Ohio State, Iowa now favorites in Big Ten

The loss puts a different perspective on the Spartans' title chances, as Michigan State now faces Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois to end the season. While most of these games are at home, Tuesday's trip to Iowa City will likely determine whether Michigan State can stay in the Big Ten race.

The Big Ten continues to be the most difficult conference in the nation to try and project, with vicious homecourt advantage and inconsistent play leading to wild outcomes on a nightly basis. In the January podcast, I divided the Big Ten into an upper and lower tier, and emphasized just how important homecourt advantage is within those seven upper teams.

Several weeks later, and both of these classifications seem to be breaking down.

First of all, the lower tier has started to win games. Minnesota has won three of four, punctuated by Saturday afternoon's shocker over Michigan State at Williams Arena. Penn State, Northwestern, and Purdue have also pulled off upsets over heavily favored Big Ten opponents in recent games.

After today, which also included Purdue's second upset shocker in three games, it is probably safe to say that there is no longer a night off in this conference.

The homecourt advantage is still very much a factor, but several teams have managed to overcome playing on the road to pick up a crucial win. We saw Illinois take down Wisconsin at the Kohl Center last week, but then the Illini fell to visiting Penn State in a shocker. Ohio State recently took down Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Iowa finally showed up on the road with a huge victory against the Mike Davis-less Indiana Hoosiers.

One thing that hasn't changed is the wide open nature of the Big Ten race. While many of the contenders are currently in the midst of the easiest part of their conference slate, this will change soon. There are numerous key matchups over the final two weeks of the season, and that is when this conference will be decided.

Without any further ado, here is a team-by-team breakdown of what remains in Big Ten conference play.

Ohio State (18-3, 7-3)

Everybody wants to anoint one of the traditional powers as the favorite to win the Big Ten, but Thad Matta's club is now truly positioned to win the conference. While the Buckeyes still must trip to Wisconsin (2/15) and Michigan State (2/22), the schedule might not be quite as brutal as the other favorites.

OSU is winning games with some downright incredible outside shooting. The Buckeyes have shot 28-47 beyond the arc in their last two games, and are now hitting at 43% from beyond the arc as a team. A pair of Buckeye guards, senior Je'Kel Foster and sophomore Jamar Butler, are shooting the ball at a clip that puts names like Morrison and Redick to shame. Foster is a stunning 21-27 from 3-point land in his last four games, while Butler checks in at 11-13. This team is balanced, deep, and incredibly efficient on the offensive end. After today's blowout win over Illinois, the Buckeyes should also be considered the odds-on favorites to win the Big Ten, and a top 10 team nationally.

Remaining Schedule:
@Wisconsin
Northwestern
@Michigan State
Michigan
@Northwestern
Purdue

Iowa (19-6, 8-3)

The Hawkeyes have done their usual Jekyl and Hyde home and away act, but got their first big road win of the season on Saturday over Indiana. While the Hoosiers are certainly downtrodden at the moment and played without Mike Davis on the bench, this is a Hawkeye team that lost to Northwestern on the road earlier in the week. A huge home date against Michigan State is on the horizon (2/14), followed by trips to Minnesota and Illinois. As long as the Hawkeyes don't lose all three, they have a legitimate shot at the Big Ten crown.

While the Hawkeyes developed a reputation as a defense-oriented, grind it out style of team early in the Big Ten season, Iowa's anemic offense is starting to show signs of life. They shot 65% as a team in that 28-point shellacking of Michigan, and Jeff Horner is finally starting to shoot like he has in the past now that he has gotten rid of the knee brace he had been wearing. While Horner was shooting just 33% on his 3-pointers headed into Saturday, he is now 14-25 from distance over his last 4 games. This team is veteran-laden, and with the recent play of Horner, now has three reliable senior options on the offensive end.

Remaining Schedule:
Michigan State
@ Minnesota
@ Illinois
Penn State
Wisconsin

Michigan State (18-6, 6-4)

While the Spartans were able to reel off three consecutive wins against bottom-tier Big Ten teams, that streak came to an end Saturday against a suddenly dangerous Minnesota Golden Gopher squad. The loss puts a different perspective on the Spartans' title chances, as Michigan State now faces Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois to end the season. While most of these games are at home, Tuesday's trip to Iowa City will likely determine whether Michigan State can stay in the Big Ten race.

Teams are figuring out how to beat the Spartans, and that is by slowing the game down. Tom Izzo has very few "go-to" options in the halfcourt, as Paul Davis isn't a back to the basket type of player and Maurice Ager's effectiveness is seriously marginalized once a team's defense is set.

The Golden Gophers held MSU without a field goal for seven minutes down the stretch, and the game was over by the time Shannon Brown finally broke the drought with under a minute to play. The real sign that the Spartans are struggling shows up in tempo statistics. Despite a roster that should be looking to push the ball at every opportunity, the Spartans ranked just 7th in the Big Ten in possessions/40 minutes headed into Saturday's game. As long as the opposition continues to control the tempo, Michigan State will be on shaky ground.

Illinois (20-4, 6-4)

Just when it looked like the Illini were ready to step up and claim their spot at the top of the conference, disaster struck in the form of a dangerous Penn State club. A game-winning Richard McBride 3-pointer was a fraction of a second too late, and the Illini then fell to a red-hot Ohio State team in Columbus. After a homestand this week, the schedule gets tough once again. Trips to Michigan, Minnesota, and Michigan State won't be easy.

There is a lot to like about the Illini, but the fact of the matter is that Bruce Weber is trying to play a slow-it-down style with players that will never play their best basketball in the halfcourt. Dee Brown looks like an All-American on the break, but is shooting just 37% from the floor on the season. That number drops to an anemic 23% in the Illini's four Big Ten losses. Don't expect the Illini to go very far in March if Brown isn't shooting the ball well.

Remaining Schedule:
Northwestern
Indiana
@Michigan
Iowa
@Minnesota
@Michigan State

Wisconsin (17-7, 7-4)

The Badgers looked truly downtrodden just a week ago after Marcus Landry and Greg Steimsma left the team and consecutive losses at Michigan, at home against Illinois, and at Purdue. Nonetheless, Wisconsin has bounced back with a big win at home against Indiana and a blowout on the road over Penn State. Ohio State comes to town on Wednesday, and a win would prove that Bo Ryan's club has adjusted to life with less depth in the frontcourt.

It has been hard to get a good read on the Badgers this season. Wisconsin is surprisingly one of the fastest-paced teams in the conference this year, and have looked equally good and bad on both ends of the floor at various times. Kammron Taylor and Alando Tucker provide a potent one-two punch, but both have a tendency to go ice cold for stretches. For this reason, Bo Ryan would surely like to see Brian Butch shoot the ball like he did against Penn State (11-15, 23 points).

Remaining Schedule:
Ohio State
@Northwestern
Minnesota
@Michigan State
@Iowa

Indiana (13-8, 5-5)

Mike Davis could be in trouble. The Hoosiers have also lost three straight and five of six, and Davis didn't even make it to the sideline for Saturday's home loss to Iowa. The Hawkeyes have been a terrible road team all season, losing at Northwestern earlier in the week. However, a look at the schedule indicates that there is still life left in this team. Indiana still has two dates with Penn State remaining, as well as a matchup with Purdue. Just to be safe, Indiana better get one win out of games at Illinois, at home against Michigan State, and at Michigan.

While it may seem like the Hoosiers' dropoff in play came during the last week in January, I would make the case that this team has been in trouble ever since DJ White reinjured his foot. Indiana shot the ball very well early in the season, and were able to squeak out home wins over Michigan and Ohio State. However, that hot shooting stretch is looking more and more like a fluke. The Hoosiers have yet to win a game on the road, and are in desperate need of the defensive intensity that White would bring to the frontcourt.

Remaining Schedule:
@Penn State
@Illinois
Penn State
Michigan State
@Purdue
@Michigan

Michigan (16-6, 6-5)

Perhaps the only team in a worse freefall than Indiana is Michigan. After reeling off five straight wins, including victories over Michigan State and Wisconsin, the Wolverines have now lost three in a row. The bottom dropped out on Saturday, with a blowout loss at Purdue. Tommy Amaker better get a win when Minnesota comes to town on Wednesday, because the final four games of the season are against Michigan State, Illinois, Ohio State, and Indiana. The season finale against the Hoosiers could be huge, with an NCAA bid and head coaching jobs on the line for both squads.

While the issue with the Wolverines in the past has always been a disorganized, poorly constructed offense, it is suddenly the other end of the floor that is giving Amaker headaches. Michigan has given up an average of 91 points per game over the three losses to Iowa, Ohio State and Purdue, and now is the 2nd worst defensive team in the Big Ten (according to Ken Pomeroy [www.kenpom.com/stats.php]). On Saturday, Michigan allowed the second worst offensive team in the Big Ten (Purdue) to shoot 61% from the field and score 84 points. Given the complete defensive dropoff and the nasty upcoming schedule, Wolverine fans should be scared…real scared.

Remaining Schedule:
Minnesota
@Michigan State
Illinois
@Ohio State
Indiana

Minnesota (12-9, 3-7)

The Gophers were left for dead after losing six straight to start the Big Ten season, but in between embarrassing losses to Northwestern and Purdue were down to the wire games against Wisconsin and at Iowa. Minnesota exploded onto the win column with a blowout win over then-#11 Indiana, and continued the upset trend with a huge victory over visiting Michigan State on Saturday. The schedule is light the rest of the way, but the Gophers are still in a pretty big hole. They must protect their homecourt against the likes of Iowa and Illinois while stealing one at Michigan or Wisconsin, just to get to .500 in conference play.

The Gophers' offense has been historically bad, despite a roster of players that should be able to find success scoring the basketball. This has started to chance during the recent hot stretch, as Minnesota has shot no less than 47.9% from the floor in its three wins. Also playing big roles in the newfound success are three relatively unknown players. Walk-on freshman wing Jamal Abu-Shamala has earned consistent minutes with his outside shooting, 6'5 senior PF J'son Stamper has won a starting job, and the emergence of Ivy League transfer Zach Puchtel has really made a difference. Don't be surprised to see Minnesota continue to win games, especially at home.

Remaining Schedule:
@Michigan
Iowa
Purdue
@Wisconsin
Illinois
@Northwestern

Northwestern (12-10, 4-6)

The Wildcats picked up their first marquee win since beating Charlotte way back in Novermber as they knocked off visiting Iowa on Wednesday. The schedule gets tougher from here on out, as Bill Carmody's group must travel to Illinois and Ohio State this week. With the two easiest games left on the schedule being at Penn State and a home date with Minnesota, it is entirely possible that Northwestern could lose out.

Northwestern plays one of the more unique styles in the country, as they really try to slow the game down to a crawl. They force a lot of turnovers, limit transition baskets, and shoot the ball well. The Wildcats aren't a particularly formidable opponent, but you had better do your homework and be prepared before heading to Evanston. Vedran Vukusic continues to fly under the radar as the Big Ten's second leading scorer and one of the more dangerous outside shooters in the country.

Remaining Schedule:
@Illinois
@Ohio State
Wisconsin
@Penn State
Ohio State
Minnesota

Penn State (11-11, 3-8)

The Nittany Lions pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season in taking down Illinois in Champaign last Sunday, and this was after giving both Michigan State and Michigan good games. Unfortunately, Penn State followed the win with disappointing home losses to Minnesota and Penn State. The Nittany Lions can still play the role of spoiler down the stretch, with a pair of games against Indiana and a trip to Carver-Hawkeye to end the season.

Ed DeChellis' team isn't very good yet, but at least there is now some hope for the future. Geary Claxton looks like one of the better young players in the country, and Jamelle Cornley has made an Alando Tucker like impact as an undersized PF. Don't be surprised if this team makes a run at .500 in the Big Ten next season.

Remaining Schedule: Indiana
@Purdue
@Indiana
Northwestern
@Iowa

Purdue (9-14, 3-9)

With nearly an entire starting rotation out for the season due to injuries or off the court issues, nobody expected the Boilermakers to win games against the likes of Wisconsin and Michigan this late in the season. Nonetheless, Matt Painter has his club playing competitive basketball. Up next is a winnable game against Penn State (2/18).

When Carl Landry decided to take a redshirt season to further rehabilitate his knee, it was clear that Connecticut transfer Marcus White would have to step up once he became eligible at the semester break. He has done just that, averaging nearly 12 points and 5 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game. Freshman Marcus Green led the charge against Michigan on Saturday, hitting on 9 of 13 shots and scoring 23 points. It isn't clear whether this was a breakout game or merely an aberration, as it was only his third double figure scoring effort of the season.

Remaining Schedule:
Penn State
@ Minnesota
Indiana
@Ohio State


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