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John U. Bacon on surprises and disappointments in Big Ten men's and women's basketball tournaments

u of m basketball players holding championship sign
U-M Photography
The Michigan men's basketball team won its first regular-season Big Ten title since 2014, but another conference member believes it deserved a share of the championship.

It's conference tournament time in college basketball. There have been upsets and disappointments in the Big Ten men's and women's tournaments in Indianapolis.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou for a look at the highs and lows. 

Michigan State makes an early exit

On Friday, the Michigan men face Maryland. The Terrapins advanced Thursday by beating Michigan State 68 to 57.  Michigan State fans were disappointed, but maybe not surprised, by the Spartans' quick exit from the Big Ten tournament. MSU got some big wins late in the season, but did not reach coach Tom Izzo's usual levels.

Izzo has led Michigan State to 22 consecutive NCAA tournaments. Bacon believes he should and will get the call for a 23rd when March Madness selections are announced Sunday.

"With the loss [to Maryland] they slid on a lot of the charts from the 61st team in to the 63rd team in. Not a list you want to be flirting with when 68 get in. But they're comfortably in at this point," Bacon says. "Not every [MSU] team is going to be great. You have to replace [last season's star] Cassius Winston, one of the greatest players Michigan State has ever seen at point guard. And the team does not shoot very well. That's a problem in basketball, but they grind it out."

A big season for Michigan and a complaint from Illinois

In his second year as head coach at Michigan, Juwan Howard led the Wolverines to their first regular-season conference title since 2014.

But Illinois says it deserves at least half of that championship. 

Bacon says Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman's argument is wrong. 

"When the season started, the Big Ten A.D.'s, including Josh Whitman, knew they were going to be facing a weird season with COVID delays and postponements and cancellations. So, they voted that the Big Ten champion would be determined not by total wins, as it usually is, but by winning percentage, knowing that some teams were going have to skip some games," Bacon says.

"Sure enough, Michigan had to take two weeks off. They played three fewer [conference] games than Illinois. So Illinois finishes with 16 wins and four losses. Michigan finishes with 14 wins, two fewer, but three losses. Michigan's winning percentage is .824 and Illinois' is .800. So by the rules you agreed to, you lost. And yet that's inconvenient for Illinois."

Michigan is ranked fourth in the country, but the Wolverines lost their last regular-season game to Michigan State. Bacon expects them to bounce back in the Big Ten tournament and in the NCAA tourney, as well. He says the key is getting back to what brought them success.

"They lost the last game at Michigan State for two reasons. One, [MSU] is underrated. Two, Michigan had already won the Big Ten title two days earlier. Michigan State had to win that game and they won it. Michigan State's playing for their lives and Michigan was playing for basically nothing. Now, [Michigan's] playing for ... a Big Ten tournament title. And if they're lucky, they'll face Illinois in the finals on Sunday." 

Surprise, suprise

In the Big Ten women's tourney, there were two big surprises Thursday. Seventh seed Michigan State upset second seed Indiana 69 to 61. It was a huge win for an unranked MSU team over a team in the top nationally. 

On Friday, Michigan State will playing for its third win in as many days when the Spartans face Iowa. The winner advances to the tournament final.

The Michigan women were on the wrong side of the other big surprise.

The Wolverines had a higher seed than Northwestern, but lost 65 to 49.

The Wolverines are also ranked 13th in the country and Northwestern was unranked.  

Bacon says the Wolverines could still make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, but the showing against Northwestern doesn't help.

"Because you go from a likely fourth seed, a top 16 team, to a likely fifth seed. They've had a great season, but that loss that has made it a little tougher."

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Radio staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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