The NCAA Tournament is the greatest sporting event in the world, bar none. Nothing else can top it for number of buzzer beaters, upsets, matchups between good teams, and the human drama that comes from the lose-and-go-home nature of March Madness. But the downside of the NCAA Tournament is that it can tend to overshadow the games that came before it. When Purdue fans remember this season, the most vivid memories will be the games with Tennessee and Virginia. Spartan fans will remember knocking off Duke to get back to the Final Four. Michigan fans... yeah the bad taste of that Texas Tech beatdown is going to linger. Sorry.
But while the memory of the season is still fresh, let’s take a look past the Big Dance back to some of the best conference games of the past season. I was going to make this a top 10, but there were too many good games, and I wanted every team to be represented at least once (though not every team has a W on this list). Ranking the games by excitement or meaningfulness is going to depend a lot on what team you’re a fan of and whether you watched that particular game live on a particular night. So rather than do that, I grouped the games into sets of three, each with a particular theme.
If you think I missed an obvious candidate, let me know in the comments.
Michigan State 65, Michigan 60 — March 17, Chicago IL
When the conference Powers That Be set the schedule for the year, they probably expected that Michigan at Michigan State would be the main event that everything else led up to. But while that game was for a Big Ten championship, Izzo’s boys won it handily. The rematch a week later was much better.
In front of a crowd that was half maize, half green, the best in-state rivalry in the conference (sorry, Purdue/Indiana) played out in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan dominated late in the first half, but Michigan State came roaring back in the second. Iggy was awesome, Winston was clutch, but the best player on the court turned out to be Matt McQuaid, who went 7-13 from deep and dropped 27. Michigan State cut down the nets and completed the 3-0 sweep against the Wolverines, giving Michigan their first loss in the Big Ten Tournament in three years.
Ohio State 79, Indiana 75 — March 14, Chicago IL
Call this one the Comeback That Wasn’t. With both teams sitting on most bracketologists’ Last Four In or First Four Out line, the consensus was that this was a de facto play-in game. Ohio State came out of the gate fast and didn’t let up, going up by 20 with less that eight minutes to go. Everyone in the United Center thought the game was over. But not so fast! The boys in cream and crimson knocked down a few big-time threes to get back into the game, and the Hoosier faithful, who vastly outnumbered the Buckeye fans, came to life.
Ohio State closed it out and secured themselves at spot in the Big Dance. For Indiana, this game was a microcosm of their season. They came out competing and expecting to win, started playing absolutely horribly, realized that they actually had some talent and righted the ship, only to fall short at the end.
Nebraska 69, Maryland 61 —March 14, Chicago IL
There were four games on Thursday of the Big Ten Tournament. Everyone expected Ohio State/Indiana, Minnesota/Penn State, and Iowa/Illinois to be good games. Nebraska/Maryland was the only expected blowout. Nebraska was short-handed, and they’d be throwing Tanner Borchardt out there against Bruno Fernando. This was one of those games where you’d leave early so you’d have enough time to get dinner, right?
Wrong. Borchardt and Fernando both shot 1-4 from the floor, and Tanner actually out-rebounded Bruno 9 to 8. James Palmer was unstoppable at getting to the rim, and Isaiah Roby finally played like the NBA prospect that he was, but the player I’ll remember most from the Huskers was Johnny Trueblood. The walk-on logged 25 minutes and nailed a giant three. At the bar afterwards—like the one bar within walking distance, and it was 6 blocks away; seriously, Chicago, how is the area around the United Center such a total wasteland?—Maryland fans were booing Turgeon’s press conference.
Great Individual Performances
Purdue 99, Penn State 90, Overtime — January 31, State College PA
Carsen Edwards is a beast. Anybody who watched the NCAA Tournament knows that, but let’s not forget that throughout the Big Ten season, there was a long stretch where Purdue’s all-American shooting guard was slumping hard. Such was not the case on a Thursday night in State College, however. In a game that looked easy on paper, Purdue found itself in a three-point shooting contest with the winless-in-the-league Nittany Lions. Myles Dread and Rasir Bolton both shot 4-9 from deep. Penn State led by two late.
Purdue put the ball in Edwards’ hands. Carsen went coast-to-coast, scored at the rim, and took the game to overtime. He finished with 38 points, and Purdue fans saw their Boilers win their third straight overtime victory in the Bryce Jordan Center. The deepest part of his slump was yet-to-come, but games like this are why Matt Painter let Carsen keep shooting throughout.
Michigan State 77, Michigan 70 — February 24, Ann Arbor MI
This was the first meeting between the Maize & Blue and the Green & White this season, and while it was a close game and something of an upset because Sparty won in Crisler, the game is on the list because it shows why Cassius Winston deserved to be Big Ten Player of the Year.
Winston had 27 points, including going 13-14 from the line, and eight assists. That’s two more assists than Michigan had as a team. Throughout the season we all knew Cash was good, but this was the game where we realized, yep, he can get to the rim whenever he wants, the game moves slower for him than for anyone else, and he doesn’t care if he’s the one who scores or if it’s a teammate—he’s just going to beat you. He did beat Michigan. Then he did it two more times.
Purdue 84, Wisconsin 80, Overtime — January 11, Madison WI
I feel bad about making a loss the memorable performance for Ethan Happ, but in this one Happ played all 40 minutes, scored 31 points, shot 82% from the field, grabbed 13 boards, and hit half of his free throws. Damn. This game was a good one in its own right, too, as it proved Purdue was capable of going on the road and beating a good team, after coming up just short against Florida State and Texas.
But returning to Ethan Happ, he’s going to go down in history as one of the most unique players in Big Ten history. How a 6’10” guy has handles and footwork that good with a jumpsuit that bad is one of the biggest mysteries of all time. The numbers didn’t warrant me including his game at Minnesota, but for you Badger fans, here’s Happ taunting the Minnesota student section. If we were counting down best Twitter moments of 2019, this would definitely be on the list.
Iowa 80, Northwestern 79 — February 10, Iowa City IA
Of a stretch of of six Holy Shit games for Iowa—two squeakers over Indiana, two buzzer beaters, a one point loss to Maryland, and a blowout win over Michigan—this game was definitely the Holy Shittiest, and I mean that in a good way. Northwestern led by 15 with under five minutes to go. This was the last game of the weekend on a Sunday evening. Most people had probably turned the game off at that point.
The Big Ten junkies who stayed tuned in were rewarded. The Hawkeyes clawed back to cut the Wildcat lead to just two with three seconds remaining. Iowa had the ball and inbounded to Jordan Bohannon. Jordan Bohannon pulled up for a three. Jordan Bohannon nailed it. The Hawkeyes went crazy, the fans at home went crazy, and Bohannon began building his legend as the most clutch late game shooter in the Big Ten.
Maryland 78, Indiana 75 — January 11, College Park MD
This is where the slide started. Indiana came into this game ranked, sitting at 12-3 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten. The first half was some ugly, ugly basketball, but the Hoosiers were hitting their ugly shots, whereas Maryland was missing them. Late in the half, IU had Maryland doubled up at 28-14. After the first shot of the second half, IU still led 37-27. And then Maryland scored the next sixteen points.
This was not one of those games where Romeo Langford disappeared for Indiana. The freshman phenom had 28. It was just that the Hoosiers had no answer for Bruno Fernando. The big fella shot 11-12 from the field, including a three pointer, one of just three he made all year. Anthony Cowan dished out 7 assists, more than any game but one the entire season. Maryland would be 5-1 in the Big Ten after this game, and they looked like a title contender. Unfortunately for the Terps, Turge is gonna Turge, and Maryland would never look as good in February or March as they did in January.
Nebraska 93, Iowa 91, Overtime — March 10, Lincoln NE
There was no Big Ten team who played more close games down the wire than the Hawkeyes. They beat Northwestern, Rutgers, and Indiana with some last-second heroics, but fell to Maryland, Tennessee, and in this game to Nebraska, which a lot of people may not remember because it happened during the last game of the regular season after both of these squads had started a hard swoon.
KenPom says this was the 10th most unlikely comeback of the season. Iowa led by nine with 50 seconds to go. That’s a win 99.7% of the time. But not on March 10 in Lincoln. James Palmer hit a three. Then Iowa hit two free throws. They still led by eight with 44 seconds left! Glynn Watson hit a three, but then Iowa hit two more free throws. They still led by seven with 40 seconds left! Then James Palmer hit another three, got a steal, got the ball to Amir Harris, and he made two free throws. Five point swing. Iowa would hit three of their four free throws before the end of regulation, but Nebraska got yet another three and a layup to force overtime, where they would eventually prevail.
OK, This League Has No Bad Teams
Illinois 79, Michigan State 74 — February 5, Champaign IL
There’s an old coach’s saying: “It’s not who you play, it’s when you play ‘em.” That counts double here. Michigan State was one of the best teams in the country for literally the entire year, except for a three game stretch in late January and early February. Illinois, meanwhile, hadn’t won four Big Ten games in a row in two years. In early February, they did just that. Michigan State during their worst stretch wasn’t good enough to beat Illinois during their best stretch. It’s as simple as that.
I still remain skeptical that Brad Underwood’s play-fast style is going to be successful in the Big Ten over the long term, but for any Illinois fans who want to argue with that, this game is Exhibit A. The Illini forced Michigan State to throw the ball away a whopping 24 times, including an uncharacteristic nine from the Big Ten player of the year. The Spartans shot and rebounded well enough to win, but it’s not often you can overcome a -10 turnover margin.
Rutgers 64, Penn State 60 — January 26, State College PA
On paper, at Iowa was the better road win for Rutgers, but that was in the middle of the Hawkeyes’ skid, and Penn State is a regional rival, so I picked this one instead. Looking at the stat line, there’s no standout performance. Yes, Geo Baker had 20, but he did it by going 5-9 from two, 2-6 from three, and 4-6 from the line. Solid, but not the stuff that will get someone on the all-Big Ten team. Rutgers won this game because Penn State took a lot of threes and missed most of them.
But the game itself didn’t matter so much as the meta-game, the narrative. Rutgers won a road game in the Big Ten, just their second ever. This was their third conference win on the season—Rutgers had never won more than three Big Ten games—and it came before the month of February. Rutgers took the momentum from this game and used it as the spark to beat Indiana. At that point, Rutgers fans knew (if they hadn’t figured it out already)—Steve Pikiell is the guy for the Scarlet Knights, and the dark days in the cellar are over.
Penn State 75, Michigan 69 — February 12, State College PA
For the second year in a row, Penn State was a very good team according to the advanced metrics, but a rough non-conference performance with poor strength of schedule and too many close conference losses kept them out of the Big Dance. Make no mistake, though, Penn State was a tough team to beat late in the season, and nobody understood that more than the Michigan Wolverines. More than any other game on their schedule, Michigan can point to this as the loss that cost them a share of the Big Ten title.
Penn Stat was led in this one by, who else, Lamar Stevens. The junior had 26 points and 12 rebounds as the Nittany Lions led pretty much wire to wire. Free throws were the difference in the game, as Penn State shot 34 to the Wolverines’ 16. In the month of February, Penn State was the sixth best team in America, and this game is the best evidence of that.
Minnesota 92, Iowa 87 — January 27, Minneapolis MN
I’m a Big Ten fan, so I appreciate good, hard-nosed defense, but sometimes it’s fun to watch teams who get up and down the floor and just try to outscore the other. That was the case on a cold Sunday night when I tuned into Iowa at Minnesota. It was like Iowa said, “Hey Gophers, you’re going to have to keep up with our scoring barrage” and Minnesota answered “Lol, K.” Minnesota led 55-46 at the half. The Hawkeyes shot 56% from three, but it didn’t matter. Jordan Murphy had 23 and 11, and the Barnyard went crazy as they watched their boys secure a big win over their rivals from down south.
Northwestern 68, Illinois 66 — January 4, Evanston IL
These two teams were both bad, but they’re in-state rivals, so games between them are always good. That was certainly the case this season, as they met three times, with no team winning any of those three by more than five points. They split the season series, met in the Big Ten Tournament, and that game went to overtime. People remember that game, but this one was just as good.
With fifteen seconds left, Northwestern was down by one. AJ Turner missed a shot, but Vic Law grabbed the rebound. The ball came back to Turner, who had no hesitation about firing up another shot. This one was a three, and it went down. Ten seconds left, and the home team was up two. Illinois called timeout, Illinois got Trent Frazier a look, but he missed a potential game-winner. Cats win.
(By the way, if you want to make fans of both schools mad, say when you’re surrounded by them during a Big Ten Tournament game, you might say loudly that Illinois and Northwestern are pretty much the exact same school: good academics and bad basketball.)
Michigan 62, Northwestern 60 — December 4, Evanston IL
I love December conference play. I think it’s one of the best ideas the Big Ten Powers That Be ever had, and looking back on this list I haven’t included a single one of those games yet, so here’s a good one.
Michigan came into this game fresh off routings of North Carolina and Duke. Earlier in the year, they had obliterated the defending champion at Villanova. There was a strong argument to be made that they were the best team in America.
Northwestern, meanwhile was 6-1, and while they hadn’t racked up any good wins, they had only lost by 2 at Indiana (and this was the Indiana team that blew out Marquette, not the shell of their former selves that they became later). They were undefeated at home, and home was a newly-renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena, after a year of having to play away from campus.
Until the final buzzer sounded, it looked like Northwestern might be having one of those years like Nebraska had in 2014—riding a great record in a shiny new arena to a better-than-expected record and an NCAA Tournament berth. By the way, Nebraska’s only home loss in 2014? To Michigan, by one. Obviously things didn’t play out that way for Northwestern, but knowing only what we knew when the game was played, Michigan/Northwestern was one of the best games of the year.
As I look back on this list, it seems kind of crazy that there are three games played at the Bryce Jordan Center, easily the worst environment in the Big Ten, and zero at Mackey, which is arguably the best. You could add Michigan State at Purdue and I’d be good with that.
My fifteen games include zero wins for Indiana, Wisconsin, or Maryland. You could make the case to add any of Indiana at Michigan State, Michigan at Wisconsin, or Purdue at Maryland to the list. It’s also odd that the Indiana/Purdue rivalry didn’t make the cut, whereas the other two in-state rivalries did. But I was at the close Indiana/Purdue game, and believe me, every single fan from both sides came out of Assembly Hall that night wanting to gouge their eyes out.
I watched thirteen of the fifteen games above, ten on TV and three (the BTT games) in person. The games I missed were Iowa at Nebraska and Michigan at Penn State, but the latter was a willful decision as my beloved Boilermakers had just lost to Maryland earlier in the night, and I was getting texts about it so I knew what was happening.
Overall, it was a fun year of Big Ten basketball, but if we’re being honest, ten years from now, apart from Purdue’s games, there are probably only two things from this season that I’ll still remember:
- Ethan Happ can’t shoot free throws.
- Jordan Bohannon has onions the size of coconuts.