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The Drive to 23: What Will it Take to Win the Big Ten?

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Purdue is officially in the race for its 23rd Big Ten title. What will it take to get it?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Last night was merely the first step. Purdue opened Big Ten play with a nice 22 point win against Iowa. The 18-game Big Ten season is often a grind with very few easy nights. Last night was one of those rare ones. Winning the league is still one of the top goals this season and it looks achievable. What will it take though? First, let’s look at the league records of the conference title winners the last few seasons since the 18-game schedule took effect (2007-08 season):

2016: Indiana 15-3

2015: Wisconsin 16-2

2014: Michigan 15-3

2013: Indiana 14-4

2012: Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan 13-5

2011: Ohio State 16-2

2010: Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State 14-4

2009: Michigan State 15-3

2008: Wisconsin 16-2

No team that finished at least 15-3 in this time has failed to win at least a share of the Big Ten except for Purdue in 2008 (and Purdue handed Wisconsin both of its losses). 2012 and 2013 were ridiculously competitive years in the conference where everyone seemed to beat each other up. This season is a bit more like 2008, where Wisconsin won (but was swept by Purdue) and only a few teams (Purdue and Indiana) were competitive with them.

The safe estimate is that 14-4 will have you in the discussion, at least. Maryland was runner-up at 14-4 in 2015. Purdue was runner-up in 2011 at 14-4. Indiana was in third place at 14-4 in 2008. along with Purdue’s 15-3 in 2008, those are the only teams that finished at least 14-4 that did not win at least a piece of the title.

Now, let’s look at the path to the title:

Don’t Lose at Home

This goes without saying, but winning on the road in the Big Ten is hard. In venues like Mackey Arena, Assembly Hall, the Kohl Center, etc. it is even harder. Why are teams like Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin regularly near the top of the standings? They fiercely defend home court. Mackey Arena is a Dungeon of Noise where teams fear to play. We have only lost three times there since January 1, 2015: to Maryland by 9, Iowa by 7 (in a complete and utter collapse) and to the current defending National Champs by 3.

You get nine home games a year and you have to defend your turf. As it stands right now only two currently ranked teams come to Mackey: Wisconsin a week from Sunday and Indiana on February 28. The rest of the games won’t be easy, but Purdue will probably be favored against Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Michigan State. A 9-0 home record is key to a title. Here is how every Big Ten champ has done at home with the 18-game schedule.

2016: Indiana 9-0

2015: Wisconsin 9-0

2014 Michigan: 8-1 (lost to Wisconsin)

2013: Indiana 7-2 (lost to Wisconsin and Ohio State)

2012: Michigan State 8-1 (lost to Ohio State), Ohio State 7-2 (lost to Wisconsin and Michigan State) Michigan 8-1 (lost to Purdue)

2011: Ohio State 9-0

2010: Purdue 7-2 (lost to Michigan State post-Hummel, Ohio State), Michigan State 8-1 (lost to Purdue pre-Hummel) Ohio State 8-1 (lost to Purdue)

2009: Michigan State 7-2 (lost to Northwestern and Penn State)

2008: Wisconsin 8-1 (lost to Purdue)

If you drop a game at home it won’t lose the conference, but going 9-0 certainly helps. since the last two league champs were perfect at home it i safe to say that it helps. It is no guarantee though. Purdue was 9-0 at home in both 2008 and 2011, but lost the conference title because it went 6-3 and 5-4 on the road, respectively, and the eventual winner was 16-2 in the league. 2008 really hurts because Purdue handed Wisconsin its only losses, but Purdue lost at Michigan State by 3 (in a game Robbie Hummel missed due to the flu), at Indiana by 9, and at Ohio State by 3 in overtime.

Purdue is already 1/9th of the way there. There are eight games left in Mackey Arena. Don’t lose them.

What to do on the road

If Purdue is going to win this thing no worse than 5-4 on the road will do. In fact, 6-3 would be much better. The benefit of winning on the road, especially against another contender, is that you put a severe dent in their 9-0 hopes and now they have to pick up a key road win to make up for it. Indiana’s loss last night helps immensely because most people were penciling them in for 9-0 at home (they had won 25 straight home games), and absolutely no one had them losing to Nebraska at home.

Here is our road map:

January 5 at Ohio State – Purdue has never done well in the Discount Crappy Furniture Arena. In fact, we’re 1-13 all-time with the only win coming February 17, 2010 60-57 thanks to the Baby Boilers. The Buckeyes have pretty much owned Matt Painter too, as he is 7-16 against them, allowing them to take an 89-85 lead in the all-time series (though a 1-9 stretch in the 10 games before Painter did not help). That said, Florida Atlantic won there this year. Purdue needs to solve its woes against a mercurial Buckeye team.

January 12 at Iowa – Purdue had better win against Iowa. We crushed them last night in a 22 point win that wasn’t that close.

January 24 at Michigan State – Even in a down year I am always leery of Izzo. Purdue is 7-15 all-time at the Breslin Center. This is still a talented team with an excellent coach. It is never easy for anyone to win in East Lansing.

January 29 at Nebraska – There is no valid excuse to lose to Nebraska.

February 4 at Maryland – Maryland is the only other team in the Big Ten aside from Ohio State to have a winning record against Purdue. They are 2-1 while the Buckeyes are 89-85. This will be a tough one because Maryland looks very dangerous. They are not blowing teams away, but they are gritty and have that “they know how to win close games” mentality. This game is Jumboheroes’ responsibility since I assume he will be there.

February 9 at Indiana – Really, what Indiana team is going to show up? The home loss to Nebraska last night was an absolute shocker because there is no damn way an Indiana team that good should ever lose at home to Nebraska. The Hoosiers scare me because of their athleticism and ability to score, but last night showed that they are horrible at playing from behind. If they get up early 5-10 no team in America is better though.

February at Penn State – The Bryce Jordan Mausoleum is an odd home court advantage because it is always so empty and cavernous that teams go in there and fall asleep because they are used to every other Big Ten arena being loud and boisterous. Even Rutgers, with its tiny gym, can have an atmosphere. Penn State is just completely dead. That’s why every year they always catch a ranked team that drifts into a coma during their visit. Last year it was Indiana.

February 25 at Michigan – Michigan is going to shoot a ton of threes. If they are hitting, watch out. If not, Purdue wins. It is that simple. This is also Juan’s responsibility, as he already has been cleared for a media pass there for us.

March 5 at Northwestern – I am kind of scared for this one and I hope Northwestern is safely off the bubble by then. It has the potential to be the biggest home game in Northwestern basketball history, as knocking off a Purdue team playing for the Big Ten title could cement their first ever NCAA Tournament berth.

Outlook:

I think Purdue can do the 9-0 at home part. When Purdue gets rolling in Mackey like last night they are extremely hard to beat. Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Indiana can all ruin things though.

On the road I am much less confident. I think Purdue will win at Iowa, Nebraska, and Penn State because you don’t deserve to win the Big Ten if you lose there. The other six games will not be easy and if Purdue goes 9-0 at home it probably needs to go 3-3 in trips to Ohio State, Michigan State, Maryland, Indiana, Michigan, and Northwestern. Of those, I would go in this order, from most likely to least likely: Michigan (because of the 3-point factor), Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State, Maryland, Indiana.