Buckeyes face unlikely opponent

CHICAGO – March is for the unpredictable.

When Ohio State got trucked at Wisconsin, 71-49, on Feb. 17, not many would have predicted that the Buckeyes would rally to finish tied for second place in the Big Ten. Even fewer would have predicted that, a little less than four weeks later, Ohio State would be playing Nebraska in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal.

Friday night, the No. 2 seed Buckeyes play the No. 10 seed Cornhuskers.

Yes, Nebraska has a basketball team, one that won its first Big Ten Tournament game at the United Center Thursday night, holding off a late Purdue rally to win, 57-55.

The Buckeyes haven’t lost since that debacle in Madison, winning five straight to earn a first-round bye as they try to get back to the Big Ten tournament championship game for the fifth straight year. They won the No. 2 seed based on their win at Indiana on March 5, and a came a late Michigan miss from sharing the Big Ten regular season title.

Thursday at the Big Ten tournament brought two thrilling finishes and two blowouts. Nebraska is the only quarterfinal party crasher as the other seeds held.

“We were picked dead last (in the Big Ten) by everybody but my mom,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said after Thursday’s win. “We at least outperformed that expectation.”

The Buckeyes swept the season series with Nebraska, winning 70-44 on Jan. 2 in Columbus, and 63-56 in Lincoln on Feb. 2. That game was close until the final minutes as both teams struggled to shoot — Ohio State shot 39 percent, Nebraska 37 — before the Buckeyes created a little breathing room and ultimately put it away.

“That was game was a game down the stretch, and we were right there,” Miles said of the second meeting. “A few other things go our way, and we could have come out on top. And that’s what you have to cling to. That’s what you have to build your case on.

“Our guys will be ready to go. I think they will be locked in. Their hearts are fresher than their legs.”

A FIRST: Miles, in his first year at Nebraska, not only helped his program get its first Big Ten tournament win.

He became the first coach to tweet at halftime of a Big Ten tournament game.

“We have to keep battling out there! I don’t think we could have scripted a better first half,” he wrote from his @CoachMiles account just before the second half began.

His team had a good first half — Nebraska shot 52 percent and led by 3 — and whatever he said before tweeting at halftime worked, too. The Cornhuskers started the second half with an 11-2 run.

ON THE DOCKET: Ohio State and Nebraska are Friday’s only quarterfinal opponents who played twice during the regular season.

*No. 1 seed Indiana lost at No. 8 Illinois, 74-72, on Feb. 7

*No. 4 Wisconsin beat No. 5 Michigan, 65-62, in overtime on Feb. 9.

*No. 3 Michigan State won at No. 6 Iowa, 62-59, on Jan. 10.

If Michigan would have beaten Indiana last Sunday, the Wolverines would have joined Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State in a four-way tie atop the conference standings. Because Michigan lost, it had to play Penn State here on Thursday in the opening round.

Michigan turned a close game into an 83-66 rout over the final 12 minutes. The Wolverines tied the Big Ten tournament record for fewest turnovers in a game with 4, and Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke led everybody with 21 points.

Illinois won Thursday’s first game, eliminating Minnesota, 51-49, on a Brandon Paul buzzer-beater. Iowa ended a stubborn but shorthanded Northwestern team’s season in the nightcap.

Last year marked the first time in Big Ten tournament history that the top four seeds advanced to the semifinals.

ROAD TRIPS: Paul’s game-winning jumper brought much celebration from Illinois fans.

Paul’s parents barely had time to congratulate him. They had to get to Cleveland.

Linda and Clifton Paul saw Brandon eliminate Minnesota at about 1 p.m. Central time at the United Center. Their youngest son, Darius, a freshman at Western Michigan, played at about 9 p.m. Eastern in a Mid-American Conference tournament game in Cleveland.

A little less than 350 miles and six hours on the road, depending on traffic, awaited them.

It was going to be a round trip, too. Darius and Illinois play Indiana at 11 a.m. Friday in Chicago.

“They’re great parents,” Brandon Paul said.

Dedicated and sleep-deprived, too.

Darius Paul, the MAC Freshman of the Year, scored 14 points and had 7 rebounds as Western Michigan beat Eastern Michigan, 70-55, to set up another 9 p.m. Eastern time game Friday night in Cleveland, vs. Ohio in the MAC semifinals.

FAMILIAR FACE: Jared Sulllinger, the 2011 Big Ten tournament MVP at Ohio State, took in Thursday’s early games from a front-row seat on the baseline. Burke is one of Sullinger’s best friends, a relationship that dates back to even before they were teammates on a state title team at Columbus (OH) Northland High School.

Sullinger’s rookie season with the Boston Celtics is over due to back surgery. Sullinger said he’s “feeling good…much better.”