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Halfway Through The Big Ten race

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I am going for the 1,000,000th visitor to the site today. As of 8:45am I was about 5,000 site visits short, but of late there have been about 3,000 per day. January is already the best month at the site by far, so I might as well finish the month with a bang. The site was launched almost two years ago, but most of the growth has occurred within the past year as the Purdue basketball team has grown in its success.

That success is now at the halfway point of the Big Ten season and facing a crossroads game tomorrow night in Madison. That means it is a good time to look at how the Big Ten race stands as we head into the final month.

Ohio State (22-0, 9-0) - Projection: NCAA Tournament #1 seed - Halfway home there is very little standing between the Buckeyes and the Big Ten title. They lead everyone by two full games and assuming the beat Michigan later this week they can extend that to as much as four games over everyone except Purdue. They stomped Purdue, but they have had several other close calls where Jared Sullinger has hit big shots in the end. Their three toughest games left are at Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Purdue, so I don't think they will go undefeated, but this team has a knack for winning close games. I see a maximum of three losses the rest of the way, while the Big Ten Tournament could provide a fourth because of its nature. Even that shouldn't be enough to derail them from a #1 seed unless they fall apart.

 

Purdue (18-4, 7-2) - Projection: NCAA Tournament 2-4 seed - I think Purdue has a ceiling of a 2 seed. A #1 is only possible if we win out and win the Big Ten Tournament, beating OSU there as well. A 2 or 3 seed would be very good because we can avoid a #1 seed as long as possible then. Tomorrow's game at Wisconsin is huge because it may be Purdue's last chance to beat a ranked team away from Mackey Arena. Purdue has been lights out at home, but our best road victory is against Penn State. Beating the Badgers puts us as the undisputed #2 in the conference. For Purdue to get a share of the Big Ten we must finish 8-1 down the stretch, likely beating OSU at Mackey in the process. That is probably a stretch, but I can see the Boilermakers getting at least a 3 seed if they finish second in the Big Ten with a 14-4 conference record. That only means a 7-2 finish, which would be a very good run. I'm fine as long as the losses are at Wisconsin and either at MSU or home against OSU.

Wisconsin (15-5, 5-3) - Projection: NCAA Tournament 3-5 seed - The Badgers are a very interesting case. If they beat Purdue they can stay in the Big Ten. They also have a pair of games left against Ohio State that will figure largely into the conference race. Ultimately, their overtime loss in East Lansing may be the thing that costs them a share of the title. This is still a very good team. They have five games left at home and two road games (Iowa and Indiana) in which they will be heavily favored. Considering the way they play at the Kohl Center, that is likely seven wins you can mark down right now. Jordan Taylor might be in line for the Big Ten's Most Improved award, while Jon Leuer is one of the most unheralded players in the country.

Minnesota (16-5, 5-4) - Projection: NCAA Tournament 4-6 seed - The Golden Gophers need to get Al Nolen back. Losing at Purdue on Saturday wasn't bad, but after visiting Indiana this week the schedule is pretty nasty. They have Penn State twice, Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan State, and a late game against Northwestern that could be tricky. I like this Minnesota team a lot. They have enough size to battle anyone in the country, but they absolutely need Nolen to be more of a perimeter threat.

Illinois (14-7, 4-4) - Projection: NCAA Tournament 5-7 seed - The Fighting Illini have got to start playing better. You can't challenge the #1 team in the country, then turn around and crap the bed against the worst team in the conference at Indiana. That's four losses in five games for Illinois, but only the Indiana one is an awful loss. This is still an NCAA Tournament team, but the UIC and Indiana games have shown they aren't quite worthy of a protected seed. They have too many players that are hit or miss. Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis are the types that can do a lot or disappear on any given night. Only Demetri McCamey has been consistent. They also showed against Indiana they are afraid to take the big shot needed. Tisdale had a decent look, but threw the ball out of bounds rather than shoot.

Michigan State (13-8, 5-4) - Projection: NCAA Tournament - It is hard to place a seed projection on the Spartans because they have played a tough schedule and they have so many quality wins possible ahead of them. They are going to get a lot of respect by the committee, and honestly I don't think their seed will matter. They have the talent and experience to be a Final Four threat even if you put them in a play-in game. Unfortunately, they are not playing well right now. This was supposed to be an easy three game stretch where they recovered. Instead, they lost at home to Michigan, barely survived Indiana, and now they have to go to Iowa. Had Indiana won last night you would have had no choice but to put them on the Bubble. The current incarnation of MSU could easily lose six of the final nine games. The potential version could easily win all nine.

Penn State (12-8, 5-4) - Projection: NCAA Tournament Bubble- The Nittany Lions have played their way onto the Bubble, something that was one of the least likely statement as recently as a month ago. They have three very good wins at home and a couple of near misses at Purdue and Ohio State. They need to get a tough road game to really start an argument for their inclusion. They have road games left at Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, so getting one of those would be nice as long as they continue to hold serve at home. This team may be the ultimate test in the "how you finish" theory. They have nothing helping them from their non-conference schedule, although the Maine loss doesn't look as bad when you consider the Black Bears are at least leading their conference. I think Penn State needs to finish at least 11-7 and win a game in Indianapolis to get safely in. With Michigan, Northwestern (twice), and some good home games that is not impossible.

Northwestern (13-8, 3-7) - Projection: NIT - I wanted to believe in the Wildcats, but they have been unable to finish too many games now to finally break the NCAA drought. They have to be the worst final minute team in the country (though Miami is in the running). If they could just finish, Northwestern would have two wins over Michigan State and a win over Ohio State. With eight games left they have to win at least six to have any shot of making the NCAA's. Winning twice in Indy wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

 Michigan (13-9, 3-6) - Projection: NIT - The Wolverines need to go 4-6 (counting at least one game in the Big Ten Tourney) to make the NIT. They are good enough to do just that, but none of their games are gimmes. The closest is a home game against Indiana, but after getting pantsed by the Hoosiers in Bloomington I don't trust Michigan to win that one. I think they will get there, but it will be close.

Indiana (11-11, 2-7) - Projection: No Postseason - The time has come for Indiana to be held to a higher standard. Look, I don't like Indiana. That's to be expected because I am an Purdue fan. That is not to say I don't respect the tradition they have. I can mock them all I want, but they still have five National Championships to our one. As a Purdue fan I relish their struggles, but from a larger college basketball perspective it is sad to see how far a former name program has fallen that they celebrate beating a ranked team like they won a title. After starting the year 9-2 there is no excuse whatsoever for them missing the postseason. I do not buy into the cries of "we're back" because of the Illinois win because that was more a result of Illinois playing like crap than Indiana playing well. The Hoosiers need to win a road game, any road game, before I'll buy in. They have won once on an opponents' floor in three years, and that was at last place Penn State last year. They are not playing any better on defense, which is something you have to do in this league to win. Players like Tom Pritchard and Jeremiah Rivers have regressed. I''m an ardent doubter and I still expected at least an NIT season this year. At most I see three wins the rest of the way, and that is against Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern. Considering Indiana gave up 90+ the first time around to both Iowa and Northwestern even those games could be a stretch.  This team should be better than it is regardless of the injuries, and serious Indiana fans have to begin questioning Crean's coaching ability. Most of the losses happened before the injuries too.

Iowa (8-13, 1-8) - Projection: No Postseason - The Hawkeyes have dug too big of a hole to make the postseason barring a miraculous run in Indianapolis. Every remaining team is looking at Iowa and penciling in a win. Fran McCaffery has done a good job in year one of making them more competitive, but only a visit from Michigan and trip to Indiana look like reasonable chances at a win. If they can match the 10 wins from last season I think they will have exceeded most people's expectations.