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11 Games to go: How will the Big Ten be decided?

Our lips have been bloodied a bit. We have felt the sting of being someone's resume win. We have taken a punch by one of the best players in the country. We have become a victim to one of those toughest home courts in the country. The fact that all three of those came in a row meant that everyone has already written us off in the Big Ten race. Had those three been spread out over the course of an 18 game schedule they would have been mere blips. Since they happened in succession, we were overrated and unworthy of national consideration anymore.

Then why are we back in the top 10 today? Purdue is very much alive in the Big Ten race. There are 11 games left and they have a chance to win all eleven games simply because they will be playing in those 11 games. I mean there will be a crowd, they will be keeping score, we'll have our uniforms and everything, we might as well try to win, right? From this point forward it will only take one Michigan State loss for us to take control of our own destiny again. The Spartans have played a lot of close games lately, so that loss is entirely possible. Let's look at each team's remaining schedule:

Michigan State (Overall record: 17-3, 7-0 Big Ten)

Jan 26 at Michigan

Jan 30 Northwestern

Feb 2 at Wisconsin

Feb 6 at Illinois

Feb 9 Purdue

Feb 13 at Penn State

Feb 16 at Indiana

Feb 20 Ohio State

Feb 27 at Purdue

Mar 3 Penn State

Mar 6 Michigan


Purdue (Overall record: 16-3, 4-3 Big Ten)

Jan 28 Wisconsin

Jan 31 Penn State

Feb 4 at Indiana

Feb. 9 at Michigan State

Feb 13 Iowa

Feb 17 at Ohio State

Feb 20 Illinois

Feb 24 at Minnesota

Feb 27 Michigan State

Mar 3 Indiana

Mar 6 at Penn State

The next game for both teams is absolutely critical. Purdue has to hold serve at home against a Wisconsin team that has already beaten the Boilers. Michigan State has a very tricky trip to Michigan. If Manny Harris returns from his suspension there is always the potential for an upset in Ann Arbor. Harris and DeShawn Sims form one of the best one-two punches in the country. All they need is a little help from their friends, and Zach Novak showed against Purdue he can provide that help. I am going to play a hunch and say that a desperate Michigan team pulls off the upset, while Purdue recovers from the Wisconsin loss to win at home Thursday night.

Purdue next two games against Penn State (currently winless in Big Ten play) and at Indiana should be easy wins. I was beginning to think Purdue's trip to Indiana might get a little tricky with the Hoosiers playing some good basketball of late, but I can't take Indiana seriously anymore after getting beaten badly at home by Iowa. Maybe in a year or two Indiana will be ready to make it a rivalry again, but there is absolutely no valid excuse for Purdue to lose to them this year. I expect Michigan State to beat Northwestern at home after they dominated the Wildcats in Evanston, but Northwestern shocked many by winning in East Lansing last year.

That sets up a dangerous trip for Sparty going to Madison and Champaign in consecutive games, while Purdue has a bye after playing Indiana. I will say it right now: For Purdue to have any chance of winning the Big Ten, Michigan State must lose at least one of these three road games against Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It is the Spartans most dangerous stretch in conference play. If they win all three, it is over no matter what Purdue does. If they win two, they should feel secure, but the door is open. If they only win one the conference race is wide open again. Should they lose all three I think I'll dance a jig of joy before we go to East Lansing.

Since I am predicting the Michigan upset above, I say they get a split with Wisconsin and Illinois, and the loss comes at Wisconsin. The Badgers have had some close calls in Madison lately (Penn State? Really? Overtime?). They are due for another great home performance against a ranked team, especially if they lose at Purdue Thursday night and are fighting for their own conference lives. Illinois is dangerous, but I think Sparty grinds one out like Purdue did there.

So here is how we have the records heading into a massive game in East Lansing on February 9th:

Michigan State 19-5, 9-2 Big Ten

Purdue 19-3, 6-3 Big Ten

How does Purdue respond in its toughest road game since Wisconsin? Remember, the Wisconsin game would have been much different had the Boilers hit their free throws early. It is absolutely critical that Purdue shoots free throws well, keeps JaJuan Johnson out of foul trouble, and matches Michigan State's toughness. This is a tough game to call because Purdue was overmatched two years ago, but would have won if Robbie Hummel played. Last year there was nothing to play for and Michigan State won easily. I originally predicted a loss in this one, but you can start playing the Black Eyed Peas because I've Got A Feeling. I think Purdue squeezes this one out on the road, the national Final Four talk begins again, and the race is on.

After that, both teams have a relatively easy schedule before the rematch in West Lafayette. Michigan State will walk over Penn State and Indiana before an interesting game at the Breslin Center against Ohio State. The Buckeyes, if things play out as I have said above, will be alive in the race themselves. As they proved at Purdue, Turner can change a game in a hurry too. Ohio State currently has the same 4-3 record in Big Ten play that we do. Here is their schedule before going to East Lansing:

Jan 27 at Iowa (a win)

Jan 31 Minnesota (a win, Minnesota is reeling)

Feb 3 Penn State (a win)

Feb 10 at Indiana (a win)

Feb 14 at Illinois (toss-up, but I am leaning win)

Feb 17 Purdue (more on this in a moment)

At Penn State, Michigan, Illinois after the game at Michigan State

Ohio State is a team that very much controls its own destiny with a couple of Spartan losses, perhaps even more than we do. They have a win over us in their pocket already, and their game in East Lansing is the only time they face the Spartans. If everything plays out as mentioned above, we had better cheer for Michigan State because I don't think we're winning in Columbus. I do think Michigan State hold their home court for this one though, keeping us alive after we get our fourth conference loss in Columbus.

So at this point, if all goes well, we're a game behind Michigan State in the loss column, but tied with Ohio State for second place (and maybe Wisconsin). We're not losing to Indiana at home or at Penn State. I like our chances against Minnesota (though we didn't see Sampson the first time around) and at home against Illinois. That leaves another crucial game against Michigan State.

As for the Spartans, they'll beat Penn State and Michigan at home after coming to Mackey. So if everything breaks right the game In Mackey Arena will decide the Big Ten title and likely cause it to be a tie if Purdue wins. So here is how I see it playing out for the four major contenders:

Michigan State Purdue Wisconsin Ohio State
at Michigan (L) Wisconsin (W) at Purdue (L) at Iowa (W)
Northwestern (W) Penn State (W) Michigan State (W) Minnesota (W)
at Wisconsin (L) at Indiana (W) at Michigan (W) Penn State (W)
at Illinois (W) at Michigan State (W) Illinois (W) Iowa (W)
Purdue (L) Iowa (W) Indiana (W) at Indiana (W)
at Penn State (W) at Ohio State (L) at Minnesota (L) at Illinois (W)
at Indiana (W) Illinois (W) Northwestern (W) Purdue (W)
Ohio State (W) at MInnesota (W) at Indiana (W) at Michigan State (L)
at Purdue (L) Michigan State W Iowa (W) at Penn State (W)
Penn State (W) Indiana (W) at Illinois (W) Michigan (W)
Michigan (W) at Penn State (W) (bye) Illinois (W)
Final Record:14-4 Final Record:14-4 Final Record:14-4 Final Record:14-4


Is this really that farfetched? If you look at easy wins (i.e. games that these teams should win against the bottom of the

conference) Purdue has five (x2 Indiana, x2 Penn State, home against Iowa), Wisconsin has three, Ohio State has four, and Michigan State has three.

If you look at the spoiler teams (i.e. teams that are bubble or better and can pull an upset) things get even dicier. For these purposes, let's have Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Michigan in this group, with the Illini being the closest to the four contenders group. Purdue has the fewest remaining games against this group, only going to Minnesota and hosting Illinois. We benefit greatly from only one game against Northwestern and Michigan each. Michigan State has four of these games, Wisconsin five, and Ohio State four. These are types of games that are capable of swinging the race and truly damaging a team's chances. In the four way, 14-4 scenario above I called for only two of these types of losses (Michigan State at Michigan and Wisconsin at Minnesota. As we approach tournament time and teams go into desperation mode that can easily escalate.

If we do get the four-way tie it is difficult to call who would ge the #1 seed in Indianapolis, but I think you could make a case that all four teams could be a top four seed in the NCAA's. Should everything play out exactly as above Purdue would be 3-3 against the other three, Michigan State would be 2-3, Wisconsin would be 3-3, and Ohio State would be 3-2, making that single Michigan State-Ohio State game a huge swing game.

My point is that there is still an awful lot of basketball to be played. The Big Ten currently has four teams that I consider NCAA locks (Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin) and three more on the bubble (Northwestern, Illinois, Minnesota), and one capable of playing on to the bubble if they get hot (Michigan). With 11 games left you can hardly consider Michigan State's lead safe, especially since eight of those 11 games come against the top eight.

All we need to do at Purdue is take care of business ourselves. With the news today on GBI that Lewis Jackson may be close to returning things get even better. Michigan State will fall to someone other than Purdue, and I think it will happen more than once. Let's do our jobs and let everything else sorts itself out. That said, our own road will not be easy. To have any chance we absolutely must win the rest of our home games and get two of three at Michigan State, Ohio State, and Minnesota. Do that, and I really like our chances.