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Big Ten Basketball Digest: As Ohio State Falls, Illinois And Michigan State Cling To Tournament Hopes

A weekly series on men's basketball in the Big Ten...

CHAMPAIGN IL - FEBRUARY 13: Illinois Fighting Illini fans cheer during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Assembly Hall on February 13 2011 in Champaign Illinois. Purdue defeated Illinois 81-70. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CHAMPAIGN IL - FEBRUARY 13: Illinois Fighting Illini fans cheer during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Assembly Hall on February 13 2011 in Champaign Illinois. Purdue defeated Illinois 81-70. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Well, that's it then. Pop goes the weasel. In an eerie echo of nearly four months ago, Ohio State went to visit Madison with a national tv audience watching. They entered the great state of Wisconsin with an undefeated record and were handed their first loss of the season. In October, the loss on the football field blew the race for the Big Ten championship wide open. Will it do the same for basketball? Ohio State is still two games up on Wisconsin and Purdue, and with only six regular season games left, time is running out for either the Badgers or the Boilermakers to make a run for the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament, but it's certainly doable. Beyond a conference championship, all three teams are battling to get the best seeds come March... it's getting exciting as it gets late in the conference.

Of course, while that was a huge win for Bucky, it wasn't entirely unexpected. Vegas actually had the Badgers favored in this one, in large part because of Bo Ryan's unblemished 5-0 record against Ohio State at the Kohl Center. Still, a big moment in the conference to be sure. And that's not all that happened this week. The past few days on the court also saw one team regain their footing after a long skid, while two other bubble teams suddenly looked NIT bound. I've once again grouped the teams based on their current likelihood of making the NCAA tournament, using their daily RPI rankings as of this writing.


The Definites (RPIs from 1-20)

This category is populated by the teams who, as of this writing, have an RPI rank of between 1-20. When it comes to at large selections, teams from non-mid-major conferences are generally locks all the way up to an RPI of 35, but the 1-20 range is also a good indicator of the teams that have a serious chance of also winning the Big Ten tournament come March.

Ohio State (RPI Rank: 4)

The big news this week was of course the Buckeyes loss to the Badgers on Saturday afternoon. Though the Badgers had been favored going into this game, there was a real chance that Ohio State would manage to keep their unbeaten record intact after they looked unstoppable against Minnesota earlier in the week.

Indeed, though they were down for most of the first half of the Wisconsin game, they built up a 15 point lead and seemed to be running away when Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor went on a run almost like no other. Between the point in time where Jared Sullinger put OSU up by 15 (without around 13 minutes left in the half) and the end of the game, Jordan Taylor missed only a single shot. He was 4/5 on 3 point shots and 2/2 on two pointers. He missed a few free throws, but otherwise, was completely unstoppable on the offensive side of the court. He also rebounded and assisted. It was quite the remarkable feat.

The question of course is, why couldn't Ohio State stop him? Well, there certainly could just be an element of luck here - several of the Buckeyes' shots rattled in and out of the basket during this time period... but there is also a question of stamina. Others have touched on it, but the Buckeyes tend to play several of their main guys for almost the entirety of their games, and it has started to show. With six regular season games left and the Big Ten Tournament, I have serious questions about how Ohio State will be fairing by the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around. They'll almost certainly still be a No. 1 seed, but will they be able to make it back to the final four? I'm not so sure.

Up Next: February 15th vs. MSU (8:00 P.M.), February 20th at Purdue (12:00 P.M.), February 22nd vs. Illinois (6:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Big Ten basketball watchers should have the February 20th date at Purdue circled on their calendar. The Boilermakers have been a bit uneven of late, but at only two games back they're still in the hunt. And you know they'll be out for blood after that 23 point loss they suffered to OSU only a few short weeks ago...


Purdue (RPI Rank: 10)

When I said Purdue had been playing unevenly I wasn't kidding. Yeah, they've put together a small win streak against Indiana and Illinois, but beating teams that are either not headed to the tournament or hanging on for dear life doesn't erase the bad taste of the seven point loss at Wisconsin that they started February off with.

They're currently projected just above Wisconsin as a 3 seed, though the win against the Buckeyes will probably boost the Badgers above them. The week ahead is basically a revenge week for the Boilermakers. They'll see both Ohio State and Wisconsin - two teams they lost to only a short time ago. While in the hunt for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tourney, they need to at least split this set for that to happen. If they sweep? Well then they might even stand a chance of catching OSU...

Can they do that, though? Hard to say. When looking at Purdue, you can definitely say that as go JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, so goes the Boilermakers. During the first half of the game against the Illini, when the team as a whole was shooting only 28.6%, the two combined for just 18 points, while missing many easy shots. Purdue was lucky that they were able to turn it up for the second half of the game, because the simple truth is the Boilermakers can't win when those guys aren't hitting. If OSU or Wisconsin can shut them down, the Boilermakers shouldn't be hard to deal with...

Up Next: February 16th vs. Wisconsin (5:30 P.M.), February 20th vs. OSU (12:00 P.M.), February 23rd at Indiana (7:30 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: The OSU game is big, of course, especially now that the Buckeyes look more vulnerable. But the Wisconsin game will be worth tuning in also. The Boilermakers nearly had the Badgers at the Kohl Center, and on friendlier turf they might be able to claim second place in the conference with a victory against Bucky.


Wisconsin (RPI Rank: 16)

Well well, that was quite the turnaround the Badgers pulled off. Last week, I wrote that I was unsure of what to make of this team - they had look truly dominant against some opponents, but then dropped games against teams like Penn State that are barely even in the bubble discussion.

I'm still not entirely convinced of them at this point, though, mainly because they are still uneven when it comes to home/road play. Their two impressive victories - a thumping of Michigan State and the win over Ohio State occurred at the Kohl Center, a notoriously difficult place for any visiting team to play. But in between those two they went on the road to an improving Iowa squad and had to go to OT to manage a win. While the Badgers are definitely going dancing this year, the sad truth is that they don't get to play their NCAA Tournament games at Kohl.

Part of the problem here is that Wisconsin also has a habit of playing games much closer than they should. Sure, Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor have stepped up big in games like the Ohio State match-up and the tilt against Purdue a few before that... but relying on late game heroics to get victories is sort of like relying on home-court advantage: a bad idea. At two games behind the Buckeyes, I think it's still possible for Wisconsin to catch up to OSU and be the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tourney, but they're going to have to really put teams away over these next six games.

As far as NCAA purposes, the Badgers are currently sitting at the bottom of the 3-seed pack, and I really don't see them getting higher than that. There's just too much talent ahead of them... barring a complete implosion by Ohio State, even taking over the No. 2 spot in the conference from Purdue would likely still have them as a 3-seed. Though, if they don't play well over this last stretch, dropping down to the mid 4-seed range is completely possible.

Up Next: February 16th at Purdue (5:30 P.M.), February 20th vs. Penn State (5:00 P.M.), February 23rd at Michigan (5:30 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Though Michigan has been improving of late, the first two games in this set are the most important. The Penn State game should be a solid win for the Badgers - the Nittany Lions have been declining recently, and it'll be at Kohl, which is a huge advantage. The Purdue game is really the question... the Badgers took it down to the wire against the Boilermakers at home... can they get a W while on the road? If they play consistently here and come out with a strong win, I'll feel much better about their NCAA and Big Ten tournament prospects.


The Likelies (RPIs 21-35)

Teams in this range are almost certainly going to the tournament, and are currently hanging out around the 5-7 seed level. Because the Big Ten is not a mid-major conference, worries about snubs are really not a concern for us. But, if you're in this group, it means you've had at least one recent game that gives conference watchers pause...

Minnesota (RPI Rank: 33)

I asked last week what was going on with Michigan State and Purdue... now it's Minnesota's turn for that question. After a disappointing set of losses to Purdue and Indiana, the Gophers got thrashed by Ohio State and then lost to Illinois by 11... at home. Sure, they grabbed at Iowa, but that's small consolation at this point, given that they're in danger of entering bubble territory.

For the Gophers right now, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that their last six games aren't particularly challenging... with only MSU presenting a real challenge. Also good news for Minnesota was that Trevor Mbakwe's pre-trial hearing date was postponed all the way into April. Given that Blake Hoffarber is starting to wear down after taking over for Al Nolen, who is out with a broken foot, solid play from Mbakwe is an absolute necessity at this point.

The Gophers won't be able to catch the top three teams in the conference, so at this point it's going to be a battle royale with the Illini, Spartans, Nittany Lions, and Wolverines for the middle seeds of the Big Ten tournament. On the NCAA front,  I think if the Gophers play strong over their last set they can definitely improve their current spot as a No. 9 seed... but... their lack of depth has me seriously concerned about just how far they'll be able to go when the tourney rolls around. First round? Second? Yeah, probably... but I'm not even sure if they'll make it to the Sweet Sixteen at this point.

Up Next: February 17th at Penn State (6:00 P.M.), February 22nd vs. MSU (8:00 P.M.), February 26th vs. Michigan (3:30 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: This is definitely the Michigan State game. MSU is basically playing for their tourney life right here, so it's going to be a seriously good game. While it's true that both Penn State and Michigan are right there with Minnesota as far as Big Ten tourney seed spots go, I think that the Gophers will be able to handle both reasonably well.


On the Bubble (RPIs 36-50):

Teams in this region are by no means assured to get a tournament berth. The closer to 35, the better, but really, you don't want to be in this group at all. Both of these teams need strong finishes to stay at a decent seed in the tourney or even make it in at all...

Illinois (RPI Rank: 41)

Oh Illini... you looked pretty solid as far as tournament prospects were... now... it's like you're determined to pull a Michigan State on us. Demetri McCamey still isn't playing well... having scored six points or less in four of Illinois' last six games. And because he's such a huge part of the Illini game, his inability to connect is part of what's driving the skid off the tourney road for them.

The next three games are pretty critical as far as getting to the tournament goes. The first game against Michigan isn't much of an impact, unless the Illini lose it badly. But the next two... against Michigan State and Ohio State seriously are. The Michigan State game is essentially a bubble battle, and if they lose there, they'll really need a signature win on the road at Ohio State to make up for it. I guess even if they drop the next three they could still somehow sneak into the back end of the tournament, but it'd be much much harder.

The question is, can McCamey get his shit together in time? He really has been slumping, and at times even seeming disinterested. And it doesn't seem to matter what Bruce Weber says to the media... dude could barely make a bucket to save his life at this point. If he doesn't manage to turn it around, the Illini are done. It's as simple as that.

Up Next: February 16th vs. Michigan (7:30 P.M.), February 19th at Michigan State (8:00 P.M.), February 22nd at Ohio State (6:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Those two road tilts against Michigan State and Ohio State are pretty much going to determine whether the Illini go to the tournament this year, or to the NIT. Check out both...


Michigan State (RPI Rank: 46)

Perhaps the best way to look at Sparty's week is to say "It could be worse..." which, here, is really true. Sparty was sliding so far so fast that last week it looked like they might be headed for the NIT if Tom Izzo wasn't able to turn things around and quickly.

Of course, it's not like they've actually made it out of the woods. That game against Penn State was certainly do-or-die, but Sparty does have to go play Ohio State now. I mean, if they could upset the Buckeyes, that'd be great and would probably scoot them into the tournament for sure. But that's a road game that I really think they'll lose. They just aren't that pre-season No. 2 team that everyone thought that they were. Not this year. Not now.

Beyond that though, Sparty definitely needs to beat the Illini and Minneosta to lock up a NCAA tourney berth. I think if they do that, they could lose to OSU and Purdue, and even split the Iowa and Michigan set and still get in. Lose one or both of the Illini or Gopher games? Well, then we may be having another talk about the NIT next week...

Up Next: February 15th at Ohio State (8:00 P.M.), February 19th vs. Illinois (8:00 P.M.), February 22nd at Minnesota (8:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Okay, so like I said, an upset over Ohio State on the road would be fantastic for Sparty. But it's not going to happen. Really, it's not. Both the Illinois and Minnesota games are very important to Michigan State at this point. But, I think the Illini game will be the most exciting. The reason for this is the difference in what both of those teams are playing for. Minnesota is pretty much a tournament lock right now (iffy if they keep losing, but still looking good) and they're really playing for a decent seed. Illinois? Not so much. It's always fun to see two desperate teams battle it out, so that's the one to watch.


On the Outside Looking In (RPIs 50+):

If you're here, then you're probably not going to the tournament. I say probably because the first couple of these teams are still theoretically in the discussion, but it will take either a huge run over the next eight games, or getting to the final game in the Big Ten Tournament to make it happen. Don't do either of those things, and these teams will either be in the NIT or sitting at home.

Michigan (RPI Rank: 57)

Michigan has inched themselves ever so close to being in the bubble with three wins against the rest of the mid-to-bottom Big Ten - Penn State, Northwestern, and Indiana. The irony is that while those wins really didn't make a difference for Michigan in terms of NCAA tournament prospects, they essentially ended any hope for the Nittany Lions or the Wildcats.

It's not completely out of the question that the Wolverines could rise just enough to sneak in as a tourney selection, but it would really take running the table in their last six games (or nearly doing so) for that to happen. And that's not going to be easy. Michigan finishes off the regular season with Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Sparty (in addition to Iowa). Even going 2-2 in those four games is going to be extremely difficult... 4-0? That's nearly inconceivable at this point.  Especially because only two of their last five games will be at home.

As I've noted in this series before, Michigan is an extremely young team. There isn't a single senior in their starting lineup, and the majority of the players who've put in the most time are actually freshman. So, even if this season ends on a slightly sour note, much as with Indiana, better times are clearly on the horizon. Baby steps, people.

Up Next: February 16th at Illinois (7:30 P.M.), February 19th at Iowa (3:30 P.M.), February 23rd vs. Wisconsin (5:30 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Of this set, the Wisconsin game will likely be the best to watch. Why? It's one of the few home games the Wolverines have left, and while the Illini and Hawkeyes are certainly easier competition, Michigan has shown an ability to hang with even much better teams lately. If any of these games has the potential to be a big upset, it's the game against Wisconsin.


Penn State (RPI Rank: 63)

Much as with Northwestern, Penn State has pretty much played themselves out of any tournament talk at this point. They were solidly in the bubble during the middle of the season, and a strong finish might have gotten them in... but... now? Losing badly to Illinois and Michigan State really hurt, and losing to Michigan was basically the nail in the coffin. Sure, that win against Northwestern was nice, but really it was too little, too late.

Penn State is going to be NIT bound at best (barring a complete upset by winning the Big Ten tourney) and unfortunately for Nittany Lions fans, this last stretch of the regular season is going to be rather painful. The only easy team on the schedule is Northwestern again, and seeing Minnesota twice, Ohio State, and Wisconsin is not going to be fun at all. I think they might be able to steal at least one of the Minnesota games, but the rest are going to be hard even for a team that specialized in upsets earlier in the year...

Up Next: February 17th vs. Minnesota (6:00 P.M.), February 20th at Wisconsin (5:00 P.M.), February 24th at Northwestern (8:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: I'd pick the Minnesota game here. Minnesota is juuuust vulnerable enough that with Penn State at home, they might be able to take them out. They'll probably win the Northwestern game, and probably lose the game in Madison, but the Minnesota game is slightly ripe for an upset.


Northwestern (RPI Rank: 86)

I said last week that Northwestern was probably done as far as NCAA tournament prospects went... it was really an extremely long shot there, with the only possibility coming on the back of a torrid finish to the season. Well, this week, there's no more probably about it. Northwestern is not going to be in the NCAA tournament this year. There, I said it.

This is in large part due to the fact that, while they got the end of the season started off on the right foot with a one-point win over a struggling Illini team, they promptly dropped the next two to Michigan and Penn State. And it's not like those games were close, either.

What's so damn depressing about all of this is that the Wildcats had an opportunity. Yeah, it was a fringe opportunity, but it was there. And they got over the biggest hump by beating Illinois when they really needed to.... Only to drop two games that really should have been won. Sure, this wasn't the season that many Northwestern fans expected at the end of last year. Kevin Coble left the team, and the emerging John Shurna went down with an injury that definitely limited him through much of in-conference play. But even so, much as with Michigan State, it's really hard to see your team fall so far so fast. Okay, maybe it's a lot worse with Michigan State. At this point, I think most fans just want to see them finish on a high note, and maybe go to the NIT and do something there. The next three games are all completely winnable (though I've said that more times than I care to remember), but the games against Wisconsin and Minnesota might be tough. Still, 3-2 to finish the year wouldn't be horrible.

Up Next: February 17th vs. Iowa (8:00 P.M.), February 19th at Indiana (6:00 P.M.), February 24th at PSU (8:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Ugh. Do I really have to pick one? All of these can be won... and all of these can just as easily be dropped in disappointing fashion. I guess I'll go with Penn State. Might be nice to have some revenge.


Iowa (RPI Rank: 147)

It's kind of weird to see Iowa up here, above Indiana. Okay, so the Hawkeyes did beat the Hoosiers by one point when they last played. And they beat a disappointing Sparty team by like three touchdowns worth (sort of like they did in football earlier this year... hmm...). And, okay, they took Wisconsin to OT ...just before Wisconsin would go on to take down a No. 1 OSU team.

But that 17 point loss to Minnesota was sort of icky. Especially when you consider how it happened. Despite putting up an early lead on the Gophers, the Hawkeyes somehow succumbed to a 24-6 run to end the first half of the game. And from that point on, Minny never looked back.

Really, though, I guess I'm being too harsh on this team. It's not like anyone expected them to be good this year, at all. And even if the fans don't have much to hang on to, that victory over MSU was pretty nice, huh? I mean, it's sort of like a warm glass of milk... Mmm... milk.

Up Next: February 17th at Northwestern (8:00 P.M.), February 19th vs. Michigan (3:30 P.M.), February 26th at Illinois (6:00 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Well this is an interesting set. On the one hand you have games against two teams that solidly beat the Hawkeyes earlier this year - so there is a revenge factor. But then again, those two teams aren't exactly impressive opponents right about now. So I'm going to go with the Illinois game. A win here could completely spoil the tourney hopes that the Illini are desperately clinging to. And, hey, if your own team can't be good, why not engage in a little schadenfreude Hawkeye fans?


Indiana (RPI Rank: 156)

If you're an Indiana fan who has at this point begun mainly to watch North Carolina games, I wouldn't blame you. I mean, if you squint really hard, those blue uniforms might look crimson... and Tyler Zeller might look like his younger brother Cody.

I'm not sure how many times I can write "it gets better!" in this Digest about the Hoosiers. I feel like I've been doing it every week. But, hey, might as well not break the streak now.

It gets better.

Really, it will. If Cody is anything like his brother, the rest of the Big Ten is probably mighty nervous about the coming seasons. Plus, Indiana has several other recruits coming in the year after that will help form a solid squad around the Zellernator. Or Godzella if you will. Really, I could do this all night.

Uhm, so anyway, back to the present. It's not fall 2011 yet, Hoosier fans. Like Iowa above, nobody really expected Indiana to be good this year. They just aren't quite there yet. But, still, its disappointing to see losses in games that could have been won. Like the Iowa game. Or the Michigan game. Or Michigan State. Or Wisconsin. Or Minnesota. Or.... Well, you get the idea.

The only good news left in the season is that Indiana is not yet in last place in the conference. That honor still belongs to Iowa. And, Indiana actually has an outside shot at catching Northwestern. Oh, and they have one more chance at sticking it to the Boilermakers. It might have been a craptastic season thus far, but it's not all bad.

It gets better!

Up Next: February 19th vs. Northwestern (6:00 P.M.), February 23rd vs. Purdue (7:30 P.M.), February 27th at Ohio State (3:30 P.M.)

Best Game to Watch: Not like I really need to tell any Hoosier fan which of these three games is the most important. Clearly, it's the match-up against Northwestern. Wait, what's that you say? The Wildcats don't matter when you're hosting Purdue in the very next game? Oh fine. So yeah, it's that Boilermaker game. A chance for revenge. And a chance to show of all those purdy banners to a team that really doesn't know what they look like.