Fresh off an impressive win at home over Wisconsin, Illinois trailed at times in the second half at Penn State Saturday before pulling out a 66-58 win. When those teams matched up in Champaign, Ill. earlier this season, the Illini won by 43.
The Big Ten may be a three-horse race, but, as the Nittany Lions proved, the rest of the league could have the ultimate say in who is crowned.
The Spartans' host Wisconsin March 2 but also face road games against Michigan and Penn State. Illinois plays three of its final four away from the friendly orange confines of Assembly Hall and Wisconsin faces three road games in its last five contests, beginning Sunday at Michigan.
The Wolverines and Badgers are case studies in what happens when teams stray from home in the Big Ten and in men's college basketball generally. In league play, Michigan is 4-1 in Ann Arbor, but just 1-5 on the road. Wisconsin has won two consecutive Big Ten titles by being unbeatable at home and playing at or around .500 basketball on the road. This season they are 6-0 in Big Ten home games, 2-3 on the road. In three seasons under Bo Ryan, the Badgers are a perfect 22-0 at home and 9-12 on the road.
"We've been fortunate to get a couple on the road, we'd like to get some more," Ryan said. "You try to maintain home court…and then try to get some on the road."
Having a harder time winning on the road is far from momentous news, but this season's Big Ten crown will boil down to who can accomplish that feat.
The Spartans are now 7-0 at home and 3-3 on the road. In addition to a date at in-state rival Michigan, they travel to face a Penn State club that is a respectable 3-4 at home but has lost five road games by an average 23 points. It will be the Nittany Lions only home game in their final four contests and will come off the heels of their game at Wisconsin.
The Badgers host Purdue following Penn State, then travel to take on Michigan State and Indiana to close out the season. Last year, Wisconsin closed with a flurry, winning seven of its last eight games, including a 3-1 record on the road, with wins over Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota and a one-point loss to Penn State. This season, though, the Badgers face a much tougher stretch of road games to close out the season. Heading into this week, Wisconsin led all Big Ten teams in the Ratings Percentage Index at No. 17 nationally but was followed by its last four road opponents: Illinois (37), who beat the Badgers 65-57 Wednesday, Michigan State (42), Michigan (65) and Indiana (66).
"What a great chance to be able to play and play through things and be able to do it in a tough environment," Ryan said. "Why not? You got to do it sometime."
Wisconsin has won its six conference home games by more than 20 points per outing, but is just below that magical .500 mark on the road. The Badgers are similarly stingy defensively no matter where they play, but are scoring 21 fewer points per game on the road.
The scoring disparity is most pronounced at the free throw line. At the Kohl Center Wisconsin has made almost twice as many free throws as its opponents (121 to 64); away from home, the statistic flips (36 to 77). The difference has been most pronounced in recent games: in its last two home games, UW has shot 71 free throws, compared to just 23 in its last three road games. Northwestern and Illinois combined to shoot 48 free throws in home wins over the Badgers, partly due to Wisconsin's need to send teams to the foul line to extend the games.
"Here's what I tell the team; have a lead," Ryan said. "Then we don't have to foul and put guys at the line and hope that they miss. You don't ever want to play a game where you hope the other team doesn't do a certain thing to get a victory. What you're doing is you try to make sure that you're in control."
One thing Wisconsin cannot control is the crowds away from the Kohl Center and the enthusiasm of opponents, which Ryan says have gotten more intense as the team has continued to win, something he adjusted to during his years coaching at UW-Platteville.
"You have to be able to deal with it on a whole different level than we did in the past," Ryan said. "Now, it's Wisconsin coming in…I mean at Platteville, we were the top-rated team, got the best crowds every night we went on the road. I got used to it, but I don't play. Players have to get used to that: getting the best from the other team every time you perform. I said that's going to make this year a little bit different and sure enough that's happening."