boston to reach the Final Four.

The Final Four appearance is the Buckeyes' 10th overall and first since 2007 when the team moved on to
the national championship game. (OSU’s 1999 Final Four trip was vacated by NCAA sanctions.) The Final Four appearance is also the second for head coach Thad Matta, who took Ohio State to the national semifinals in the 2006-07 season.

Ohio State's 10 Final Four appearances leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth in NCAA history. Ohio State's trip to the Final Four marks the Big Ten's 42nd national semifinals appearance and the conference's third in the last four years. Michigan State was the last Big Ten team to make the Final Four, advancing in back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010. Ohio State's Final Four trip also marks the Big Ten's sixth in the last eight seasons, making the Big Ten and the Big East the only two conferences to have sent six or more teams to the national semifinals over that time span.

The Big Ten has not had a national championship team since Michigan State in 2000.

The Big Ten enters the national semifinals with a combined 11-5 record in the NCAA Tournament, marking the first time since 2005 that the conference has recorded 10 or more wins in the event.

Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin were all knocked out of the tournament with losses in the regional semifinals. We look at how these teams all fared this past weekend and share some thoughts:

Buckeyes Topple Syracuse, Reach Final Four

* Regional Weekend Results: Playing as the two seed in the East, Ohio State defeated No. 6 seed Cincinnati 81-66 in the semifinals and stopped top-seeded Syracuse 77-70 in the championship game in Boston.

* Final Four Match-Up: OSU faces Kansas in a national semifinal Saturday in New Orleans (8:49 p.m., CBS).

* The Skinny: The Buckeyes survived a scare to defeat instate rival Cincinnati in their regional semi. OSU led by 12 at halftime, but fell behind by four in the second half before closing strong for the win. Deshaun Thomas had 26 points and Jared Sullinger added 23 points and 11 rebounds in that win … OSU improved to 11-2 all-time in games to reach the Final Four with its win over Syracuse. Sullinger had 19 points and seven rebounds, while Lenzelle Smith Jr. broke through with 18 points as OSU knocked off SU to reach the Final Four. Thomas added 14 points and William Buford had 13 for the Buckeyes … Next up is a rematch with Kansas, which took a 78-67 win over OSU on Dec. 10 in Lawrence. Sullinger missed that game with back spasms … OSU has been to 10 (really 11) Final Fours and five previous title games. But only has one national title (1960) to show for it.

* Coach Matta Says: “As I take a moment to reflect, I mean, I don't know if I could be prouder of a basketball team in terms of everything that they've been through. We never lost two games in a row. You look at the losses we had this year, they were all hard fought games. But I think the thing that makes me the most proud is these guys kept getting better. The thing I enjoy the most about this team is they've grown to enjoy the process, and I think that's something as a head coach that you look for with your team, that they enjoy that.”

* Helwagen Says: OK, it was a circuitous route, but Ohio State (finally) lived up to its preseason hype by reaching the Final Four. Yes, this was a young team with four sophomore starters. They were picked No. 3 in the preseason, but dropped into the second five after a span of three losses in five games in February. The Buckeyes have come out of it, though, and won eight of their last nine to reach the Final Four. Oddsmakers have OSU viewed as the second favorite behind Kentucky to win it all. It could happen if they get Buford, the team’s lone senior, back shooting and scoring as he did at times this season.

Poor Shooting Dooms Spartans

* Regional Semifinal Result: Playing as the one seed in the West Region, MSU lost to No. 4 seed Louisville 57-44 in Phoenix. MSU ended up 29-8 overall.

* The Skinny: The Spartans picked a terrible time to have one of their worst shooting games in recent memory. MSU was 28.6 percent (14 of 49) from the floor, including 23.8 percent (5 of 21) from behind the three-point arc, against Louisville … Draymond Green ended his MSU career with 13 points and 16 rebounds in the loss. But he was just 5 of 16 from the floor and had six turnovers. Brandon Wood added 14 points for MSU. Nobody else had more than six points … Still, MSU at least reached the Sweet 16 for the 10th time in 17 years under Tom Izzo.

* Coach Izzo Says: “It's hard to feel good and hard to feel bad. It's hard to feel good because I don't think we had anybody that played at all like they played in the last three weeks. But it's hard to feel bad because Louisville deserved it. They outboarded us. They took it at us pretty good. And every time we cut the lead, they brought it back up. So in the end I think this team has had a heck of a run and I think we ran out of gas a little bit emotionally, mentally and physically.”

* Helwagen Says: This is one of those cases where the final game doesn’t tell the full story of a team. Michigan State wasn’t even picked in the preseason top 25. But the Spartans had a great year, winning the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament championships. Green was an unquestioned All-American and the Big Ten player of the year. MSU loses Green, Wood and Austin Thornton to graduation. But the Spartans should contend again behind point guard Keith Appling, dynamic wing Branden Dawson (provided he comes back from his knee injury), athletic big man Adreian Payne and incoming freshman Gary Harris, arguably the nation’s No. 1 shooting guard. Heck, depending on what happens at Ohio State with Sullinger and Thomas, MSU could be the preseason favorite next year.

Indiana Loses Rematch With UK

* Regional Final Result: Playing as the four seed in the South, Indiana lost to top-seeded Kentucky 102-90 in Atlanta. Indiana ended up 27-9 overall.

* The Skinny: The Kentucky game was a rematch from the regular season, when IU stunned Kentucky 73-72 in Bloomington. The rematch was an up-and-down affair with UK ahead 50-47 at halftime before pulling away in the second half … Christian Watford had 27 points, Cody Zeller had 20 and Victor Oladipo had 15 as IU had five players in double figures … The big diffence was at the foul line, where Kentucky took 37 shots (making 35 for an amazing 94.6 percent) while Indiana was just 13 of 17.

* Coach Crean Says: “As I said to my team, there's always sadness, tremendous sadness that hits you later on, but there's a lot more sadness when you realize that your team or your players, that they had something left and they didn't give it all. The Indiana men -- mighty men, as I've learned from my brother‑in‑laws and the way they describe their players -- the Indiana mighty men, they gave it all. They left it all on that court. I'm proud of what they did. We don't take the moral victory in any sense because we lost, but when you do everything you can do and you give every ounce of fight that you have, you can move forward, and that's where we're at.”

* Helwagen Says: After three losing seasons, Indiana made the Sweet 16 for the first time in a decade. So Crean and the Hoosiers were playing with house money. And they definitely made the Kentucky game entertaining. IU could be the favorite in the Big Ten next year with all five starters due back and a host of incoming freshman arriving, including point guard Yogi Ferrell, wing Jeremy Hollowell and power forward Hanner Perea. The big question surrounds the 6-11 Zeller, who could be an NBA draft lottery pick as a one-and-doner.

Wisconsin Drops Heartbreaker To Syracuse

* Regional Semifinal Result: Playing as the four seed in the East Region, Wisconsin fell to No. 1 seed Syracuse 64-63. UW ended up 26-10.

* The Skinny: The Badgers gave Syracuse all it could handle, but the Orange got a huge defensive stop in the closing seconds to secure the win. UW’s Jordan Taylor misfired on a three-point try with three seconds left and teammate Josh Gasser’s off-balance follow missed the mark as well … Taylor, playing his final game as a Badger, had 17 points, four rebounds and six assists … Jared Berggren added 17 points, but was not on the floor for the last possession – even as Wisconsin only needed a two-point field goal to win it … This was Wisconsin’s fifth Sweet 16 appearance in 11 years under coach Bo Ryan.

* Coach Ryan Says: “I'm just really proud of my guys. We can play with anybody in the country, and they proved that again. And I'm just so proud of them, especially all the movement that we made in our progress in different areas defensively and offensively during the season. Any time a team gets better as the year goes on, I think that's a good sign. And Jordan Taylor was a big reason for that; Rob Wilson, as a senior also as leaders. These guys did a great job. We played well enough to have this one on our side, it just didn't work out that way.”

* Helwagen Says: Ryan has won about 651 more games than I have as a college coach. But I will never understand why he didn’t use a timeout to get Berggren into the game for the last possession and/or set up something to get a better look at a game-winning shot. Yes, Wisconsin loses the dynamic Taylor. But there are some good pieces there with Berggren, Gasser, Mike Bruesewitz and emerging guard Ben Brust all due back. Ryan also has 6-7 Sam Dekker, one of the nation’s top shooting guards, joining the team next year. Mark them for at least 20 wins next year as well.

More Big Ten Headlines

* Minnesota advanced to the NIT championship with a 68-67 overtime win over Washington on Tuesday. The Gophers (23-14) got 20 points from Andre Hollins and 18 from Rodney Williams in holding off the Huskies.

The Gophers will play Stanford in the NIT championship game Thursday at 7 p.m. on ESPN. Minnesota has won the NIT twice previously.

* Gophers coach Tubby Smith also got good news when Trevor Mbakwe, his do-it-all power forward, was approved for an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA. Mbakwe’s return means Minnesota could be a contender for an NCAA spot next season.

* Nebraska hired Colorado State’s Tim Miles as its new basketball coach, replacing the fired Doc Sadler. Miles did lead the Rams to a 20-12 record and an NCAA berth this season before losing to Murray State in their opener.

It is somewhat of a curious hire by AD Tom Osborne. You would have thought Osborne would have reached out to find somebody with a Big Ten pedigree. Miles will benefit from a new 16,000-seat downtown arena that will open in 2013-14.

"Bricks and mortar aren't enough," Miles said, "but it's a big factor."

He added, “We've exceeded expectations everywhere we've been, and I intend to continue to do the same. We're dealing with the elite basketball conference in the country, the Big Ten. It's going to be a blast.”

* Illinois reportedly went after VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens to try and replace the fired Bruce Weber. But each of them turned AD Mike Thomas down.

Thomas seemed to be zeroing in on his third choice, Ohio U. coach (and former Ohio State assistant) John Groce. Groce led OU to an impromptu Sweet 16 berth this year. The Bobcats took North Carolina to overtime before succumbing in their regional semifinal.

As the word goes, if Groce leaves Athens for Illinois, OU could target current Ohio State assistant (and former OU big man) Jeff Boals to replace him. But OU had cobbled together as much as $500,000 to try and sway Groce to stay.

* Last week, we surmised that Michigan could be in contention next year if its nucleus stays in place. That seems unlikely, though, as Evan Smotrcyz and Carlton Brundidge each look like they will transfer and freshman point guard Trey Burke may bolt to the NBA.

My NCAA Tournament Picks

My NCAA picks have been a mixed bag. Prior to the start of the tournament, I picked a Final Four of Kentucky, Michigan State, Ohio State and Kansas. So before a game was even played, I did nail three of the four regional champions.

I stayed with those picks last weekend in my updated regional final picks, so I got three of the four right again.

Now we look ahead to the Final Four. Here goes nothing:

Saturday’s Semifinals

* Louisville (30-9) vs. Kentucky (36-2), 6:09 p.m. (CBS) – These teams met earlier this year with Kentucky taking a 69-62 win at home in a foul-plagued game. That will again be the key as UL struggles to deal with playmakers like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But all of the pressure is on Kentucky and coach John Calipari. The Wildcats win, but it won’t be easy. Kentucky 74-70

* Ohio State (31-7) vs. Kansas (31-6), 8:49 p.m. (CBS) – These teams also met earlier in the year with Kansas winning 78-67 at home. As noted, Sullinger did not play in that game. He will be in there and will try and neutralize fellow All-American Thomas Robinson. I just don’t see Kansas scoring with Ohio State and I think the Jayhawks backcourt could also struggle from pressure by Smith and Aaron Craft. The rematch will be better to watch than the first meeting, for sure. Ohio State 75-69

Monday’s National Championship Game

* Kentucky vs. Ohio State, 9:15 p.m. (CBS) – John Calipari has been waiting his whole life for this moment and here it is. He has a pat hand as his talented freshmen contend with Ohio State’s super sophomores. UK knocked OSU out of the tournament a year ago. Athletic big men like Davis have given Sullinger some trouble. I just think Kentucky has too much depth and athletic ability for OSU. Should be a great championship game, though. Kentucky 81-78

Next stop (for me) … New Orleans. See you from the Bayou!!

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