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The Home Stretch: The Real Look at the Big Ten Race

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Purdue is in the thick of things, but may regret those losses to Iowa and Minnesota.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This morning I published a late guest post that was pretty hard on Purdue as we head into the final 10 games of the season. That’s where most Big Ten teams are. Most teams will have 10 games left after Nebraska goes to Northwestern tonight and Indiana goes to Michigan. Only four teams have two losses or fewer. Those four look like the most likely choices to contend for the conference title too. So let’s take a look at those four and their closing schedules, plus Indiana, who is the only 3 loss team and a bit of a wild card with their ability to turn on the offense at will. they will still ahve a large role to play in Purdue’s Drive to 23.

Indiana (14-6, 4-3) – The Hoosiers looked dead after losing their first two league games, but since then they have played relatively well. Even after losing OG Anunoby for the year they are 2-0, beating Michigan State at home.

A lot is heaped on Indiana for playing an easy non-conference schedule, but I would tend to call it merely unbalanced. They played Kansas, North Carolina, Butler, and Louisville. Those are four top 15 KenPom teams, and they beat two of them. Anyone would take that. What hurts is the other nine games were against veritable nobodies. Fort Wayne has fallen to 124 per KenPom and that is the fifth best team they have played. The next best? Liberty at 235.

The biggest thing that hurts Indiana, other than losing Anunoby, is the remaining schedule. Starting tonight they have 7 road games in their last 11. They have to go to Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, and Northwestern. Purdue and Northwestern also still must come to Bloomington, where Indiana has been surprisingly vulnerable in B1G play.

I don’t think Indiana has quite enough to win the Big Ten again, but they have the firepower and the schedule to play a role in the race. What if they go to Madison on February 5th and have a hot night? A pair of rivalry games with Purdue will be huge factors. Playing Northwestern twice will have a role too.

Prediction: Indiana will make the tournament, but not win the league. I think their big win will be over Purdue at home on February 9th. They’ll go something like 7-4 the rest of the way, losing at Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan, and Northwestern, but won’t lose at home again.

Northwestern (16-4, 5-2) – I know Wildcat fans don’t want to hear this when they just want to concentrate on finally making the NCAA Tournament, but Northwestern is better than that. They are a legitimate contender to win the title, and if they beat Nebraska tonight and Indiana on Sunday it would take a major collapse to miss the tournament.

From that point on they can dream. They get Purdue twice and as a Purdue fan I am deeply concerned with the final game of the year coming in Evanston. If they haven’t locked up a bid by then it will be the biggest home game in Northwestern basketball history. I think they need five more wins to feel really secure. You have to assume the home game against Rutgers on February 18 is one of them, mostly because if they lose it, it would be a devastating blow. They also get a reeling Nebraska tonight (and Northwestern already won in Lincoln), Illinois twice, and Michigan at home. Those need to be their five wins right there.

After that? Well, Northwestern can still do a lot with two games against Purdue, two against Indiana, and a home game against Maryland. Look out for February 12 when they go to Madison. That could be one of the toughest games left for Wisconsin.

Prediction: Northwestern makes the tournament. It wins those five games (Illinois twice, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Michigan) and takes at least 1 of four from Indiana and Purdue. That’s six more wins, giving them 22 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten. They finally leave the group of five teams that have never made the NCAA Tournament despite being Division I the entire time, leaving Army, the Citadel, William & Mary, and St. Francis (NY) to carry the burden alone.

Purdue (17-4, 6-2) – It may not be a question of “can Purdue run the table or go 9-1”, but “can Maryland and Wisconsin lose enough?” Purdue is in the unfortunate situation of having beaten Wisconsin by 11 straight up, but does not get a return game in Madison (where they have always played very well under Matt Painter). They need Wisconsin to lose at least once, if not twice depending on what the Boilers do from here on out. I don’t know if that will happen.

I am still okay with the Minnesota loss because I was there and the way the Gophers played they would have beaten a lot of teams that day. it happens. The loss at Iowa stings though. Maryland has a similar bad loss (at home to Nebraska), but this could be a year like 2008, where Purdue went 15-3 and was runner-up in the Big Ten to a 16-2 Wisconsin despite beating the Badgers twice.

Purdue passed its first test with a tough win in East Lansing this week. The only time where Purdue has won in East Lansing and Columbus in the same year in the last 20 years the Boilers won the Big Ten. Purdue still has to watch out for 6 road games in the last 10 here. Going to Penn State should be easy. I think Purdue wins at Michigan after blowing it last year. Purdue crushed Nebraska in Lincoln last year and the Huskers are falling back to earth. I trust “Fort Mackey” for home games against Northwestern, Rutgers, Michigan State, and Indiana. Back-to-back games at Maryland and Indiana are daunting though. Can Purdue sweep those two? It may have to, because Wisconsin losing twice more might be a stretch.

Prediction: I think Purdue goes either 9-1 or 8-2. I think they get at least one of the two at Indiana and Maryland, but that might be the difference between a conference title and not. As I said above, that last game at Northwestern looks very scary if the Wildcats are playing for their tournament lives. If they aren’t, it is still tough because it means they are even better.

Maryland (17-2, 6-1) – The Big Ten handed the Terrapins some major gifts. They get Rutgers twice. They get (and have already beaten) dysfunctional Illinois twice. They get Iowa twice and already survived Iowa City (where Purdue did not). They get Ohio State twice in a year where the Buckeyes clearly are not as good as usual.

The Terrapins are the kings of close games this year too. They are 8-1 in games decided by 6 points or less. The one loss? An odd home loss to Nebraska on January 1. That has to pay some dividends because they won’t get tight when the game is close. They expect to win.

The finishing schedule is not as kind. They have Minnesota twice, Purdue at home, and trips to Northwestern and Wisconsin. Purdue fans may be watching that Wisconsin-Maryland game as one of the biggest ones of the season. It could mean the difference between the Badgers going 16-2 and winning the title outright or a 3-way tie. As usual, Rutgers is ruining everything here. Maryland and Wisconsin get them twice each while Purdue gets them once. We also only get two games involving the three best teams in the league (Purdue, Maryland, and Wisconsin). Thanks Delaney!

Prediction: Melo Trimble is the best guard in the conference and while last year’s talented Maryland team underachieved, this one is overachieving. That said, the back half of their schedule is a lot harder. They could easily lose at Minnesota on Saturday (and they lost to an awful Minnesota team last year). In fact, Minnesota might need to win it with their recent struggles. I think Maryland drops at least two of the four games at Minnesota, at Northwestern, at Wisconsin, and home to Purdue.

Wisconsin (17-3, 6-1) – Rutgers has only won four Big Ten games ever, and one of them was over an all-time Wisconsin team two years ago. Can they please do it again on Saturday?

That’s the problem with the Badgers. If Purdue needs them to lose twice (assuming Purdue drops only one game the rest of the way) where do the losses come from? They get five of their last 6 at home, where they are notoriously tough. Indiana could do it, but they have a tortured history at the Kohl Center. Northwestern, Maryland, and Minnesota are their toughest games left and they are all at home. They go to Illinois, Rutgers, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Michigan State.

Ultimately, we have to hope that the likes of Illinois, Michigan State, Michigan, and Ohio State can all come together and play for their NCAA Tournament lives. None of those four will win the league, but all four have varying degrees of NCAA Tournament hopes. All of them could use a home win over Wisconsin to buoy them. Maryland winning in Madison would also help.

Prediction: Wisconsin’s offense is mostly butt. The first 34 minutes of their win at home over Michigan was nearly unwatchable and the Wolverines led 49-43 with six minutes left before the Badgers went on a 15-0 run. They also pulled out an overtime win in Minneapolis. We really could have used them dropping on or both of those. I think they go 10-1 in these last 11 to edge Purdue and Maryland by a game.

Final Predicted Standings:

Wisconsin 16-2, 27-4

Purdue 15-3, 26-5

Maryland 15-3, 27-4

Indiana 11-7, 21-10

Northwestern 11-7, 22-9

NCAA Tournament Teams From the Rest:

Minnesota - Ridiculously high RPI right now despite being 3-5 in league play. they pull it together to get in.

Michigan State - I refuse to count out Izzo and hope he does damage to Maryland and Wisconsin.

Michigan - They have a “first Four” feel to them, and they are good enough to swing an upset or two to stay alive.

Falling Short:

Ohio State - Not enough depth, too many missed chances.

Illinois - RPI is staying in the top 50 for now, but when bad they are BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD. At least they have the State Farm Center this year for the NIT.

Iowa - Too young and inconsistent, but with Peter Jok and the freshman they can bite someone. we know.

Penn State - See Iowa, only with Shep Garner. Alreayd used their “Beat a ranked team at the Byrce Jordan Mausoleum” card against Minnesota.

Nebraska - They needed a miracle anyway after a 6-6 non-conference. they at least started with one by winning in Bloomington and College park, but have done nothing since.

Rutgers - They are still Rutgers.