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Big Ten Title Race: February 3

The race is just past the halfway point.

Purdue v Minnesota Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It is early February, so that means the Big Ten race is starting to come into focus. As usual, there are no easy games. Nebraska might be 0-11 in league play, but they are fighting hard with single digit losses in their last four games. They’ll bite someone.

Almost everyone has played 10 or 11 games of the 20 game schedule and we’re starting to get a bit of a hierarchy, but it is still chaos. Six teams are within two games in the loss column of first place. The league looks poised to get seven or eight teams into the NCAAs, with the rest needing miracle runs at this point in order to get into contention. Here is how things break down so far:

Title Contenders:

Illinois (16-5, 9-2) – The Illini have been a small surprise, but they are handling business and taking care of the other contenders when they come to Champaign, beaten Wisconsin and Michigan State there recently. The only losses were in double OT at home to Purdue (another contender) and a stunning 16 point loss in the next game at Maryland. It feels like all the top teams have at least one WTF loss already, and that is definitely theirs. They have some tricky games left. They have to go to Purdue and Michigan State, and they already lost to the Boilers. That game in Mackey is one of the most important left when it comes to the conference at large. Lookout for a trip to Indiana as well.

Michigan State (17-4, 8-2) – The Spartans are a team that likes to play with fire. They could easily be 10-0 in league play right now if not for critical free throw misses against Northwestern and Illinois in the final seconds. They also just barely escaped Maryland this week. Their schedule in the final 10 is tough with home games against Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Purdue plus a trip to Ohio State. They did win at Wisconsin though, and next Tuesday’s return game in East Lansing is huge for both.

Purdue (19-3, 8-3) – The top rated team in the conference, the Boilers have three losses by 10 points total. The losses to Rutgers and Indiana on the road are essentially on buzzer-beaters in probably the worst two games of the year. Purdue is 19-0 when scoring at least 70 points, and 0-3 with 69 or less. In most years Purdue fans would be elated to be 19-3, but with expectations and the wait he Rutgers and Indiana losses happened (especially Indiana because it is Indiana), there is grumbling because Purdue should have put both away easily, thus having us at 10-1 and fully in control of the league at this point. The defense, usually a strength for Purdue, appears to be the largest weakness. It is very concerning that even nationally Purdue’s defense is very bad for a top 20 KenPom team at 87th nationally, and only one other top 20 KenPom team is even below 50 in defense (Alabama at 75). The very idea of “well, I hope we just outscore teams” in March is strange for Purdue. That offense, at least last night, is humming again though. With nine games left Purdue probably needs to go at least 6-3. Five are in Mackey, with the toughest coming next week against Illinois. If Purdue can stay hot and not take another loss before the closing Michigan State-Wisconsin-Indiana kick I like our chances. Purdue has the offense to race to the Final Four and the defense to lose to a hot shooting 9 seed in the round of 32 because we have an off night.

Wisconsin (17-4, 8-3) – The Badgers already have a major bonus no one else has: they came to Mackey Arena and won. The 2019-20 season aside, Purdue has only lost one conference home game or less each year since the 2014-15 season. We’ve hit our quota, but the Badgers got that one win. Wisconsin is similarly tough at home, but has to go to Michigan State (who already won in Madison) and Indiana (who had them on the ropes there). Their toughest home game left is Purdue.

Ohio State (13-5, 6-3) – The Buckeyes are one of the few teams with 11 games left, but with only three losses they still have a chance. If not for Jaden Ivey’s heroics they would have had a real shot at Purdue in overtime with a ton of momentum. The losses aren’t bad either, coming at Indiana, Wisconsin, and Purdue. They are the only team without a home loss in conference play, and they should be favored in the rest of their home games (Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan). They only have four road games left at Michigan, Rutgers, Illinois, and Maryland.

Indiana (16-5, 7-4) – As much as I hate to admit it, Indiana is at least decent again, and they have mostly taken care of business. They have a loss at Penn State that is not good, but they took down Purdue and Ohio State at home, holding Purdue (the no. 1 offensive team in the nation per KenPom) to its worst offensive game of the season. Four of their next five are against top 20 teams, plus they close at Purdue. The Hoosiers will probably fall out of the championship race, but as long as they win at Northwestern and at home to Maryland and Rutgers they will likely be fine for the NCAAs. The defense is good though. They could stun Illinois on Saturday. I am in the “fine, IU is going to make the tourney, just beat some of the other contenders to make our path better) stage.

NCAA contenders

Iowa (14-7, 4-6) – I cannot figure out the Hawkeyes. The computers absolutely love them, as they are 24 in the NET and 23 on KenPom. They have two Tier 1 wins: at home over Indiana and on a neutral floor against Utah State. Most of the time, as usual, they are completely averse to playing any defense. They are 13th in the league there ahead of only Nebraska, even with a bizarre 48-46 rock fight loss at Rutgers. Can they get six more wins to feel secure on selection Sunday? They have a chance to play league spoiler with a home game against Michigan State and trips to Ohio State and Illinois. Playing Michigan twice will be interesting too.

Michigan (11-8, 5-4) – The Wolverines are the most dangerous team in the conference in my opinion, so I am really excited to be playing them twice in a five day span with a game against Illinois in between. This was a preseason top 5 team that has massively underachieved. They have a lot of talent. Their computer numbers (52 NET, 41 KenPom) have them right on the edge of the tourney. When they walked into Assembly Hall and waxed Indiana it showed what they can do. They host Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Illinois in the last nine games. They probably won’t win the league, but they will spoil it for someone. I am glad we are done with them after next Thursday night.

NIT Fight

Rutgers (12-9, 6-5) – Another team that can play spoiler and in some ways already has. It was only the second conference game of the season, but Ron Harper Jr.’s heave vs. Purdue could have a massive effect on the final Big Ten standings. I know I would feel a lot better had he missed. Rutgers is only 113 in the NET and 104 on KenPom, so they are not an NCAA threat barring a massive late run, but they have talent and both Michigan State and Wisconsin have to come to them. They are even closer to the top of the league than you think, as they lost by 3 at Minnesota and 1 at Northwestern in overtime. Six of their next seven are against top 25 teams, so they are a spoiler candidate. That’s also a great way to raise hte computer numbers if they put it together.

Northwestern (10-10, 3-8) – We appear to be back in Bill Carmody-era Northwestern. The Wildcats are not abjectly terrible and can rise up for an upset (see their win in East Lansing), but they drop agonizingly close games in dumb ways. They have lost by three to Illinois, two to Michigan, four to Penn State, six to Michigan State, and seven in double overtime to Maryland. They also just missed on two good non-conference wins with close losses to Providence and Wake Forest. They have to win at least five of the last nine to be in the running for the NIT, but two are against Nebraska and two are against Minnesota. In their 10 losses Purdue is the only team to beat them by more than seven points.

Penn State (9-9, 4-6) – Micah Shrewsberry’s crew could miss an NIT bid because three buy games were cancelled due to a COVID pause, but they are scrappy team. Penn State always catches a team or two that falls asleep in the Bryce Jordan Mausoleum, and so far that has been Indiana and Iowa. You would think after last year teams would be used to playing in front of empty seats. Can Penn State go 6-4 in the last 10 and snag an NIT bid? It is possible.

Maryland (11-11, 3-8) – The Terps have just missed home upsets over Wisconsin and Michigan State, so they can be good. They’ve been mostly bad on the road though. Tuesday against Michigan State was probably their last chance to play spoiler, but they finish in East Lansing. They also have Ohio State twice and go to Purdue and Indiana.

Minnesota (11-8, 2-8) – The Gophers got blitzed by a hot Purdue team, but had enough offense to at least make it interesting. The only conference wins were at Michigan and home against Rutgers. This team has fight. It only lost by two at Michigan State and six at Wisconsin. Could they trip the Badgers on February 23rdin the Barn? I hope so. The undefeated non-conference with a semi-decent win at Mississippi State means an NIT bid is very possible. They only need 3 more wins to clinch a winning overall record.

Ultimate Spoiler

Nebraska (6-16, 0-11) – No team has gone winless in conference play since Northwestern went 0-16 in the 1999-2000 season. Even a truly dreadful Rutgers went 1-17 in 2015-16, beating an equally awful Minnesota team in the season’s final game (the Gophers themselves only won two games in conference play, one at home against Rutgers). Indiana’s sanction-riddled 2008-09 team also only won a single game. Nebraska is trying to avoid a third consecutive last place finish. The Cornhuskers don’t have the mark of one of being one of the worst Big Ten teams ever though. They have fight. They took Ohio State to overtime. Their last two games were losses to Rutgers and Michigan by eight points total. The schedule is favorable to get a win with only one game left against a top 25 team: the season finale at Wisconsin. Their next two are at home against Northwestern and Minnesota. I think they nab one of those.