Kevin Luchansky writes about baseball and college sports for WARR.
Raise your hand if you had Big Ten newcomer Maryland and Purdue tied for second place in the men’s basketball conference standings 10 games into their respective schedules. It’s okay, I doubt anyone did.
The only thing that was clear heading into this latest Big Ten basketball season season was that Wisconsin is head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. That’s been the case so far while the rest of the conference has been quite the crap shoot.
Sure, the conference is in a “down” year, especially relative to the past three or four seasons when the Big Ten title race was a four (or more) team battle and future NBA draft picks were plentiful, but that’s not to say there aren’t talented teams in the mix this season that may make some noise come NCAA tournament time. That is, if they don’t all kill each other first and the injury bug stops biting.
After the Badgers? The picture gets pretty muddied.The Boilermakers and Terrapins are 7-3 with Michigan State (6-3), Ohio State (6-4), Indiana (6-4), Iowa (5-4) and Michigan (6-5) all with their collective heads above water and their eyes on one of the top four final spots in the conference.
With lack of depth (mostly stemming from injuries) being an issue for so many squads this season, having a bye in the first round of the Big Ten tournament (reserved for the top 4 teams) at the United Center may not only be coveted more than usual, it may also help a few bubble teams lock up an extra “victory” they need to influence the NCAA tournament selection committee. Barring any major setbacks, I expect we’ll see the Badgers in the top spot, but Nos. 2-4 are really anyone’s race at this point.
While I understand analysts and selection committee members feel the need need to look at a team’s entire resume, we all also need to understand the growth and maturity a team undergoes over the course of a roughly six-month season — especially with the younger teams. This Purdue team that is playing great defense and has rattled off four straight Big Ten victories is not the same team as the one that lost at home in the Fall to Gardner Webb and North Florida.
Elsewhere in the Hoosier state, Indiana with their flow-concept offense and spacing is not the same Indiana team that lost at home to Eastern Washington. On the other hand, we’re not seeing your typically full-of-talent Michigan State team either, but each team mentioned is in a better place than they were over the Holidays. Of the teams in the top seven of the conference standings, the only team you could make a case for having gone downhill since 2014 is Michigan, who has been hurt dearly by the loss of their leader, Caris LaVert.
Toss aside late 2014 losses to mid-majors and current Big Ten W-L marks, because the biggest factor going forward in determining who will finish in one of the top four spots is remaining conference schedule. Let’s take a look at what lies ahead for a few of these teams over the next few weeks.
Purdue has a very favorable schedule through their next five games with two of them against lowly Rutgers, a trip to Minnesota and a home contest against Nebraska, who they match up with very favorably. The team is finally playing the tenacious defense they’re capable of, and it’s got them trending upward. In fact, the only game they might not be favored in in February is a rematch with the Hoosiers.
The Boilermakers won the first match-up pretty handily, but this upcoming contest will be down in Bloomington and IU should be closer to full strength by that time, especially on the interior. Look for Purdue to hang around the upper tier of the Big Ten standings at least through the end of the month.
As for Maryland, Mark Turgeon’s team doesn’t look all that sharp as of late, but they’re still filling the win column. After a drubbing at the hands of the Buckeyes in Columbus, the Terrapins narrowly escaped a Penn State team that they shouldn’t have had as much trouble with.
Nonetheless, the team is 19-4 overall and in position for a nice seed in March. They head to Iowa this week and the timing probably couldn’t be worse, seeing as the Hawkeyes have really picked it up as of late.
Afterwards, they host IU in Maryland in a rematch of the high scoring affair at Assembly Hall that ended in a 19 point defeat for the Terrapins. It will be an interesting five game stretch for the Terps, as they’ll be favored in many but none seem like “guaranteed” victories.
Should the Terps drop a rematch with Penn State or a home contest with Nebraska before playing the Badgers, they may find themselves playing on day one of the conference tournament. There isn’t much room for error, and it seems the physical play of the Big Ten has worn them down a bit.
The Hoosiers have eight Big Ten games remaining, and stats guru Ken Pomeroy has them pegged to go 7-1 in those contests. It’s just one prediction, but that should be relieving to hear for Hoosier fans as they’ve endured a tough stretch. Yogi Ferrell and company host Michigan this weekend and they need to take advantage of a game that should be a confidence booster.
Save for the Wisconsin game where their amazing shooting performance meant almost nothing in a 14-point loss, the formerly hot-shooting squad has been finding a lot of back iron in their three point attempts, namely on the road. If they can get it done on Sunday against a Wolverine team that presents probably the most favorable conference match-up they’ll see all year, it sets up their Maryland rematch with a little more on the line come February 11th.
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