Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Familiar Feeling, A New Feeling

In less than 72 hours, Michigan will take the field time zones away from Ann Arbor, in a stadium of red and white on a Thursday night. Like the beginning of every campaign, there's a growing sense of a paradoxical far-off imminence (something that is probably a magnificent word in the German lexicon not available to English speakers).

The first game is near, yet far. We are all hurtling through the dark and dusty space that is the offseason -- a wormhole beckons. Next to it is a sign: "Here for college football." It is both far away and very close, the wormhole. Who knows how long it will take to get there, and what will happen once there.

You spend hours and hours waiting, but really they're months. February passes, and then you wake up one day and the snows have melted for good. A walk outside without an umbrella becomes a foolish venture in the rainy days of spring. Summer hits, those dog days.

Then August. August, August, August. Time stretches and bends and distorts. As a fan, it almost feels closer to football on Aug. 1 than it does on Aug. 31.

But it's game week: finally.

This time, things are different. Not in the sense that "Michigan is back," or anything like that. Things are different -- and as I write this, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it is.

*** 

I haven't written here in a while -- life has gotten in the way. Nothing has changed about my obsession with Michigan sports, the obsession that pushed me to start this thing on a perfectly uneventful summer night five years ago.

But as anyone knows, when you get a little bit older, things change, particularly once you are no longer a student (undergraduate or graduate) and are, what they might call, a "real person." This is a terrifying metamorphosis, for all of the obvious reasons, but perhaps one of the least consequential subset of changes is the way fandom changes over time.

For the first time last year, I found myself getting up during game action to grab something from the kitchen. There was once a time when, once the game started, I did not move from my sitting spot, as if tethered to it for eternity or the end of the game, whichever came first.

Last year, during the Indiana game, I vaguely remember falling asleep during a portion of the third quarter. It was a long week and a dreary day, and even the surprising success of Ann Arbor's own Drake Johnson couldn't fend off a doze.

Maybe I was tired. Maybe I'm getting older. Maybe it was something else: indifference, a dissipation of pointless resolve.

***

A counterpoint, exemplifying said pointless resolve. Once, as a freshman at Michigan, in 2007, I stayed for the duration of the Oregon game. Until the bitter end, I always thought, and that didn't change then. A reasonable person would think of the hours wasted at a game that was headed for dissatisfaction: I, like some indeterminate thousands in that stadium, decided to stay, out of some misplaced sense of duty (or, less romantically, the selfish ability to say, years down the road, that I stayed, pointlessly).

Even after the hire of Jim Harbaugh, the offseason took hold, and I will admit -- and this is alarming to write -- that a cousin of indifference continued to hold sway. Life has a way of flicking away less consequential things, sports and the watching of them. At least, it tries to do that.

And so the months went by, and Harbaugh stories rolled in: the summer of Harbaugh. He helped people involved in car accidents, he endeared himself to many by stonewalling Colin Cowherd, he upset coaches far away by setting up camps on their turf, he recruited, he talked about Bo, he unleashed the crazy.

And yet, slightly older me viewed it from afar, bemused but not invested, yet. We've seen this before, after all. Contrast this approach with what I imagine would have been my reaction to all of this as an 18-year-old, or a Michigan sophomore, or even someone a year out of Ann Arbor, and the gulf is vast.

I would have once yelled upon hearing the news of the Harbaugh hire, shared every story I read about his antics, texted and called friends and family to talk about the man who had returned.

Just the other week, I explained to someone how I thought a 7-win season in 2015 is a reasonable expectation, as if I was in a lukewarm conversation about mutual funds or a plant-based diet low in cholesterol or the hopes of an NFL franchise. They could lose to Minnesota, you know. Utah is assuredly a loss, I posited. The gap is too wide between Michigan and the teams at the top, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Let's wait until next year, I thought. But then next year, the linebackers are gone. And next year, the mutual fund of quarterbacks, Jake Rudock, is gone, leaving a yet-unproven Shane Morris and a parade of even-less-unproven young signal callers. And next year, Michigan has to travel to both East Lansing and Columbus. Worries, all of them.

It seems as if life, and its worries, have infiltrated the safe space that has always been college football. Even when it isn't safe (see: 2014 Michigan football, or, really, almost anything from the past eight years), it was something to be excited about, to invest in and not care about the repercussions.

The beginning of each season was once like what I imagine the moment when a first-time skydiver steps to the edge, the infinite air ahead and below and above. But, over time, it became something else: something to be approached reasonably, with caution, with care.

This, it goes without saying, is a regrettable development.

Sometimes, it takes something small to kick you out of something like that, to climb out of a place where caution and reason exert their influence, like a 3-yard hitch on 3rd and 5.

The other day, I read this story about Harbaugh's reaction to a phone call from Michael Jordan. As a native of Illinois, something clicked. Here was Harbaugh, revered by many to be the man destined to return Michigan to a prior state, reacting with awe to a call from -- and I unabashedly say this, despite the aforementioned pseudo-cynicism -- MJ, a hero of my childhood.

"Come onnn, who is this?" he said.

I don't know if that transcription is an embellishment, or a reflection of the conversation. Did he really say "onnn," like someone truly awestruck, like, for example, me if I received an unexpected phone call (a redundant phrase, of course) from Michael Jordan?

Did he? You might think this a splitting hair, a negligible footnote.

It matters, not because of its inherent truth or untruth, but because its truth or untruth doesn't matter.

And with that realization, as I've come to it now, I realize that I'm ready for football. I'm ready for the weekly parade: the afterglow of the previous game extending to Monday and Tuesday, the beginnings of mental preparation on Wednesday and Thursday, the imminence of Friday, and the anguish and exaltation of Saturday morning.

Harbaugh was awed, I believe, because, quite simply, I think that he was. I really do. It fits with the picture of him as a person, simultaneously aware and unaware of his station in the football universe. It's an agreeable thought, a simple one.

In the summer of Harbaugh, with the man preparing to take his first Michigan team into a season -- how weird is that to type, even now -- he took the time to reflect on a summer phone call with Michael Jordan.

Come onnn. Jim Harbaugh, coaching Michigan?

It's real. No, really.

In a rush, it's all coming into picture. The little human interest stories, the camp quotes, the discussions of his personal quirks, were all seemingly disparate dots, disconnected but amusing, like a standup comedian connecting on approximately two-thirds of his or her jokes. A good show, a spectacle, maybe even memorable.

But they hadn't formed up together, a picture of meaning.

I don't know how many games Michigan will win, but the picture, in these last few weeks, has started to become more clear. Michigan has a coach, a great coach, who has returned to the place of his youth, a place in which he won games and made declarations (guarantees, even).

Forget the football storylines and the personnel hand-wringing: that is a story to cling to, an idea worth investing in, like the idea of the Rich Rodriguez offense was worth investing in or the lovable yet stern persona of Brady Hoke once stood as a beacon of something more. But, of course, there's more to it than those vestiges of Michigan's recent past.

This, this is a story. A combination of proven excellence and quixotic wanderings of the mind. We are witnessing a homecoming, different than any other we've seen.

And if this sounds like a building cult of personality -- if you'll excuse one more intrusion from Cynical Fan -- well, I suppose it's too late for Cynical Fan to pump the brakes on that train. It's out of the station, screeching across the tracks from Salt Lake City to State College, leaving sparks in its wake like a continuous fireworks show, laughing metallically into the quiet heart of America, bombastically announcing its presence wherever it goes.

College football was never meant to be reasonable. It was never meant to be analyzed. It was born in a nebulous era when you got maybe one game on TV, or were able to huddle up to a radio, with the hope of hearing something worth remembering. It was born in an information void: you took what you could and filled in the gaps with mythology.

For a little while, I forgot that. Remembering that, I think, was the greatest victory of this offseason.

And this is the moment when I, the previously cynical, walk up to the edge in that college football skydiving aircraft.

What lies below? Who knows. A soft landing spot, maybe, or perhaps not.

But, you know, there's no story in the would-be skydiver who didn't skydive, who stayed in the plane and upon bumping down on a remote landing strip, drives home safe and sound.

It's 2015, the only 2015 season there will ever be. It's 2015, the only first-Jim-Harbaugh-season there will be. It's 2015, the time-space home of the only summer of Harbaugh there will ever be (there will be other summers, in which Harbaugh does Harbaugh things, but this is the only summer of Harbaugh). It's 2015, the only time this particular version of newness will ever be before us.

Forget the rest: that's the crux. That's all there is, and all there needs to be.

Monday, April 6, 2015

(1) Wisconsin 63, (1) Duke 68: Swing, Stagger, Survive

(1) Duke 68, (1) Wisconsin 63 

The shots weren't falling early, as the Big Ten's best, the Wisconsin Badgers, and fellow 1-seed, the Duke Blue Devils, hit the hardwood in Indianapolis tonight.

Near the third-to-last TV timeout of the game, the Badgers led by nine: a title within reach. The crowd roared like a game at the Kohl Center with the Hawkeyes or Illini or Wolverines in town. A December defeat against Duke seemed ready to be avenged.

But first, the prologue.

There's an arrhythmic rhythm to it all. The shots weren't falling early: Duke and Wisconsin got out of the gates to a combined 3-for-9 start from the field.

With every game, there's a feeling out period: what are you trying to do, how will you react to me, should we slow down, should we speed up, is that set working, should we play this lineup against that lineup.

But that could be set aside, a product of nerves, the stage, the fantastic zipping of electrons back and forth, up and down the court.

Once the nerves settled, and the initial roar dulled only slightly into a microwave background of waiting-to-be-released hysteria, the Badgers started to struggle. Despite a 3-for-6 start from three, the Badgers were 3-for-12 from inside the arc.

Early returns indicated that the Badgers would have to shoot their way into a more comfortable offensive setting, one in which Duke's defensive presences would have to extend up closer to the arc.

Despite that, UW trailed just 23-17 with 6:45 to play in the first half. But they needed something, having gone on a four-plus minute field goal drought.

Then, a Sam Dekker putback gave them life. Frank Kaminsky swiped a ball in the low post at the other end, allowing Traevon Jackson to go coast-to-coast for two.

Kaminsky converted an and-1 that made the arena boom like the Kohl Center. Justise Winslow then converted a big two for Duke, ending what had been a 7-0 run for Bo Ryan's squad, but perhaps the biggest development in this stretch was Okafor picking up a second foul with just under five minutes left in the half (Winslow also had two fouls at this point).

The Blue Devils thus went to the 2-3, which the Badgers summarily beat with ease, a Dekker layup good for his seventh and eighth points of the half.

Oddly, the Badgers, perhaps unjustifiably not known for their offensive rebounding prowess -- instead known as a "get back and play defense" team -- dominated on the boards, snagging eight offensive boards to Duke two at one point late in the first half.

Duke gambled late, sitting both Okafor and Winslow -- Wisconsin couldn't make them pay, and the two heavyweights headed to the locker rooms, tied at 31.

This time, the Badgers didn't start slow. Instead, they hit their first three field goal attempts, jumping out to an early 5-point lead. For Duke, it didn't help that Okafor had some trouble finishing around the basket. Despite a couple thunderous dunks early, the freshman from Chicago missed a few bunnies in traffic, key misses for a Duke team looking to stay with the hyperefficient Badgers.

Making matters worse for Okafor, he picked up his third foul at the 16:50 mark on a strong Kaminsky take to the basket, spinning and spinning like a top that won't stop.

The Badgers didn't stop there, and the mostly UW-partisan crowd joined them.

Bronson Koenig awoke in the second half, scoring nine points in the first six minutes, helping the Badgers up their lead to nine.

Duke looked punch drunk -- discombobulated, unsteady, not to mention without Winslow or Okafor on the floor.

That didn't last for long. Grayson Allen buried a triple, then scored on a traditional three-point play on a fearless drive to the rim, cutting UW's lead to three. Forget Okafor, Winslow, Jones and Cook: how about the freshman from Jacksonville?

Fortunately for the Badgers, they have the luxury of a big man in Nigel Hayes, who began his Wisconsin career without a three-point shot, and this year become not just an okay three-point shooter, but a very good one (38 percent). He buried one, his third of three attempts, to push the lead back to six with 11:43 to play.

 On the not so bright side for the Badgers, Duke entered the bonus with over 11 minutes to play, after hardly fouling at all in the first half. Duke attempted four free throws in the first half -- by the under-8 TV timeout, they'd attempted 11 in the second half.

Duke cut the deficit to one, 51-50, finally bringing Okafor back into the fold.

But, just like that, back to the bench he went. Less than a minute into his return, he picked up his fourth, once again trying to check and spinning Kaminsky.

A theme all night, the Badgers had trouble taking advantage of mismatches. With Duke's Tyus Jones on Duje Dukan, Jones was able to draw a charge call (whether it was the right call is another discussion).

The two teams slogged their way through an ugly couple of minutes of basketball. Foul, missed jumper, foul. Foul foul foul.

Two fighters, tired, grabbing, clutching for respite.

Then they started swinging.

The Badgers went to the Player of the Year, Kaminsky, who finished for two. At the other end, Jones buried a cold-blooded trey to give the lead back to Duke, 59-58, the 16th lead change of the contest.

The TV timeout was welcomed like the end-of-round bell. Clang. Assistants buzzing, offering bits of wisdom that were almost as much emotional in their content as they were practical.

With 3:22 to play, what else can you say? Hit them, don't get hit. Survive, play by play. There are no loping knockouts now, just survival.

Quiet for so long, Okafor went to work against Kaminsky in the post, giving him a spin move of his own. Despite Kaminsky's best bear hug, the Lisle, Ill., native couldn't stop his fellow Illinoisan from scoring his first bucket in four score and seven years.

After a big Duke stop, Okafor collected an offensive rebound and scored to put Duke up five. Koenig's acrobatic layup attempt fell off the mark at the other end. Despite a video review, and the ball appearing to go off a Blue Devil, Duke got the ball.

The Badgers were reeling, needing a stop. They didn't get it.

Tyus Jones, again, buried a three from the top. Wisconsin fell, a thud, followed by eight fast seconds.

They got up, and Kaminsky buried a three to keep them alive. Duke missed an ill-advised run-out attempt at the rim, and Koenig made them pay, delivering a no-look pass to Hayes, who slammed one home, cutting the deficit to three with 50 seconds to play.

The Badgers fouled, and Jones, the best free throw shooter in the ACC, buried two. Koenig couldn't convert a tough jumper attempt, all but ending things for the Badgers.

The confetti rained down: Duke 68, Wisconsin 63.

Bo Ryan's squad led by nine with 13:23 to play, but a combination of Tyus Jones, some late-game heroics from Okafor -- a game that was far from his best -- and the Badgers oddly playing a little too much one-on-one basketball instead of the team ball the program has been built on, all conspired to down the Badgers on a night when their first national title since 1941 seemed within their grasp.

Much will be said about the foul disparity from the first half to the second, or the decision to give Duke the ball late despite it appearing to go off the Blue Devils out of bounds.

But those points, while possibly valid, detract from what was a great game and a fitting cap to an exciting tournament and season.

With the victory, the first-seeded Blue Devils secured their fifth NCAA title, while the Badgers fell for the second year in the Final Four, this time on the doorstep of a title.

When things looked bleak for Duke, Grayson Allen -- not Okafor or Jones or Cook -- brought them from the brink. If you're looking for a Spike Albrecht, he's it, albeit a great deal more heralded out of high school than Albrecht was when he went off against Louisville two years ago.

As for Wisconsin, the loss caps another tremendous season for the Badgers, the second year in a fascinating reinvention experiment in Wisconsin basketball. The Badgers of last year and this year have been almost unrecognizable from the UW teams of previous years -- these teams combined the same old elements of turnover-averse, efficient basketball, this time doing it with multiple NBA talents and a strong supporting cast that could run when necessary and slow you down whenever things were going well, which was most of the time for the Badgers. Wisconsin finishes the season with 31 wins to just four losses, two of those against Duke, one that will be remembered and felt far more than the other.

And so the old season comes to a close. Time heals all wounds, they say -- but it doesn't heal all of them. For the players coming back, whether in Madison or East Lansing or Tuscon or Spokane or South Bend or Lexington, in Louisville or Ames or Charlottesville or Washington D.C. or Philadelphia, time will do nothing but allow it all to boil quietly, bubbling over intermittently and subsiding, a continual unbelief of the reality of defeat.

With that feeling, those players enter the offseason.

But there is no offseason. The season begins now.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Season

The character of a season is a funny thing.

It's a feedback loop; you feel good, then better, then better. You feel bad, then worse, and worse. The season in February, May and July is exactly what you want it to be. The season changes by the day as it rocks in the calm and violent waters of the offseason, with all of us on the same vessel, hoping for a future that is bright.

In January, following the post-bowl malaise or excitement, the next season is an unrecognizable blip, a constellation of stars in the shape of something that you can't recognize until someone points it out to assure you that that is the Big Dipper, yes, yes it is.

In February and March, the squeaking of shoes and pounding of the rock drowns out the urge to stargaze for a time. The urge persists, a residual cosmic microwave background of subtle feeling -- it's an ice cream cone you had once on a hot summer day as a kid or the first time you felt something that wasn't a direct product of adult supervision. You know it's out there, was out there, and for a second, you wonder if those facts are even true. Was the ice cream that cold and that good? Did Denard Robinson burn rubber on fields across the Midwest?

In April come the rains -- or, in Chicago, the snow persist, falling lightly upon all the living and all the college football fans. But spring games pop up all over the landscape like so many rogue flowers burying stakes in the unforgiving terrain of sidewalk cracks, yearning for light and water, as is their biological imperative.

And then it all goes away, melting against the return of the sun, which, in these parts, is a nomad of sorts, coming and going as it pleases. The leaves bask in the glow as the thwack of bats symphonizes the song of summer.

In July, the air takes on the smell of bratwurst and flags fly high on the beaches and front porches of America, whistling against the breeze. It is like entering a hall of mirrors, where everything feels familiar yet unrecognizable. Amid the noise, something incubates.

Then August, and boom. The puzzle is missing pieces, but it begins to take shape. Is it too late to go back? Can we go back, to January, April, July? Is it too late to reject the imposition of reality, instead of enjoying a vague, limitless future?

Pads pop and helmets metamorphize, first pristine and gleaming then scratched and weathered. Somewhere in between, football has begun to happen, in Ann Arbor and Columbus and Tuscaloosa, in South Bend and Norman and Los Angeles and Lincoln, in Tallahassee and Knoxville and Austin and Eugene.

On the doorstep of the future, depth charts are no longer things to be hopeful or despondent about; they just are. What you've done is what you've done, and what you are is what you are.

Banners unfurl and bands boom as teams run onto the field for the first time during August's last hours. Things then fall apart, or they don't. There's no in between.

Then it's over.

---

The air slips out of the whole thing, slowly, then suddenly. Purgatorial January introduces itself, a new subletter you won't take the time to get to know. The snow packs the ground, layer upon layer, blanketing the past in forgetful white. For a time, we slip into amnesia, forgetting what just happened or, a different sort of amnesia, remembering it in some other light, something other than what it was.

The college football fans sees his breath, then it goes away. His shirt is drenched with the rains, then not. Sweat trickles in summer, then not. Then it is time again, to do it all over.

He doesn't find the character of the season then -- no. That comes much later, if at all.

January through August moves with the same rhythm each year. But from August through the first week of January, college football builds its identity for that year, like a child stepping into the world. You don't know what it means to be 18 when you're 19 -- you certainly don't know it when you're 18.

But, years down the road, when you look back and try to push away the fog, try to remember what made one season different than another, you just may know. I don't know what 2013 meant, or the year before it, or the year before.

And when this old season comes to a close, I don't know what it will mean, either. With time, maybe the meaning of the season will become clear, as our lives speed along and memories stick to seasons like barnacles clinging to a boat in a storm.

Then again, maybe each season is just a season, a collection of games dependent upon luck and weather and physiological frailties. Maybe each batch of results is just an agnostic exclamation of uncertainty; maybe Michigan is back, maybe Michigan is doomed, based on so much carefully curated evidence.

More likely, the character of a season is not a statement, but a feeling, a departure from the rhythmic norm of the offseason months. Disappointed in 2005, surprised in 2011, elated in 1997. It's really very simple, when you think about it.

The season is a feeling, years down the road -- I say that with a certainty I admit I might not have. But, it is my choice to make it, so I do.

And, years down the road into the future -- a horizon with all dimensions and none -- the character of the 2014 season emerge, when that feeling becomes clear.

The season itself is an introduction. You say hello and know its name; its character comes later.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion: An Early Look at 2014-15 Purdue basketball

Hello there, it's been a while. If there's anybody out there, I took a few weeks or so off from the blog world after Michigan's loss to Kentucky, partially from spring malaise but mostly because discerning spring football tea leaves or worse, talking about recruiting, isn't really my thing.

In any case, I've started a little preview/retrospective basketball series over at Maize n Brew, which will run each Wednesday from today until there are no more teams to preview (yes, I will even do Rutgers and Maryland).

I started with the struggling Purdue Boilermakers today, who didn't make the tournament for the second straight season and appear to be in for another rough season, barring several guys really blowing up. Could it be Painter's last season in West Lafayette? The best early guess is yes, but when a team like Nebraska can jump up into the top four of the conference, anything is possible.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Michigan's comeback falls short, Badgers knock off Wolverines in Ann Arbor

No. 15 Michigan 62, No. 21 Wisconsin 75

The Wolverines have taken care of business on the road this season, notching wins in Madison, East Lansing and Columbus; on Sunday, Michigan's season became about defending its home court. 

The No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers rolled into Ann Arbor this afternoon with a three-game winning streak, on the heels of a 1-5 stretch. Wisconsin's defense tightened up after that brutal stretch and, lo and behold, the Badgers got back on the winning track. 

However, winning at home (or on the road against a team like Illinois) is a different animal from winning in Ann Arbor against the team tied for the top spot in the conference standings. 

The Badgers clearly came ready to play, as they jumped out to an early 12-2 lead, paced by a pair of threes from Josh Gasser. The script was a little different this time around; this time, the Badgers were the ones shooting the lights out early in the game. 

Meanwhile, Michigan struggled on the offensive end, with just seven points by the second media timeout. Also, as is Wisconsin's defensive style, the Wolverines didn't have a single three-point attempt to their name by that point in the game. 

Michigan had no answer for Frank Kaminsky on the block and the slashing Sam Dekker, either. The Badgers are by no means a great offensive rebounding team --in fact, Bo Ryan de-emphasizes it in favor of getting back on defense-- but UW had six offensive boards through 11 minutes or so of play. If the Wolverines couldn't find a way to clean up on the glass and toughen up on the block, it appeared as if the Badgers were poised to upset them in Ann Arbor. 

Michigan continued to take the long twos Wisconsin routinely offers, but, unlike the matchup in Madison, the Wolverines couldn't connect. More importantly, the Badgers consistently held Michigan to one-and-done. 

With UW dominating every aspect of the game in the first half, the Wolverines might have been lucky to be down "just" 34-19 at the break. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Badgers cruise in West Lafayette, snap 3-game losing streak

No. 9 Wisconsin 72, Purdue 58

When the Badgers and Boilermakers took the floor at Mackey Arena today, both looked to rebound: literally and figuratively. 

The Badgers, after a program record 16-0 start, dropped their last three games (at Indiana, Michigan and at Minnesota). Meanwhile, Purdue rolled into Evanston with a three-game winning streak Tuesday night only to leave with a loss, an ugly 63-60 double overtime defeat. 

While the Boilermakers were not considered to be Big Ten title contenders, a win against a top 10 Wisconsin team would do wonders for its tournament seed (Big Ten and Big Dance). 

As for Bo Ryan's Badgers, a fourth straight loss would not only certainly knock them out of the top 10, it would, in all likelihood , knock them out of the Big Ten regular season title race. 

Unlike UW's trip to Minneapolis, the Bagders had a good deal more pep in their collective step today in West Lafayette. The Badgers jumped out to a 17-6 lead five minutes into the first half. However, the biggest early development was A.J. Hammons going to the bench with two fouls just a minute and a half into the game. 

A few minutes later, UW's Frank Kaminsky picked up his second as well; the Badgers struggled mightily without Kaminsky on the floor in The Barn, so the Badgers' balance would once again be tested. 

The Badgers led 20-13 halfway through the half, and while it was still early, the Badgers' defense was several shades better than it had been against Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota. Thirteen minutes into the half, Purdue was shooting just 35 percent (7-for-20) from the field. 

To make matters worse for the Boilers, Matt Painter rolled the dice by playing Hammons in spite of his foul situation. It backfired, as Hammons picked up his third foul with 9:51 left in the half. Without Hammons on the floor, Purdue would have to make shots from the outside. Coming into today's game, Purdue ranked just 7th in the Big Ten in three-point percentage during conference play (32.7 percent). 

Defensively, Purdue was up to the challenge, particularly after the Badgers' hot start from the field. The Boilermakers went into the half down 32-29, despite not having Hammons on the floor very much at all (zero first half points). 

No. 10 Iowa rolls in Evanston, handles upset-minded Wildcats

Fouad Egbaria

Northwestern 50, No. 10 Iowa 76

When the Northwestern Wildcats and Iowa Hawkeyes in their current forms meet, the difference in philosophy is stark. The Wildcats, like pre-2013-14 Wisconsin, play tough defense and slow the game down. The Hawkeyes want to run, run, run. 

Don't look now, but after a brutal home loss against DePaul and three straight thumpings at the hands of Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, Chris Collins's Wildcats have won three of their last four, including a competitive 54-40 loss against Michigan State. Size, skill and depth isn't quite there yet for Northwestern, but their identity is very clear, a crucial development for a program under a first-year head coach. 

When the Wildcats went to Iowa City on Jan. 9, they lost 93-67, allowing the Hawkeyes to score a whopping 1.29 points per possession. They'd have to do a little better than that this afternoon in Welsh-Ryan if they planned on coming away with their fourth win in five games, a win that would, amazingly, move them to 4-4 in the Big Ten. 

Paced by a couple of early threes from Drew Crawford, the Wildcats did just enough to muck things up so that Iowa couldn't run away with things from the start. By the 12-minute media timeout the Hawkeyes led 14-10; however, in typical Iowa fashion, seven different Hawkeyes had scored to get those 14. 

The Hawkeyes eventually surged to a 23-15 lead--it seemed as if Northwestern's hopes of staying in the game were evaporating fast. 

The Wildcats weren't done yet. A Drew Crawford and-1 with just over a minute left cut the Iowa lead to 28-24. After a Melsahn Basabe jumper in the paint with a few seconds left in the half, the Wildcats went into the halftime break down 30-24. All things considered, that is a win for an offensively challenged Northwestern squad against an Iowa team with scoring options all over the floor. 

Of course, the Wildcats would have to turn up the defensive intensity even further in the second half if they were going to pull off their biggest upset yet.