March 21, 2016
Spartans shocked and Big Ten sputters in NCAA
tournament, but Red Wings rebound behind ‘Z’
By KEITH GAVE
So I tune into the Michigan State-Middle Tennessee game a few minutes late, and I see in the little scoreboard at the bottom of the screen shows Middle Tennessee with 15 and Spartans with 2, and I’m thinking: No worries. That’s just their tournament seedings.
I focus a bit more, reach for my bracket and rip it to shreds. That 15-2 was the score, and the team favored by Vegas odds-makers to win it all was getting spanked. The Spartans couldn’t dig themselves out of that crater, their proud defense giving up 90 points to a monumental underdog and Tom Izzo’s best chance at a second NCAA title gone. Up in smoke. Just like that.
So all that whining and bitching I did in the column last week taking the NCAA tournament committee for dropping Michigan State to the No. 2 line and some other Big Ten powers to seeds that seemed two low? Never mind.
I still believe Michigan State, the Big Ten tournament champ ranked No. 2 in the land in both the Associated Press and coaches’ polls, should have been a No. 1 seed. But it’s harder to make that case after the Spartan’s deplorable performance Friday.
An upset like that, in MSU coach Tom Izzo’s painful post-game remarks, “is what’s really cruel and really cool” about this tournament. And as much as we admire and respect “Mr. March” for all the success Izzo has had over the years in this tournament, we have to pin this one on him. He committed the cardinal coaching sin of not have his team mentally prepared for this one-and-done event.
But that was just the beginning of a demoralizing showing by the Big Ten in this tournament. If anyone has a clue what the No. 5 seed Purdue Boilermakers were doing in the last five minutes of a game they had well in hand, please pass it along to coach Matt Painter. After his team gave Michigan State all it could handle in the Big Ten tournament title game, Painter looked clueless as he watched the Boilermakers squander their lead and ultimately lose to Arkansas-Little Rock.
Kudos to No. 11 seed Michigan and coach John Beilein for giving a high-scoring Notre Dame team a good tussle in the opening round, 70-63, after the Wolverines won their play-in game handily. And to No. 7 seed Iowa, for winning its opener over Temple before bowing to No. 2 seeded Villanova on Sunday.
But the weekend belonged to No. 7 seeded Wisconsin when first-year coach Greg Gard called a time out with two seconds left to draw up a play for Bronson Koenig. The sophomore guard
launched a bomb from the corner that hit nothing but net for his sixth three-pointer for of the game as time expired to send the Badgers to the Sweet 16 again with a 66-63 win Sunday over No. 2 seed Xavier.
The Badgers joined Indiana and Maryland, two more No. 5 seeds, to advance after the first two rounds. Indiana punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 on Saturday with an outstanding effort against archrival Kentucky, a No. 4 seed and another power that many picked as a Final Four team. And Maryland advanced with relatively easy wins over South Dakota State and Hawaii.
So of the seven Big Ten teams that started the tournament, just three remain. Indiana, the Big Ten’s regular-season champion, and Maryland, which finished third, and Wisconsin, a young team that finished sixth in the conference.
That pales in comparison to the ACC, which dominates the Sweet 16 with a record six teams: No. 1 seeds North Carolina and Virginia, No. 3 seed Miami, No. 4 seed Duke, No. 6 seed Notre Dame and No. 10 seed Syracuse – which would have caught Michigan State in the second round. Of the seven ACC teams earning berths, only Pittsburgh, another No. 10 seed, failed to advance after two rounds.
The captain leads the way
In one of their most inspired performances of the season when they needed it most, the Red Wings scored four unanswered goals for a 5-3 win Saturday at Florida.
For those keeping score at home, the Wings are no 2-0 since captain Henrik Zetterberg stood up and addressed his team for another of his “not on my watch” speeches. Then he went out and led, and his team followed. Zetterberg scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal, his first goal in a month, in a 3-1 win Thursday at Columbus.
With Saturday’s win, combined with Philadelphia’s loss earlier in the day against visiting Pittsburgh, the Wings maintained possession of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. They’re a point ahead of the Flyers with 10 games remaining in their season.
The Flyers play tonight in Brooklyn against the New York Islanders, who sit two points ahead of the Wings with the No. 7 seed. Both the Flyers and the Islanders have two games in hand on Detroit.
To a man, the Wings are giving Zetterberg credit for his motivating leadership for their recent turnaround. But the two alternate captains also inspired by example. Pavel Datsyuk scored two goals Saturday, including an empty-netter to ice the Wings second straight win. And Niklas Kronwall, coming back early from a knee injury that could have kept him out for three weeks, turned in a moving performance with two assists while leading his team in ice time with 22:29.
And their younger teammates followed. Luke Glendening deflected a Dylan Larkin shot into the net for the game-winner. Tomas Tatar also scored. Jimmy Howard made 23 saves, including some crucial stops that allowed his team to stage its comeback.
The Wings have earned four of a possible six points so far on their four-game road trip that concludes Tuesday night at red-hot Tampa Bay. A victory there would give Detroit 85 points and create a log-game at the top in the Atlantic Division, with Florida, Tampa Bay, Boston and the Wings all separated by just four points.
So as they strive to earn a Stanley Cup playoff berth for the 25th consecutive season, the Wings appear to have a favorable schedule down the stretch. They play five at home and five on the road, with just six of those games against teams with records above .500, and nine of them against Eastern Conference opponents. Every one of them is important, but the most critical among them may well be on consecutive days.
Detroit’s final home game of the season is April 6 against Philadelphia – an old-time four-point hockey game with a playoff berth on the line between those. The next evening, they play at Boston, in a battle of two of the top four teams in the Atlantic Division. The Wings close the regular season April 9 in New York against the Rangers.
For the record, the Flyers seemingly have a more difficult path. Trailing the Wings by three points, they play seven of their remaining 12 games on the road, eight of them against winning teams and nine against Eastern Conference opponents.
Buckle up. It’s going to be a rocky ride to the end.