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2021-22 Big Ten Basketball: The Home Stretch

We are big Michigan fans now.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve reached the final quarter of the Big Ten season and Purdue is right where we want them to be. The Boilermakers currently sit in first place by themselves with four to play and, if they win the last four, will clinch the school’s 25th Big Ten men’s basketball championship.

So why are we concerned?

Despite winning eight of the last nine games Purdue has not looked good in the last three. Michigan absolutely blew our doors off in Ann Arbor. Maryland is destined for the Wednesday games in the Big Ten Tournament, but came dangerously close to upsetting us in Mackey. Last night Purdue led by 14 with 2:59 left when Eric Hunter Jr. hit a big three, but Northwestern came very close to cutting the lead to three when Boo Buie missed an open three with 16 seconds left. That’s an eternity for it to be a one possessions game, especially after the Ohio State game a few weeks ago.

Yes, Purdue was mostly in control throughout last night, but you could see the same defensive struggles we have had all season. Northwestern just didn’t hit good looks. Combined with five missed free throws inside the last minute (two of them being the front end of one-and-ones, so really seven missed FTs) it made for a shaky finish. If that game lasts another minute…

Plenty of results are in the books though and, as I said, Purdue is in first place. It could even have this thing mostly wrapped up if not for the Ron Harper Jr. heave and inability to get one rebound at Indiana. Those two things make for an extremely tight conference race where six teams are within one game in the loss column. If Purdue has one advantage it is that it has already played 16 of its 20 games. Every other contender has at least one extra game, and Ohio State has three. It makes for an exciting finish.

Championship Contenders

Purdue Boilermakers – 23-4, 12-4 – Purdue is locked into the NCAA Tournament. It now has eight quad 1 victories and could get two more before going to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament. It is playing for a very high seed and I maintain my stance that a Big Ten regular season championship, especially if it wins these last four, will equal a No. 1 seed in March. At minimum, Purdue very likely has at least a four seed locked up and would thus be favored to reach the Sweet 16. It will have to earn a 1 seed though. There are no easy games left. We can’t trade the trip to Wisconsin for a trip to Nebraska. Purdue plays three of its fellow contenders in the next three games, then has to close with a huge rivalry game at home. The Boilers will likely have to go 3-1 to have a chance, making Sunday’s home game against red hot Rutgers a huge one. Rutgers has now won four in a row against Purdue, the longest active streak of any B1G opponent. If Purdue can hold serve I will feel a lot better about splitting the road games and beating IU. Remaining Schedule: Rutgers, at Michigan State, at Wisconsin, Indiana

Wisconsin Badgers – 20-5, 11-4 – The Badgers were nearly tripped up at Indiana, but Johnny Davis went out and won it for them. That was a missed opportunity for the rest of the league. Wisconsin has the luxury of games against Minnesota and Nebraska down the stretch and they get Michigan and Purdue in Madison. The Kohl Center has not been its usual fortress, however. Providence, Michigan State, and Rutgers have come in and won. Wisconsin also has to go to Rutgers before hosting Purdue in what could be a huge two game stretch. If Purdue’s one loss in a hypothetical 3-1 finish comes in Madison we will need someone else to beat the Badgers. I will feel A LOT better about winning the Big Ten if we can beat Rutgers and Michigan State before going to Madison. Remaining Schedule: Michigan, at Minnesota, at Rutgers, Purdue, Nebraska.

Illinois Fighting Illini – 18-7, 11-4 – Purdue has already taken the most it can from Illinois with a season sweep. The Illini did not start a critical four game stretch well by getting dominated at Rutgers last night. They have a stretch similar to Purdue in that they have several league contenders coming up. Only one of their last five games is against a team not fighting to make the tournament, and that is at home against Penn State. The next two are make or break for the Illini, and they need to drop one game for Purdue to get a piece in a hypothetical 3-1 finish. Remaining Schedule: at Michigan State, Ohio State, at Michigan, Penn State, Iowa

Ohio State Buckeyes – 16-6, 9-4 – COVID has done no favors for the Buckeyes, as starting Saturday they have to play seven games in 16 days. Yes, they are tied for first in the loss column, but that is a brutal ask. If they go 7-0 they will have absolutely earned a Big Ten title. It is possible though. Only two are against fellow contenders, though three more are against possible NCAA teams. They also get a huge advantage with five of them at home, and they are the only undefeated team at home in the conference. Don’t count them out. Remaining Schedule: Iowa, Indiana, at Illinois, at Maryland, Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights – 16-9, 10-5 – Rutgers has lost games to Penn State, Northwestern, Minnesota, and Maryland. That’s four of the bottom five teams in the league. If they had taken care of business in such games they would be an NCAA lock and well in front in the Big Ten. After last night they have beaten four straight ranked teams and now we’re right in their sights. They are right on the bubble because of some earlier bad losses, but weirdly they are in great shape to win the Big Ten too if they win their last five. They only need losses by Ohio State and Illinois to control their own path. I want no part of them on Sunday, and we need Mackey to be Mackey. Remaining Schedule: at Purdue, at Michigan, Wisconsin, at Indiana, Penn State

Michigan State Spartans – 18-7, 9-5 – The last contender, Michigan State has spiraled with three losses in their last four. They also have a busier schedule with six games in 16 days to finish. Half of those games are against fellow contenders too. Since they already have five losses Purdue fans should really ask them to beat Illinois and Ohio State. I see Michigan State as a more likely win than at Wisconsin for Purdue, but by no means does that mean it is an automatic victory. Remaining Schedule: Illinois, at Iowa, Purdue, at Michigan, at Ohio State, Maryland

Conference Spoilers and Possible NCAA Teams

Iowa Hawkeyes - 17-7, 7-6 – Iowa and Michigan each have seven games to go like Ohio State, but they start against each other tonight in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes lost their chance at the title with a double OT loss at Penn State, but against the top six teams above they are 0-5. They still have a role to play though with games against Michigan State, Ohio State, and Illinois. I’d really like them to beat Ohio State and Illinois. Remaining Schedule: Michigan, at Ohio State, Michigan State, at Nebraska, Northwestern, at Michigan, at Illinois

Michigan Wolverines - 13-10, 7-6 – Michigan is the Jekyll and Hyde team in the conference this year. They were supposed to be a contender, but now they are a big spoiler when they are on. They are also fighting for their tournament lives with just a 2-7 quad 1 record. Their NET is good at 37 and if they could string together some wins to get into the top 30 that elevates our home win over them to a Quad 1 victory. We want them to get hot and stay hot. If they play their way into the tourney that will come at the expense of our fellow contenders, so that is a very good thing. They won’t win the league, but they will have a very large say in who does with five games left against the six contenders. Remaining Schedule: at Iowa, at Wisconsin, Rutgers, Illinois, Michigan State, Iowa, at Ohio State

Indiana Hoosiers – 16-9, 7-8 – Since beating Purdue and looking like a certain NCAA team the Hoosiers have dropped 5 of 7, only beating Penn State and Maryland. They get three of the contenders to finish, so they have plenty of opportunity to secure their spot, but this is a bubble team right now. If they lose to Ohio State, Rutgers, and Purdue they can finish no better than 9-11 in league play. Since no team with a losing record in conference play deserves an at large bid that is dangerous territory. Their non-conference slate is giving them a big bag of nothing too, as their best win was over Notre Dame at the Crossroads. Only home wins over Purdue and Ohio State are on tier 1. They cannot lose games left against Maryland and Minnesota. Remaining Schedule: at Ohio State, Maryland, at Minnesota, Rutgers, at Purdue

Spoilers/potential NIT teams

Northwestern Wildcats – 12-12, 5-10 – After last night Northwestern now has a stunning 11 losses by 8 points or less. Purdue’s win in Mackey is the only time they have truly been blown out. This is a tricky team, but they have no games left against contenders and only one against an NCAA team. We want them to finish strong against a weak slate so our win last night stays on tier 1. Remaining Schedule: at Minnesota, Nebraska, at Penn State, at Iowa, Minnesota.

Penn State Nittany Lions – 10-12, 5-9 – Losing three non-conference games due to a COVID pause off the schedule will possibly keep Penn State from the NIT, as they could use that volume of wins right now. They have a small factor in the league race with two games left against contenders, but most of their games are in the “We’re contractually obligated to televise this game” territory. They sit at 85 in the NET, so a 10 spot boost makes our win over them a tier 1 win. Remaining Schedule: Minnesota, at Maryland, Northwestern, Nebraska, at Illinois, at Rutgers

Minnesota Golden Gophers – 12-11, 3-11 – Can Minnesota ride an undefeated non-conference season to a winning overall record and NIT bid? They have six games left and need to win three of them. They could really use their cancelled game against Alcorn State, a very likely win, just to increase the total. The biggest game we want to watch is if the Barn can provide an upset against Wisconsin next week. Remaining Schedule: at Penn State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Indiana, at Maryland, at Northwestern

Playing Out the String

Maryland Terrapins – 11-14, 3-11 – Purdue averted disaster with Trevion Williams’ blocked shot and Mason Gillis’ rebound on Sunday. That would have been a horrific loss. Maryland has been competitive, but has not been able to finish the job. It has played a role with wins over Rutgers (at Rutgers, no less) and Illinois, but has mostly been a close-but-no-cigar team with close losses to Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Purdue (4 total points). Tomorrow night at Nebraska might set a record for “least watched Big Ten basketball game”. Remaining Schedule: at Nebraska, Penn State, at Indiana, Ohio State, Minnesota, at Michigan State

Nebraska Cornhuskers – 7-18, 1-13 – Barring an absolutely shocking senior day win in Madison on March 6th, Nebraska has no real say in anything else going forward. They are destined for the Wednesday in the Big Ten Tournament and a third straight last place finish. Purdue has won the same number of conference games this year as Nebraska has in the last four seasons combined. Fred Hoiberg is 6-47 in league play. Remaining Schedule: Maryland, at Northwestern, Iowa, at Penn State, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin