Purdue is back ... is the Big Ten?
HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- March is made for moments that don't require a bigger picture.
After Purdue's Drey Mingo completed an on-court television interview in the minutes immediately following her team's 62-47 win against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, the sixth-year graduate student turned, grabbed coach Sharon Versyp in a bear hug, lifted her off the ground and held her there for several seconds before returning the coach to terra firma.
Then Mingo picked her up again.
The words came well before those hugs. They came more than two years ago, in November of 2010, when Versyp told Mingo she would play again after a life-threatening encounter with bacterial meningitis.
And they came last March, when in the aftermath of another celebration and another Big Ten tournament title, Versyp told Mingo, unable to participate because of a season-ending knee injury, that they would be back. And Mingo would be on the court.
At the time, the NCAA hadn't even officially granted Mingo the sixth year of eligibility she needed to play this season. But 12 months later, sixth year granted, there was the tournament's most outstanding player lifting her coach off the floor after scoring a season-high 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting to go with eight rebounds, three blocks and two steals to give Purdue's its second consecutive title and fourth in Versyp's seven seasons.
"It was just really surreal at that moment," Mingo said. "When I picked her up, that was what I was reminding her of.
"She said it, and we did it."
As the NCAA tournament approaches, it isn't clear where the Big Ten goes from here. Not after a weekend that saw the Penn State team most consider the conference's best bet to end a glaringly protracted Final Four drought eliminated in a semifinal against Michigan State that lived up to every stereotype suggesting the league is long on defense and physical play but short on the athleticism and individual talent displayed by serious national contenders.
But there is no such uncertainty about where this Purdue team came from in order to dance in front of its pep band Sunday, whether in reversing its own basketball struggles from February or processing the more consequential struggles of Mingo and director of operations Terry Kix, still on the bench as she fights cancer.
"Most college athletes haven't gone through anything that this team has gone through," Purdue senior Sam Ostarello said.
Unlike last season, when Purdue needed overtime to beat Nebraska in the title game in Indianapolis, the final conference chapter this season lacked a crescendo. A 13-0 run early in the first half gave Purdue a 25-8 lead, an advantage it eventually expanded to as many as 23 points.
The Boilermakers hit their first nine field goals and didn't even attempt a shot from beyond the lane until 10 minutes remained in the opening half. The Spartans made enough of a run in the second half to lift their fans out of glum resignation for a time, but the margin only once shrank to single digits before back-to-back 3-pointers from Courtney Moses readied the celebration.
"We went through a lot of film," Ostarello said. "In the two matchups that we had previously in the year, we had that [post] advantage. The points in the paint were our advantage, our post play with Taylor [Manuel] and Drey. That's what our game plan was. Go in there and feed the beast, feed them until they're dry, then start the outside shot."
Mingo was unstoppable early and late. It was a scene that left Versyp to say the frightening memories of November 2010 no longer felt real, the realities of that time completely divorced from the smiles Sunday. But, of course, they were real.
Mingo permanently lost some of her hearing as a result of the illness. Teammates such as Ostarello and Moses spoke of the importance of their teammate's faith in her return to the court, but the day-to-day challenges still tested that resolve.
"She couldn't hear anything that was going on when we were calling out plays, couldn't hear on defense with switching or anything," Moses said of practices soon after Mingo returned. "Obviously in basketball, you have to be able to hear to play. I just remember her bawling and just running out of Mackey [Arena].
"To go from there to see her on the stage today, getting her trophy, having confetti fall on her, was amazing."
There was also just a touch of irony that it was Mingo, who once played against Purdue in the two seasons she spent at Maryland, who took the starring role at the end of this tournament. It would be an import front and center for a conference that has as many Final Four appearances in the past seven seasons as fellow Midwestern leagues such as the Horizon, MAC and Missouri Valley.
The last Big Ten team to reach the Final Four was Michigan State in 2005, when even the current seniors on the court for the Boilermakers and Spartans had yet to reach high school.
Final Four representation for the other five power conferences is skewed by the continued success of programs such as Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford that have more in common with each other than most of their league peers. It's a mistake to give the likes of Seton Hall and Pittsburgh credit for what Connecticut or Notre Dame has done to buoy Big East hardware.
But think about what has happened since last the Big Ten saw the season's final weekend. Louisville and Rutgers reached national championship games as representatives of the Big East, Maryland won a title out of the ACC and Oklahoma made a run of semifinal appearances out of the Big 12. Even Baylor built on the foundation of its 2005 title to become a true power. Say that's because it got Brittney Griner if you want, but, well, it got Griner.
The lasting NCAA tournament image for the Big Ten in those seasons may well be Ohio State's early exits. Purdue is the only school to reach even a regional final in that span, doing so in both 2007 and 2009 under Versyp.
Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant is a native of that state who used to go watch the BCS schools play when she was the coach at mid-major Eastern Michigan. Her current insider's bias notwithstanding, the league she now coaches in does seem far more competitive after the additions of Nebraska and new coaches like Michigan's Kim Barnes Arico, Illinois' Matt Bollant, Northwestern's Joe McKeown, Indiana's Curt Miller and Wisconsin's Bobbie Kelsey.
"What I've really noticed in the last six, seven years is the commitment at each school to women's basketball, I feel, has really increased," Merchant said. "Whether it be a change in athletic director or just a decision that was made on campus. What used to be was three teams up [at the top], a middle of the pack and an awful section. Really, when you looked at it, there were three levels to the Big Ten.
"Now I feel like with the commitment of each institution, the coaches that have been hired, the recruits they are bringing in, you don't see that [three-tiered structure]."
There seemed to be athleticism on display over the weekend. Merchant cited Penn State as the model Big Ten teams are trying to follow in recruiting, but it wasn't just the Nittany Lions. Teams from many of those other conferences haven't defended Penn State's backcourt the way Michigan State's Klarissa Bell, Kiana Johnson and Jasmine Thomas did in the semifinal.
Ostarello is as athletic and relentless a rebounder as counterparts like Maryland's Tianna Hawkins and Cal's Gennifer Brandon. But even Mingo noted that when she arrived, the Big Ten seemed more physical and not as fast as the ACC. It's a question now of how much ground it has made up.
"I think you're seeing teams that are a lot more athletic," Versyp said during the tournament. "It's not what everyone thinks it is, a slow methodical league. It's not even close to that, and it hasn't been for a while."
Time will tell, a little bit in the weeks to come and a lot in the years to come.
Whatever comes next for the conference and its familiar champion, it shouldn't take anything away from a performance and a reaction from Mingo on Sunday that any team in any league will struggle to top.
"I really think she represents the Big Ten and all of us very well," Merchant said.
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