Big Ten's wild ride

Seven teams are within two games of first with three weeks left; remaining schedules, analysis

So what will it take to win the Big Ten men's basketball title this season? The league's two hottest teams—Iowa and Ohio State—have three conference losses apiece, leaving 13-3 or 12-4 on the table. But the topsy-turvy nature of the league this season makes that seem unlikely.

The best guess is a muddle at the top at 11-5, with several teams tied, along the lines of the 2001-2002 campaign, when four teams, including Wisconsin, shared the title with that mark.

Could 10-6 in conference play when a share of the Big Ten Championship? This season, it is looking like that mildly insane proposition is possible, especially with how rare road upsets have been in league play, and with the league's bottom four leaping up and biting the contenders with recent regularity.

Five teams are within a game of first place, with Iowa (8-3 Big Ten, 19-6 overall) leading the pack. Two more are within two games of the top spot, with each squad looking forward to five or six more regular season conference games. Eighth-place Northwestern is a respectable three games out of first, but just two games ahead of Purdue for last place.

If every team among the top seven held serve at home the rest of the way, and lost on the road (not a completely crazy notion, considering that the top seven is a combined 31-5 at home this year), then Iowa would win the league with an 11-5 mark, followed by Ohio State and Michigan State at 10-6. If, say, you threw a Wisconsin road upset of the Hawkeyes into the equation, it would create a four-way tie at 10-6.

The Hawkeyes and Buckeyes have been the best teams in the league over the past several weeks, so it is no surprise that they appear to be in the best shape as the stretch drive commences. They could continue on their current roll and either could conceivably finish 13-3 or 12-4. But the way the Big Ten roller coaster has zoomed along this season, it would not be a surprise to see one of those teams skid, while another league contender strides into an upswing.

Two huge games are on the docket in the next couple days: Michigan State, which faces the daunting challenge of competing against the other six contenders in its final six games, but has four of those contests at home, travels to Iowa Tuesday, where the Hawkeyes are a perfect 14-0 this season.

Wednesday night at the Kohl Center, arguably the Big Ten's best team over the past month—Ohio State—will look to gain an edge in the conference race with a road win at Wisconsin, which itself has a chance to leap into no worse than second place with a victory.

Here is a look at the top seven Big Ten teams in the standings, their remaining schedules, recent performances and analysis:

1. Iowa (8-3, 19-6)

The Hawkeyes big three—Adam Haluska (15.9 points per game), Greg Brunner (14.2) and Jeff Horner (13.5)—are all among the top 16 in the Big Ten in conference-only scoring average. Horner leads the league in assists (5.8 per game) and Brunner leads in rebounding (10.4). The Hawkeyes lead the league in rebounding margin (+4.5) and blocked shots (4.5) and are third in field-goal percentage defense (41).

Recent results: Aside from their customary loss to Northwestern, the Hawkeyes have been on a roll, winning five of their last six and eight of their last 10. They dismantled visiting Michigan 94-66 Feb. 4 and edged Indiana on the road Saturday.

Remaining schedule: MICHIGAN STATE, Feb. 14; at Minnesota Feb. 18; at Illinois Feb. 25; PENN STATE, March 1; WISCONSIN March 4.

Analysis: Sneaking a road win out of their last two travel dates will likely ensure at least a share of the Big Ten championship. But Minnesota is suddenly proving tough at home, with recent wins over Michigan State and Indiana. The Illini appeared indestructible at home before their loss to Penn State.

The Hawkeyes are unbeaten at home this season, but all three remaining games in Iowa City are losable. The Spartans will be geared up for an upset, the Nittany Lions have proven that, when they are hitting from the outside, they can be tough, and the Wisconsin game March 4 could have championship implications for both teams.

Expectation: Iowa finishes 3-2 to close out the conference year 11-5, slipping up at home against the Spartans Tuesday and losing at Illinois.

2. Ohio State (7-3, 18-3)

Center Terence Dials is 12th in the league in scoring (14.4) and eighth in rebounding (7.6). Jamar Butler is fifth in the league in assists (4.5 per game), and Je'Kel Foster is eighth (3.7). Foster is tied for league lead in steals (2.0 per game).

With a balanced attack and solid defense, the Buckeyes lead the league in scoring margin (+10.1), field goal percentage (49), 3-point percentage (44), 3-point percentage defense (29) and turnover margin (+2.5). Five of the league's top eight 3-point shooters belong to OSU.

Recent results: The Buckeyes opened the conference year 2-2 and have since won five of 6 in the Big Ten and four straight overall. Their only loss in their last seven games was a 67-62 defeat at Iowa.

Remaining schedule: at Wisconsin, Feb. 15; NORTHWESTERN, Feb. 18; at Michigan State, Feb. 22; MICHIGAN, Feb. 25; at Northwestern, March 1; PURDUE, March 5.

Analysis: The remaining schedule maps out pretty well for the Buckeyes, who are playing the best basketball in the league right now. Ohio State plays three of its final six games against bottom four teams. One road win in their final three away games could cinch up at least a share of the conference title.

Expectation: The Buckeyes match up well with UW and steal one on the road Wednesday. OSU, though, cannot avenge its early-season double-overtime home loss to MSU. The game in Evanston March 1 is a dangerous potential pratfall, and Vedran Vukusic and Co. throw more drama into the Big Ten race with a big late-season upset. Buckeyes also finish 11-5.

3. Wisconsin (7-4, 17-7)

Alando Tucker is a favorite for conference player of the year. He leads the league in scoring average (20.4), while guard Kammron Taylor is seventh (16.2). Wisconsin is second in the league in average scoring margin (+6.9), turnover margin (+1.9) and field goal percentage defense (39.5).

Recent results: After losing 5 of 6, including 4 of 5 conference games, the Badgers have now won two straight, with convincing victories over Indiana and at Penn State.

Remaining schedule: OHIO STATE, Feb. 15; at Northwestern, Feb. 23; MINNESOTA, Feb. 26; at Michigan State, March 2; at Iowa, March 4.

Analysis: With only two games left at home, the remaining schedule does not set up well for the Badgers, but they have the talent to manage 3-2 or better.

Expectation: The Badgers take their third home loss on the chin Wednesday, but bounce back with three straight wins, including an upset in East Lansing. Wisconsin, though, loses to the Hawkeyes on the road, falling just short of a share of the title. Iowa shoots the lights out after collecting clangs at the Kohl Center in each team's conference opener. Badgers finish 10-6.

4(t). Illinois (6-4, 20-5)

Dee Brown is second in the league in assists (5.8) and ninth in scoring (15.7), putting him in position for his second straight Big Ten player of the year honor. James Augustine is second in league in rebounding (8.7), first in field-goal percentage (58) and ninth in steals (1.4).

The Illini lead the league in field-goal percentage defense (39.3) but are just ninth in field goal percentage (42).

Recent results: The Illini have lost two straight—a heartbreaker at home against Penn State and Sunday's blowout loss to host Ohio State.

Remaining schedule: NORTHWESTERN, Feb. 15; INDIANA, Feb. 19; at Michigan, Feb. 21; IOWA, Feb. 25; at Minnesota, Feb. 28; at Michigan State, March 4.

Analysis: With three homes games and two very winnable road games left, Illinois is very much alive in the title chase.

Expectation: The Illini hold serve at home and cream reeling Michigan on the road. They survive a scare in the Twin Cities, before the Spartans emphatically Illinois' five-game winning streak. Illinois gains share of title at 11-5.

4(t). Michigan State (6-4, 18-6)

Shannon Brown is making a case for conference player of the year honors, averaging 19 points per game, third in the conference. Paul Davis (15.4) and Maurice Ager (14.6) are 10th and 11th on that list, respectively. Drew Neitzel is third in assists (5.6).

The Spartans lead the league in assists (16.6 per game), free-throw percentage (78) and are second in rebounding margin (+3.9 per game).

Recent results: The Spartans had won 6 of 7 before losing big at Minnesota, 69-55, Saturday.

Remaining schedule: at Iowa, Feb. 14; MICHIGAN, Feb. 18; OHIO STATE, Feb. 22; at Indiana, Feb. 26; WISCONSIN, March 2; ILLINOIS, March 4.

Analysis: The Spartans have it all laid out before them. Sure they are 6-4, a game and a half behind Iowa. But no team will have more influence on the conference championship than Michigan State. Its final six games are a gauntlet of the league's best teams. But fortunately for the Spartans, Michigan and Indiana are edging toward abject tailspin status (Indiana may already be there) and four of these games are at home.

Expectation: The Spartans upset Iowa Tuesday, but the Hoosiers put it together at home Feb. 26 and the Badgers pull off an upset the following week, sticking MSU with a 10-6 finish.

6. Michigan (6-5, 16-6)

Daniel Horton is tied for the league lead in steals (2 per game), is fifth in scoring average (17.4), fourth in assists (5.5) and second in free-throw percentage (96). Dion Harris is 13th in scoring (14.2 points per game). Graham Brown is sixth in the league in rebounding (8.1 per game).

The Wolverines are second in the league in free-throw percentage (77) and blocked shots (3.7) and third in field-goal percentage (47).

Recent results: After winning five straight from Jan. 18 to Feb. 1, the Wolverines have lost three straight, including getting thumped at Purdue Saturday, 84-70.

Remaining schedule: MINNESOTA, Feb. 15; at Michigan State, Feb. 18; ILLINOIS, Feb. 21; at Ohio State, Feb. 25; INDIANA, March 4.

Analysis: The Wolverines downward tilt seems destined to continue. After a home date with Minnesota Wednesday, the Wolverines play four of the league's top seven to close out the year, with daunting road games at MSU and OSU.

Expectation: Michigan bounces back from its three-game losing streak with a resounding home win over Minnesota, but the suddenly unsteady Wolverines lose big in East Lansing, at home versus the Illini and at OSU. A home win over the Hoosiers preserves an 8-8 season and an NCAA tourney berth.

7. Indiana (5-5, 13-8) Forward Marco Killingsworth is fourth in the league in scoring average (17.8 points per game) and third in rebounding (8.5 per game). Robert Vaden is 18th in scoring (13.2) and 12th in rebounding (6.1). Marshal Strickland leads the league in free-throw shooting, at a perfect 24-for-24. The Hoosiers are second in the league in 3-point shooting defense (31 percent).

Recent results: The Hoosiers have lost five of their last six, including 4 of 5 conference games in that stretch. They were blown out Wednesday at Wisconsin and lost a narrow decision Saturday, 70-67, to first-place Iowa.

Remaining schedule: at Penn State, Feb. 15; at Illinois, Feb. 19; PENN STATE, Feb. 22; MICHIGAN STATE, Feb. 26; at Purdue, March 1; at Michigan March 4.

Analysis: The Hoosiers play four of their last six games on the road, where they have been terrible in Big Ten play. Three of their last six overall, however, are against the bottom four.

Expectation: What looked like such a promising season has quickly slid toward disaster in Bloomington. There is still time for Indiana, however, to get on track heading into the postseason. The Hoosiers certainly have the talent to run the table but their road struggles have been painful.

Analysis: Indiana will find a way to win its two remaining home games, squeaking out a win over the Spartans. And the Hoosiers will win at PSU, finally exorcising its conference road demons. But Illinois' Assembly Hall will not be friendly to visiting IU and the Hoosiers will close the year with a pair of road losses, including an emphatic defeat at the hands of in-state rival Purdue. Hoosiers finish 8-8.

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