Big Ten surprise teams on tournament bubble

By Etheria Modacure

It was supposed be the season when the University of Minnesota could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Penn State University and the University of Michigan were deemed good but are struggling to make it to postseason play.

For all three teams, the season hasn’t turned out as many expected. Penn State and Michigan are on the bubble of the NCAA tournament and Minnesota appears to be headed to the National Invitational Tournament, the junior bracket.

Penn State is led by senior Talor Battle and posted 15 wins with seven of those victories against top-100 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index. Michigan is led by former Miami Heat point guard Tim Hardaway’s son, Tim Hardaway Jr.

The Michigan Wolverines haven’t had a winning season since 2008–2009 when they were 21-14 and lost in the NCAA tournament’s second round as their bracket’s No. 10 seed.

The Wolverines began their season with three consecutive victories before losing to the then No. 9–ranked

Syracuse University Orangemen on Nov. 26. Michigan entered conference play with a 10-2 record but no signature victories. Head Coach John Beilein said despite what some may view as a soft opening schedule, the team played a top-20 slate this season.

“We’ve had a few disappointing moments this season,” Beilein said. “The loss to Wisconsin and the way we lost was disappointing, but we got up again. We went to Minnesota and took a heck of a shot from them and were able to win the game. It could’ve been 2-0, 0-2. It turned out to be 1-1.”

The Wolverines lost 53-52 to the University of Wisconsin on Feb. 23, on guard John Gasser’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer. They lost to the University of Illinois on Feb. 16, 54-52, when Wolverines guard Stu Douglass missed a last second shot in Champaign.

“The last three games have all been at the buzzer,” Beilein said when asked if he thought the last two weeks featured single-elimination games. “All games have been like this. I don’t know if it helps or not, but it can’t hurt to certainly have your team know how important the details of the game [are] and have confidence and poise when the game is on the line.”

Another team looking to improve its tournament resume is Penn State. The Nittany Lions played one of the toughest schedules in the nation this season and notched three victories against ranked opponents.

Penn State defeated then No. 18–ranked Michigan State University at home on Jan. 8 and followed that up with a victory against Illinois on Jan. 11. Illinois was ranked No. 16 at the time. The Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin, which was ranked No. 17 on Jan. 29.

The Nittany Lions haven’t played in the postseason since the 2008–2009 season when they won the NIT championship against Baylor University. The last NCAA tournament appearance for Penn State was in 2001, when they reached the Sweet 16.

Battle, point guard for Penn State, said reaching the tournament would be the perfect way to finish his career in University Park, Penn.

“That’s the most important thing to me,” Battle said. “All the individual statistics, they go a long way. But when I leave, I want to say I played in the NCAA tournament. That would be the greatest achievement, never mind all of my individual accolades.”

Head Coach Ed DeChellis said he is proud of his team as it continues battling to make the NCAA tournament. When asked if he thought his team had a chance to make the tournament, he sarcastically replied “sure” but changed to a serious tone as he addressed this topic.

“Like I’ve told the [players], we’re still on life support,” DeChellis said. “You’ve got to win, and you’ve got to win your next game. Every game is a [tournament] game, I told them. And it’s an opportunity to build

your resume.”

While Penn State and Michigan scratch and claw their way into March, Minnesota has underachieved this season from lofty expectations placed on them in the preseason. After losing guard Al Nolen to a broken foot in January, the Golden Gophers lost eight of their last nine contests before March 5.

The Big Ten conference tournament begins on March 10 in Indianapolis. Eleven teams will compete and the champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Minnesota was ranked as high as No. 14 by the Associated Press but has fallen out of the top 25 standings and had 11 conference losses by March 3. The Golden Gophers were looking extend their streak of 20-win seasons, but it won’t happen in 2011.

Head Coach Tubby Smith was adamant about his team committing too many turnovers during this stretch as he said after a loss to Northwestern University on March 2. Smith said it’s been tough to see his team go through this period after high preseason expectations.

“Nobody wants to lose,” Smith said. “Nobody expected us to lose these games, but obviously we haven’t done the job. Getting our players through these last minutes of the game [has been tough]; three or four games now it’s been the same scenario.”