Last night in the Big Ten: Nebraska stays perfect with double-overtime win

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USA TODAY

Last night in the Big Ten: Nebraska stays perfect with double-overtime win

Who knows how long Nebraska’s run is going to last here at the beginning of Big Ten play. But right now? It sure is fun to watch.

After grabbing upset wins over Indiana and Maryland to start off their Big Ten schedule, the Huskers moved to a perfect 3-0 in conference games Thursday night with a double-overtime victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes. It’s the first time Nebraska’s been 3-0 in conference play since the mid 1970s.

The backcourt duo of Glynn Watson Jr. and Tai Webster continue to pile up the points, combining for a whopping 57 of the team’s 93-point total, Watson accounting for 34 of those on a jaw-dropping 7-for-8 night from behind the 3-point line.

Nebraska had its chance to win the thing in regulation when gifted the ball with just a couple seconds left. Evan Taylor’s shot attempt missed, but he was fouled. Still, he missed the free throw, and the game went to overtime.

Iowa went up by four twice in overtime, including on a Jordan Bohannon 3-pointer with a minute and a half to go, but Nebraska came back, Webster hitting four free throws in the final 40 seconds of the first overtime period to tie the game.

Peter Jok’s 3-pointer in double overtime gave the Hawkeyes their only lead of that period, but it was soon wiped away, again by free throws as the Huskers hit four of them in the final 68 seconds to grab the win.

Nebraska got 26 of its points off 19 Iowa turnovers and owned the fast-break battle 10-0. The Hawkeyes lost despite beating the Huskers on the boards, 51-42, and smoking them in second-chance points, 27-5. But Iowa also missed 20 tries from 3-point range, while Nebraska scored 19 points from the free-throw line.

Another sensational scoring night from Jok went to waste for the Hawkeyes. He had 34 points and continues to light up the scoreboard night in and night out. The conference’s leading scorer, Jok has four games of at least 30 points this season.

Miraculously, the two teams at the top of the Big Ten standings at 3-0 are Nebraska and Michigan State. The Huskers went an ugly 6-6 during their non-conference schedule, and folks were panicking over the five losses the Spartans suffered before the start of Big Ten competition. Now they’re both in first place.

Another Northwestern cold snap as Minnesota bags another statement win

Minnesota looked every bit ready to challenge for a spot in the Big Ten conversation this season with that gloriously entertaining overtime loss to Michigan State in the conference-opener.

Since, all the Gophers have done is continue to flex their muscles. After winning on the road at Purdue, Minnesota went into Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday and took down Northwestern. In any other year, that would hardly be regarded as a statement win of any kind, but the Cats are legit this year and are included in many current NCAA tournament bracket projections.

So count Thursday’s win as another statement from the Gophers, who capitalized on some cold shooting by the Cats to grab a second straight road victory.

Minnesota and Northwestern both started off on fire, both teams shooting better than 50 percent in the first half. Five triples helped the Cats to a narrow halftime lead, but their 3-point shooting fell off a cliff after halftime. Northwestern shot a miserable 28.9 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes and went 1-for-15 from behind the 3-point line. Credit Minnesota for putting together a back-breaking 10-0 run in the middle of the second half that sent the Gophers from down seven to up three. After grabbing the lead during that run, Minnesota didn't trail again.

This is becoming a bit of a disturbing trend for the Cats, racing out to hot starts only to go cold late in games. Look back to that win over Dayton, where Northwestern shot better than 50 percent in the first half and under 30 percent in the second half, making just one basket over the final 10 minutes. The Cats shot better than 55 percent in the first half of their conference-opening win over Penn State but just barely better than 30 percent in the second half. And while shooting numbers weren't as drastic in losses to Butler and Notre Dame, the final seconds of those games could have and perhaps should have sealed Northwestern wins instead of leading to heart-breaking losses.

In a quest for enough conference wins to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time, Northwestern’s got to stop doing that — especially at home.

Meanwhile, Nate Mason continued to tear it up for Minnesota. He scored 12 points, handed out seven assists and grabbed five rebound in Thursday’s win and is now averaging 20.3 points, 7.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds in conference play.

Loss to Purdue, Bates-Diop’s injury make for tough night for Ohio State

The biggest headline of the night for Ohio State had little to do with the outcome of Thursday night’s game against Purdue, as junior forward Keith Bates-Diop has a stress fracture in his leg and will miss the remainder of the season.

That’s a real bummer for the Buckeyes, who are one of many Big Ten squads floating in bubble territory when it comes to NCAA tournament hopes. Trying to get on the right side of that bubble without Bates-Diop will be tough. Despite dealing with the injury this season, Bates-Diop was having a nice statistical year, averaging nearly 10 points and better than five rebounds a game.

Thursday night, Ohio State dropped to 0-2 in conference play with a gut-wrenching loss to Purdue. It was mostly a tight game, and though the Buckeyes never led in the second half, they were right there at the end, erasing a five-point Boilermakers lead with a little more than two minutes to play. Ohio State tied the game at 75 with 15 seconds left, Trevor Thompson corralling a terrible attempt by Marc Loving and putting it in and drawing the foul. But Thompson missed the free throw and followed by fouling Caleb Swanigan at the other end. Swanigan put in one of his two free throws to get the Boilers out of Columbus with a win.

All in all, it was a real tough night for Ohio State.

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

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USA TODAY

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

Caleb Swanigan, unsurprisingly, is heading to the NBA.

Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year announced Wednesday that he’ll pass up the final two seasons of his NCAA eligibility for a paying gig at the professional level, an awesome opportunity for a kid who battled obesity and homelessness to become one of the best basketball players in the country.

But Swanigan’s departure from West Lafayette means a heck of a lot to the Big Ten.

Without the league’s most dominant big man, what becomes of Purdue’s chances at winning a conference title? Similarly, with a weakened — though still strong — group of Boilermakers, what does the Big Ten race look like going into 2017-18?

First, Purdue. Matt Painter’s program is plenty healthy, and while there’s no doubt that losing Swanigan is a big deal, the Boilers got some really good news, too, Wednesday when Vincent Edwards announced he’ll be returning for his senior season. Seven-footer Isaac Haas also made the decision to return to West Lafayette, meaning the towering frontcourt hasn’t been completely decimated just because tha man called “Biggie” is gone.

Purdue will also return Carsen Edwards, who had an impressive freshman campaign, and Dakota Mathias, a terrific defender and 3-point shooter. Two more important pieces — P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline — are back, as well. And Painter will welcome in freshman Nojel Eastern, a highly touted guard from Evanston.

So the Boilers are still in very good shape. There will be a big magnifying glass on Haas, who despite his physical attributes hasn’t always found consistent on-court success. But there have been plenty of flashes of brilliance from the big man. A big step forward in his game would go a long way in easing the blow of losing Swanigan and could keep Purdue as one of the frontrunners for a conference title.

That brings us to the Big Ten race. Ever since Miles Bridges, the conference’s reigning Freshman of the Year, announced he’d be returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season, the Spartans have been the near-unanimous favorite. Only something like Swanigan deciding to stay at Purdue could’ve changed that. And with Swanigan expectedly heading to the NBA, Michigan State remains the preseason pick to win the conference crown.

Like any good year in the Big Ten, though, there will be challengers.

But Michigan State is the popular choice to win it because of Tom Izzo’s insane 2016 recruiting class is returning completely intact: Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are all back. And Izzo brings in one of the top 2017 recruits in forward Jaren Jackson.

But Sparty isn’t the only one with an impressive returning group. Purdue’s experienced roster has already been covered. Northwestern, a surprise contender in 2016-17, should be even better as Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey enter their fourth year playing together. Dererk Pardon, a shot-blocking whiz at center, is also back, as is sharp-shooter Aaron Falzon, who sat out the 2016-17 season with an injury after starting during his freshman year in 2015-16.

There will be big shoes to fill for some perennial contenders like Maryland — which must replace Melo Trimble — and Michigan, which watched eligibility run out on Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin before D.J. Wilson decided to head to the professional ranks Wednesday. But those teams have plenty of talent returning, too. The Terps will have all three of their fab freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — back for sophomore seasons, while the Wolverines have Moe Wagner back in the fold alongside Xavier Simpson and Duncan Robinson, among others.

And what of last year’s shocking contender, Minnesota? The Golden Gophers didn’t lose too much this offseason and will return almost every main player from last year’s 24-10 squad: Amir Coffey, Nate Mason, Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Eric Curry.

There are up-and-comers to think about, too, such as last year’s freshman-heavy squads at Iowa and Penn State. And could new head coaches Brad Underwood and Archie Miller make instant splashes at Illinois and Indiana, respectively?

If it sounds a little too much like the annual coach speak that “any team can win on any night” in the Big Ten, that’s because there is a good deal of truth to that oft-used phrase.

There are definitely tiers to this thing, though. Even without Swanigan, Purdue is still in one of those upper tiers. But there might be no team besides Michigan State at the very top of the heap, something underscored by Swanigan turning pro.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson gets some love from NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson gets some love from NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.

Is Northwestern becoming QB U?

Trevor Siemian and Mike Kafka have already been drafted this decade, and Clayton Thorson — the team's current signal-caller — could be next.

ESPN's noted NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. ranked Thorson as one of his top five underclassman quarterbacks ahead of the 2018 draft.

Now that doesn't mean much right now. Kiper himself dubbed his position-by-position rankings as "way too early." Thorson's stock could soar or fall depending on what happens next season. And Thorson will still have one season of NCAA eligibility remaining after the upcoming 2017 campaign, meaning he might not even be in the 2018 NFL Draft.

But it's solid praise for a quarterback who looked much better in his second season as the Wildcats' starter than he did as a redshirt freshman the year prior.

As a redshirt sophomore, Thorson completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns (fourth in the Big Ten in both of those categories) compared to nine interceptions. Thorson also rushed in for five touchdowns on the ground.

His quarterback rating skied from 95.9 as a freshman to 125.9 as a sophomore.

Now, there's little telling where Kiper might rank Thorson among all quarterbacks for the 2018 draft. He ranked five seniors and five underclassmen, with Thorson ranked fifth among underclassmen, behind Southern California's Sam Darnold, Wyoming's Josh Allen, UCLA's Josh Rosen and Louisville's Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

But certainly the Northwestern quarterback has captured the attention of draft evaluators and could follow Siemian and Kafka as recent Wildcats signal-callers to hear their name during the draft.