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Coming Down the Stretch

Tonight's games will have a profound impact on the Big Ten race. Illinois proved they are for real in win over the Badgers. Meanwhile, our Boilers took down the reeling Spartans. What we now have is a logjam at the top of the Big Ten standings, with 5 realistic contenders for the regular season championship. These contenders are, in no particular order, Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois. In order to have a better idea of where we stand, let's review the Big Ten's rules for tiebreakers, since I'm sure this will be a factor in determining the standings.

The first tiebreaker is head to head winning percentage for both a 2 team tie and a multiple team tie. The next tiebreaker is a bit odd, since it is the teams' record against the 2nd place team. So, for example, if Purdue, Michigan State, and Wisconsin end up tied for the regular season title and Illinois is the lone 4th place team, then the tiebreaker is their record against Illinois. The third tiebreaker is the winning percentage of all Division 1 opponents a team has faced, and the fourth tiebreaker is a good old fashioned coin toss. If the coin lands on its edge, there will be a two-man sack race held on consecutive Sundays until a champion can be crowned.

After the jump, we will take a look at the road ahead for each team and see what they have to do to win the Big Ten.

Ohio State Buckeyes; 18-6 (8-3)

Remaining Games; @ Indiana, @ Illinois, Purdue, @ Michigan State, @ Penn State, Michigan, Illinois

Record Against Contenders; 2-1, Win over Purdue, split with Wisconsin

Analysis; Ohio State has one of the tougher remaining schedules, with just two home games remaining. Still, they have already beat the Boilers, which is money in the bank for them in the season race and Illinois shouldn't be too much trouble in Columbus. Their lucky schedule draw of one game against Michigan State unfortunately for them is in East Lansing. They should have no trouble with Indiana or Penn State, but I don't see them ending up with the championship unless they can sweep the Illini and win either at Michigan State or complete the sweep over Purdue. If I were an Ohio State fan, I'd want a win over Sparty just a bit more. Splitting with Purdue isn't a bad thing for tiebreaking, whereas taking the only game against MSU is much bigger. Don't overlook that game at Illinois either. The Illini have been hard to figure out, especially at home. They barely escaped IU and Penn State in Champaign, but they crushed a decent Minnesota team and beat a slightly depleted Michigan State team there as well. In addition, they might be a bubble team with lots to play for. That could be a big trap game if the Bucks are looking ahead to Purdue and MSU.

Wisconsin Badgers; 18-6 (8-4)

Remaining Games; Indiana, @ Minnesota, Northwestern, @ Indiana, Iowa, @ Illinois

Record Against Contenders; 3-4, split with Ohio State, Michigan State, and Purdue, loss to Illinois

Analysis; Of the contenders, Wisconsin might be sitting the prettiest. They have completed their season series against every other contender but Illinois. At this point, they can sit back and watch the rest of the conference take each other out. Tonight's loss to the Illini is a significant stumble, but they've got one more shot at Weber's guys before all is said and done. The season ending game against Illinois is obviously their biggest remaining game, with the next most dangerous being their road trip to rival Minnesota. The 3 games left with the terrible two-some of Iowa and Indiana pretty much ensures that Wisconsin will be in good shape when they show up in Champaign. By then Illinois might be out of the title race and slightly less motivated than the Badgers who will probably be neck and neck with at least one other team for the championship if they can get some help.

Illinois Fighting Illini; 17-8 (9-3)

Remaining Games; Ohio State, @ Purdue, @ Michigan, Minnesota, @ Ohio State, Wisconsin

Record Against Contenders; 2-2, split with Michigan State, loss to Purdue, win over Wisconsin

Analysis; The Illini have, by far, the hardest remaining schedule. It is going to be very difficult for them to go through this remaining schedule. Not only do they have to play 4 more games against the top tier of the Big Ten, the 2 games they have outside of that are among the more talented of the also-rans. If tonight's win over the Badgers means anything though, it proves that Illinois can hang with anyone anywhere. That should be an eye-opening win for the other Big Ten teams who may have been overlooking this team. They passed one of their first real tests of the back half of the season with flying colors. Tonight was a season saving statement game for the Illini, and it is going to give them some momentum to close the season. I just don't see it happening against that schedule.

Michigan State Spartans; 19-6 (9-3)

Remaining Games; @ Penn State, @ Indiana, Ohio State, @ Purdue, Penn State, Michigan

Record Against Contenders; 2-3, splits with Wisconsin and Illinois, loss to Purdue

Analysis; Now that the Purdue game is over, Lucas can take the next two games to really get back to 100% without the fate of the Spartans resting on his shoulders. As mentioned previously, the Big Ten schedule makers gifted them with only one game against Ohio State, who has to come to East Lansing. After tonight's loss to the Boilermakers, their visit to West Lafayette and the aforementioned Ohio State game are make or break for the Spartans. This road trip to Penn State and IU should allow Lucas to rehab before these important games, and closing at home against Penn State and the Wolverines will have them in good shape for both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Michigan State just came out of a brutal stretch of games and lost a lot of ground against the rest of the conference. The plus side for them is that they can't fall much farther, but tonight's game definitely removed their margin for error. Make no mistake, they are also in control of their own destiny.

Purdue Boilermakers; 20-3 (8-3)

Remaining Games; Iowa, @ Ohio State, Illinois, @ Minnesota, Michigan State, Indiana, @ Penn State

Record Against Contenders; 3-2, split with Wisconsin, wins over Illinois and Michigan State, loss to Ohio State

Analysis; The Boilermakers have a middle of the road schedule for the rest of the season. The first game that sticks out is the trip to Ohio State to try and avenge the home loss the Boilers suffered in January. Illinois and Michigan State are the next biggest games, as both teams come to Mackey to try and silence the Paint Crew. The road trip to Minnesota poses a challenge, but the rest of the schedule is just not getting shocked by inferior competition. The win over Michigan State tonight puts Purdue in the drivers seat for the moment. We are in control of our destiny, but we have no margin for error. This win tonight means that the Boilermaker's season comes to a head in Columbus. A win to split with Ohio State makes the Big Ten a two horse race between the Boilers and the Spartans. This would make the Michigan State game at Mackey a de facto championship game. It is a tough road ahead, and Purdue can't afford a mistake, but for now we have the momentum and the initiative. The Big Ten championship is ours to lose.

There is one X-factor team in all of this mess, and that is Indiana. Indiana has a big chance to be a spoiler in this race. If they can play at home as well as they did against us, and catch someone on an off night, they can really destroy someone in this race. They have at least one game left with all of the contenders except Illinois (who has their own problems). If IU finds some game, they could play a big role in who wins the title. I overlooked them here for the purposes of discussion, but if they can play Purdue tough at home, they are capable of pulling an upset. Northwestern has a ton of motivation, and they can certainly take down one of the contenders. Minnesota isn't a cakewalk either, especially since they are playing for their tournament lives. I glossed over a lot of the lower tier games, but they are by no means given. Minnesota has 3 games against the contenders and Northwestern could drive a stake through the heart of Wisconsin. There is still a lot of basketball to play, but for now our Boilermakers are in good shape.

EDIT; Forgot an Ohio State game, it is there now.