And just like that, we’re down to one.
The Sweet 16 kicked off Thursday with two of the three remaining Big Ten teams looking to keep their seasons alive. Both Michigan and Purdue took the floor in what turned into two very different types of games.
In the end, though, both teams were sent packing with losses — Michigan’s in a down-to-the-wire 69-68 battle with 3-seed Oregon; Purdue in a 98-66 massacre at the hands of the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks.
What can we take away from the two games and the seasons as a whole for the two Big Ten squads?
1. Senior guards aren’t invincible.
I wrote about it four days ago. I applauded the teams that make deep runs in the tournament and the upperclassmen back courts that get them there.
Michigan was that team, and Derrick Walton Jr. was that guy. I was sure of it. Fans and analysts were sure of it. He was destined to be the Kemba Walker of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Walton Jr. carried the Wolverines on his back all season. He was the driving force of the team’s Big Ten Tournament title and made the plays in the first two rounds when his team needed him most.
Now, against another experienced back court, Michigan would rely heavily on its senior leader once more. And it’s not fair to say Walton Jr. let them down.
Walton Jr. left his mark. He finished with a team-high 20 points — tied for a game high — on an efficient 6 of 10 shooting. He was 3 for 5 from deep and a perfect 5 for 5 from the free-throw line. He added five rebounds, eight assists and just two turnovers in 37 minutes played.
In the game’s closing seconds, all eyes were on Walton Jr. as he had a chance to add even more to his legacy at Michigan. Trailing by 1, the guard shook Oregon’s Dylan Ennis and got as good a look as one can get on a last-second jumper, but his shot missed short. It ended the Wolverines’ season and Walton’s career in the maize and blue.
The team wouldn’t have gotten where it did without Walton Jr. Not even close. But not all scripts are written with a storybook ending.
We would have loved to see another Kemba-esque game-winner. We would have loved to see Walton Jr. carry the red-hot Wolverines even deeper into March. But it wasn’t in the cards.
At least not on Thursday.
2. Purdue was more outmatched than we thought.
That’s a bizarre observation. Most of us were pretty sure on how outmatched the Boilermakers were heading into Thursday’s matchup with the run-and-gun Kansas Jayhawks.
Still, Kansas surprised us.
Purdue opened the game as good as they could have, as good a start as any team so far this tournament. The Boilers were feeding the post, forcing Kansas to jack up tough shots and draining threes...absolutely splashing them.
Purdue hit its first four 3-pointers on the day and jumped to an 18-11 lead in the first 6 minutes. The Boilermakers couldn’t afford to get into a shootout with the Jayhawks, but everything was going the way of Purdue early. Even Caleb Swanigan buried a three.
But Purdue never led by more than 8, and the Kansas offense was too deadly to let hang around. The Jayhawks slowly cut into the deficit and took a 38-36 lead at the 4-minute mark on a Josh Jackson dunk. Kansas took a 47-40 lead into halftime and that was all she wrote.
Putting the Jayhawks on pace for 94 points was a bad sign for Purdue and Kansas was even better in the second half (scoring 51). Even when the Boilermakers cut it to 2 — thanks to another three from Swanigan — they were chasing. Kansas snatched a 10-point lead midway through the second half and turned the amps up to 11.
Frank Mason III made 3s; Lagerald Vick made 3s; Jackson dunked. The offense was too much and in the blink of an eye, the lead was 20, then 30, then a 32-point win and on to the Elite 8. It was the only type of game Purdue couldn’t afford to play and it cost them.
It was an up-and-down, strange year for the Big Ten. Wisconsin is the lone wolf from a group that was very top-heavy and pretty abysmal below that. But even as the Big Ten sent three teams to the Sweet 16 — a 4, 7 and 8 seed — and we credited the league as compared to power leagues like the ACC, Thursday was a glimpse into the type of season it was for the Big Ten.
Purdue was solid and they made some noise. A Sweet 16 berth was much needed for Matt Painter after a rough four-year stretch, but the Boilermakers still didn’t have enough pieces to run with the big dogs.
Michigan waited until the end of the season to turn on the jets and it, along with a headline-making plane crash, made them the feel-good story of the tournament. Plus, the Wolverines had a high ceiling.
But even as high as the ceiling was, the team was more comfortable on the ground floor where it spent much of its season. Every win became more exciting, a sign that maybe the peak had passed.
Purdue and Michigan did plenty to please their fans and became the faces of the often-ridiculed Big Ten, but at the end of the day they were fighting a very steep uphill battle.