Purdue, IU fans ready to dance

I love Championship Week.

Over the past few days, we’ve gotten a chance to see so many would-be Cinderellas punch their tickets for next week’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. For many of them — like 14-19 Holy Cross, which finished ninth in the Patriot League during the regular season but won four straight tourney games to earn a bid — just making it in is a grand achievement.

The weekend, though, belongs largely to college basketball’s heavyweights, and in these parts most of the focus will be on the Big Ten. Tournament play began in Indianapolis on Wednesday, but with today’s quarterfinals — when the league’s top four seeds take the court for the first time — the intensity figures to go up a notch or two.

This afternoon marks the beginning of what most local fans hope will be a long postseason ride for either Indiana or Purdue. And for the first time in a while, both teams have the potential to put such a ride together.

The Hoosiers are coming in hot, having finished the regular season with five consecutive wins. Included in that were victories against the teams seeded third through fifth in the Big Ten bracket — Maryland, Purdue and Iowa. Tom Crean, who is figuring in the national coach of the year discussion, seems to have his team firing on all cylinders.

Meanwhile, the Boilermakers also have won three in a row to shake off a 2-3 start to February. Purdue avenged an earlier loss to Maryland before closing out with a win at Nebraska and another against Wisconsin.

Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Indiana can score in bunches, but as has been the case in many recent years, its defense is a bit suspect. Purdue has a dominating group of players inside, but its backcourt isn’t quite at that same level.

Generally speaking, the teams that win most often in March have been able to bank on both a stingy defense and elite guard play. The Hoosiers are missing one, and the Boilermakers lack the other. That’s not to say that either one can’t get hot this weekend or in the NCAAs, but history isn’t really on their side.

If the seeds hold, the Hoosiers and Boilermakers will duke it out in a semifinal game Saturday. For the winner, there’s a decent chance that the prize would be a title-game showdown against the team that most consider the Big Ten’s best chance at a Final Four trip — Michigan State.

Yes, again.

As is usually the case this time of year, the Spartans have got it going. Since losing an overtime game at Purdue on Feb. 9, Tom Izzo’s team has cruised through its past six opponents by an average of more than 21 points. They have a national player of the year candidate in Denzel Valentine and a long track record of postseason success.

They also seem to have the Hoosiers’ number, having taken four straight from IU during the past three seasons. So while Indiana is the top seed this weekend, Michigan State has to be considered the favorite on paper.

Fortunately for fans of the two local Big Ten squads, paper doesn’t mean anything right now. It’s all about who plays better basketball. Whoever does that over the next three days will leave Indy with a Big Ten tournament title and a ton of momentum heading into next week’s Big Dance.

I don’t have a dog in this fight (go Irish), but I know many of you do — and you’ve all likely got visions of Big Ten and/or NCAA championship celebrations dancing in your heads.

Those dreams won’t come true for everyone. They might not even come true for any of you. But for now, they’re all very much alive.

Enjoy the journey.

Ryan O’Leary is the sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at roleary@therepublic.com.