Yesterday's Michigan-Michigan State game marks the halfway point in the Big Ten season. Everyone but Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern has now played nine of their 18 games, with Rutgers, Minnesota, and Michigan having played 10. It is still up in the air how many teams from the conference will get into the NCAAs, but the general consensus seems to be anywhere from five to seven. Many teams are hampered by poor non-conference results that are pulling them down, but a few teams, like Indiana, Purdue, and Michigan, are fighting back. We also have a logjam of five teams at 6-3, which is not a problem for Wisconsin. They wouldn't mind it if they knocked each other off while the Badgers continued to cruise.
What's clear is that Wisconsin is the class of the conference, Northwestern and Rutgers are probably out of it, and everyone else is going to beat each other to a bloody pulp. Let's look at where we are.
Countdown to a coronation:
Wisconsin (19-2, 7-1) - If the Badgers had not had the bizarre loss at Rutgers (and yes, they should have won that game without Frank Kaminsky) the conference race would already be over. For anyone to have a chance to catch Wisconsin they have to drop two more games at least. That's if one of the 6-3 teams runs the table and goes 9-0, which is unlikely. Trips to Maryland and Ohio State look tough, and Minnesota is at least going to push them in Minneapolis, but this team still has five home games too. Only Purdue has played them within 10 points in Madison. The Badgers will win the conference and they are playing for a No. 1 seed.
Maryland (18-4, 6-3) - The Terrapins might be the team that falls out of the race a bit. They have not done well on the road, going 2-3 with a double OT win at Michigan State and a win at Purdue, but losses at Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio State. This is still a very strong NCAA team and might even be a top 4 seed somewhere, but can they catch Wisconsin? Fortunately, their last four road games are Iowa, Penn State, Rutgers, and Nebraska. They also do get Wisconsin at home and a return game against Indiana.
Ohio State (17-5, 6-3) - I fear the Buckeyes are heating up at the right time with a suddenly huge game at Purdue coming up. It concerns me because Ohio State has been quite a problem for Purdue under Thad Matta. The Buckeyes have been swept by Iowa and lost at Indiana, but their two wins over Indiana and Maryland in the past week have been very impressive. This is an NCAA team that is rounding into form and looks ready for a typical strong finish in league play.
Indiana (16-6, 6-3) - The Hoosiers will likely fall out of the rankings after road losses to Purdue and Ohio State by 28 total points, but by surviving Rutgers on Saturday they avoided a bad losses that could have pushed them towards the Bubble. Indiana is probably fine if they go 5-4 down the stretch. They should be able to do that, but the lack of size and they way that Purdue exposed their defense there could be concern. They shoot well enough to beat anyone, but if the shots don't fall and teams get physical with them, things like the Purdue game happen.
Still alive, but lots of work to do:
Michigan State (15-7, 6-3) - If Michigan had been able to win in overtime on Sunday over Michigan State we could have seen something that we haven't seen since I was a junior in high school. The last time MSU missed the tournament was 1997. They have been a mainstay and arguably the most consistently successful team in that span with a title, a runner-up, six Final Fours, and 12 Sweet 16s. A loss to Michigan would have put them in danger of missing the Dance, but even with the ugly Texas Southern loss they should be just fine if they get 5-6 more wins. As we know with tom Izzo, that will happen.
Purdue (14-8, 6-3) - And here come the Boilermakers! If Purdue had just avoided the North Florida and Gardner-Webb losses Purdue would be 16-6 and probably in the lock category, or at least a lot closer. The good news is that the past week has opened some eyes around the country, which is good. The Boilers need to keep it going and beating Ohio State on Wednesday would be a major boost to that. At minimum, Purdue needs to sweep Rutgers, beat Nebraska at home, and turn the Illinois loss (the closest thing to a bad conference loss they have) around by beating them at home. Do that and I am confident Purdue can get another win or two elsewhere, but it has to play this hard every night.
Illinois (14-8, 4-5) - Like when Purdue won at Penn State, the Illini winning in Happy Valley might have turned things around even with the suspensions to Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby. It is hard to judge them because they don't have a real bad loss among the eight (Minnesota, Oregon, and Nebraska are not as terrible as many other B1G losses), but outside of Maryland they don't have a great win. They will get some leeway with their injury/suspension status and still likely need to win at least six more to feel anywhere close to safe. The Final nine are going to be tough with at home against a feisty Northwestern team their easiest game.
Iowa (13-8, 4-4) - Yeah, Iowa, it is all Dan Dakich's fault instead of you playing shitty basketball for three straight games. Iowa goes from ranked team and solidly in to off the Bubble in the span of three games. Sure, two of those were to Wisconsin, but with all the offensive rebounds they got in West Lafayette that should have a win. They probably have an advantage of Michigan with two more games in hand and no bad losses. The sweep of Ohio State helps too. With no bad losses a 6-4 finish might be enough, especially if they win a game in Chicago.
Michigan (13-9, 6-4) - The Wolverines needed Sunday, but they couldn't finish against Sparty. Think of Michigan as equal to Purdue, but they lost to the Boilers. Both teams have two really bad losses (NJIT and E. Michigan for Michigan), but they have managed to do some things in Big Ten play. I hope the committee sees the Purdue win over Michigan as a tiebreaker, but it only matters if the Wolverines do enough to make it matter. With Caris LeVert out I don't think it will. They probably have to win five of the last eight to make it matter. Other than Northwestern and Rutgers at the end, their schedule remaining is brutal.
Minnesota (14-9, 3-7) - The only reason Minnesota is still alive is the work it did outside of the conference. That, and they have been so competitive in conference games that some of these have to go in their favor, right? You have to be concerned if you're Purdue because they just got an 18 point win and they get a week off. They even get Wisconsin twice in the last four games to make a late run and really mess with the Badgers. This is a dangerous team that despite all the closelosses, they are still alive.
Penn State (14-8, 2-7) - Like any of these last four teams, The Nittany Lions are not going to the NCAA Tournament, but they can be a pain in the ass for any team that wants to get in. They have now been kicked in the teeth late in game against Illinois and Purdue, but they are good enough to catch someone, especially with D.J. Newbill as a threat to drop 40 on anyone.
Nebraska (12-9, 4-5) - Nebrasketball probably was out of it when they lost to Incarnate Word, but they have enough talent to be a monkey wrench to anyone left. Let's hope it is not on February 15 in West Lafayette.
Rutgers (10-13, 2-8) - If Rutgers can stun Wisconsin they can beat anyone. They lost to friggin' St. Peter's and still beat Wisconsin. Figure that one out. No, you can't use the Frank Kaminsky excuse. It should not have mattered.
Northwestern (10-11, 1-7) - God hates Northwestern Basketball.