The 2009 Big Ten Tournament is underway from Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and judging from the way the crowd looks, it will be a down year for attendance. Not sure if the economy has an impact on that or what. The city of Indianapolis continues to be a great host for this event, and the fans that are here seem to enjoy the atmosphere as well. The games today have not been as entertaining as expected, but nevertheless, they have gone like most people thought they would.
In the first game of the day, the Minnesota Golden Gophers withstood a pesky bunch of Wildcats from Northwestern to outlast them 66-53. It looked as if the Wildcats were in the game to stay, especially in the first half, as Kevin Coble scored 19 of his team's 25 points at the break. The Gophers pulled away early in the second half, only to see the Wildcats come storming back to tie the game, then take the lead midway through the final stanza. In that second half, Ralph Sampson III took over for Minnesota, and in the process, derailed what faint hopes Northwestern had of earning an NCAA bid. The Wildcats looked pretty good, as they had all season long, but just couldn't quite get over the hump against a talented Minnesota squad. Even though Northwestern deserves an NCAA berth, they won't get one because their record simply isn't good enough.
The second game of the day had major implications on the Fighting Illini, because the winner was who the Illini would face in their first game of the tourney on Friday. Illinois had beaten both teams already this season, and only played Iowa once. The game started off with a Michigan flurry, and pretty much stayed that way the entire time. Michigan, who took a 40-19 lead at the half, put it on cruise control in the second half and walloped the hapless Hawkeyes 73-45 in a game that never was close. DeShawn Sims scored 27 points for Michigan, and had their first 14 points of the game. Iowa never had an answer for him the entire game, and it showed in the final tally. It seems as if Iowa's previous coach, Steve Alford, ran down that program worse than anyone imagined and the main question now is whether or not Todd Lickliter, the Hawkeyes' current coach, has enough time to fix it. He has some talent, just not enough of it yet.
The third and final game of the opening day featured Penn State and Indiana, who were the doormats of the Big Ten this season. Illini fans know full well about the Nittany Lions, so I won't go into detail about them, but Indiana is a team that has struggled on many levels this season. Granted, new coach Tom Cream wasn't left with much under the Sampson scandal, but at least they have tried this season. Sitting at my seat on press row right behind the Indiana bench, it is fun to watch Crean in action. His motions say enough about the season that they are having. The Nittany Lions took a 38-25 lead into the locker room at halftime, and came out in the second half shooting gangbusters and put to the hurts to the Hoosiers 66 to 51. Not much went right for Indiana in this game, although the Champaign product Verdell Jones III had a good game, scoring 23 points. However, the Nittany Lions' Jermelle Cornley had a good game of his own, scoring 22 points on the night. Rest in peace, IU, there's always next year. As for the Nittany Lions, they live on to play another day and take one more step closer to an NCAA Tournament bid of their own.
Which brings us to the task at hand, which is the Illini's next game. Knowing they had a first round bye this year, they could focus their attention on the Michigan-Iowa game, because they would be taking on the winner of that game. But, some breaking news has developed in the Illinois camp concerning Chester Frazier. Apparently Frazier sustained a hand injury on Wednesday in practice, and the news isn't good at all. He may be out for the remainder of the tournament, as he is currently listed as doubtful. This is a huge blow to the Illini, because Fraizer is known for his defense and even though he doesn't score a whole lot, he manages to be a good floor leader and getting other players open shots. The Wolverines like to run and gun, and the loss of Frazier could play into their hands to make this a track meet, something the Illini do not want to do. But, you play the hand that you are dealt, and we will soon see what kind of a gambler Bruce Weber is.
More follows on Friday for day 2 of the tourney.