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February 20, 2012
Teamwork, toughness and tumultuous crowds have combined to make the Big Ten the nation's best conference and primed its top two teams—Michigan State and Ohio State—for tournament time
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February 20, 2012

The Best Damn Ball In The Land

Teamwork, toughness and tumultuous crowds have combined to make the Big Ten the nation's best conference and primed its top two teams—Michigan State and Ohio State—for tournament time

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Penn State (11--15, 3--10), which shares the league cellar with Nebraska (11--13, 3--10), still doesn't have a road win, but in State College the Nittany Lions beat then No. 25 Illinois by two and Purdue by 20. "And that's your bottom of the league," says Weber, whose young and inconsistent Illinois squad is the only team to beat both Ohio State and Michigan State but is just 5--7 in the conference. "I think a lot of stuff can still happen, with all the craziness."

No team has experienced more craziness than reemergent Indiana, which has evolved from overlooked to underdog to big dog, all in a few weeks. How many teams get to see their own fans rush the court, as Indiana fans did after the then unranked Hoosiers knocked off No. 1 Kentucky on Dec. 10, and see an opponent's fans rush the court, as Nebraska fans did after the Huskers beat the then 11th-ranked Hoosiers 70--69 on Jan. 18, in the same season? "The last few years when people beat us, there was no chance they were going to storm the floor," says junior guard Jordan Hulls, who won just seven conference games in his first two years at Indiana. "But that just shows you how much the program has turned around."

For all the future promise of teams like Indiana, the two Big Ten teams with the best chance to go deep in the NCAA tournament next month are the two that clashed in Columbus on Saturday night. Even after Ohio State's out-of-sync performance against his team, Izzo still considers the Buckeyes (21--4, 9--3), who fell to No. 6 in the AP poll, the best in the conference. "I really like their team," he says, "because they got guys that play their roles at each position."

The Buckeyes, who start four sophomores and a senior, don't have the experience or perimeter firepower of the squad that lost to Kentucky in last year's Sweet 16. But they are more athletic and better on defense. Sullinger, last year's national freshman of the year, still dominates the post with a wide body, long arms and a great understanding of angles. But he has expanded his game to include the occasional three-point shot. (He's made 10 of 22 this season.) "He's a better basketball player than he was last year, and he's more efficient than he was last year," says Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "And quite honestly I think he's more comfortable in his role."

Matta's two other key players are senior guard William Buford, who contributes 15.0 points and 4.7 rebounds a game, and sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, a ball hawk who entered Saturday's game forcing turnovers on an astonishing 7.46% of opponent's possessions, according to the "turnometer" analysis of's Luke Winn. "Sullinger is tremendous, but they also have a great game plan, and he's always had really good players around him," says Michigan coach John Beilein. "That's what really makes Ohio State go. If he was there by himself and they didn't have a plan for him, he'd be a very good player—he'd still play in the NBA—but Ohio State wouldn't have that success."

Togetherness is also behind the success of Michigan State. The Spartans (20--5, 9--3), now ranked No. 7, have already won more games than last year's disappointing squad, which started the season ranked No. 2 but couldn't overcome injuries and poor chemistry before losing in the first round of the NCAAs. This year's Spartans are holding teams to 37.5% shooting, the best in Izzo's 17-year tenure, and are leading the Big Ten in rebounding margin (+10.5). As a veteran of six Final Fours, Izzo knows better than anyone what it takes to get back there, but he isn't ready to anoint this team as that kind of group ... yet. "This isn't one of my most talented teams, but if you look at chemistry, tenacity, our rebounding—our defense may be more solid than any team I've had," he says.

What gives this team its dazzling possibility is the leadership of Green, a 6'7" do-everything forward whom Izzo has called "the perfect Spartan," "my voice" and "the smartest basketball player I've ever had." Green is both the team's best player—he leads the team in scoring (15.0) rebounding (10.5), steals (1.4) and blocks (1.0) and is second in assists (3.5)—and its glue-guy captain. His assignments off the court, says Izzo, include "hotel, plane and bus," meaning he's the one who makes sure his teammates are properly focused for practice and games. He's the one who convinced Izzo to lighten up at practice last Friday to save players' legs, a strategy that Izzo said was critical in the win at Ohio State. And Green was the one, at halftime in Columbus, who got into the face of sophomore point guard Keith Appling, who had already committed three turnovers, and told him, in effect, to quit dribbling so much. "Draymond's great at that stuff," says Izzo. "He's not afraid of his own voice."

Nor is he afraid of bold words. After spraining his left knee against Illinois on Jan. 31, Green said only "death" would keep him from playing in a home game against rival Michigan. On Feb. 5 he made good on his guarantee of a win, scoring 14 points and grabbing 16 rebounds—equaling Michigan's total—in a 64--54 victory. "I love Michigan State," he says. "I want to do everything I can for this school."

In his four years in East Lansing, he has played tight end in a Green-White football scrimmage; sold the school to, among others, women's golf recruits; and seen all but a handful of Spartans sports teams in action. Those he hasn't—wrestling, gymnastics and ice hockey—he has scheduled into his calendar before he graduates this spring with a degree in communications.

In the meantime Green, who went to Final Fours in his first two seasons, wants to get Sparty back to the season's final weekend. "Last season was a tragedy," he says. "I don't want that to be my legacy when I leave here. They say you're only as good as your last game."

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