Let the Big Ten logjam begin.
It’s rare that any one team runs away with the Big Ten regular season title. Last year ended with almost half the conference (four teams) tied for first place, and this season seems to be shaping up in a similar way.
With Michigan and No. 25 Purdue having jumped out to quick starts, the heat is on as the pack of wolves in the middle of the conference standings continue the hunt for first place.
Very few people, if any, predicted that this season’s standings would look like this at the halfway point. But as the Big Ten crosses over its midseason hump, there have already been many surprises.
Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois, who were picked to finish 1-2-3 in the preseason poll, are currently sitting in 7th, 5th and 4th place, respectively. But each team is poised to make a run.
After handling Ohio State to begin their season, the Spartans went on a three-game losing streak before trouncing Penn State, but then came into Ann Arbor and lost. With his team’s tournament hopes in jeopardy, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo managed to breathe some life into the Spartans, as they came back to knock off Indiana and Illinois at home in the past week.
“It was a much-needed two games for us with victories over two of the better teams in the league,” Izzo said. “We’re feeling a hair better about ourselves, but we realize we have a long way to go.”
The Spartans play three of their next four games on the road – one each against the teams they just beat, and one at Wisconsin. This stretch will definitely determine Michigan State’s final conference position.
Aside from the Wolverines, the biggest story in the conference has been the 25th-ranked Boilermakers. After several subpar seasons, Purdue coach Gene Keady finally has his young team playing with passion and pride. The team is young, and Keady says “they are sick of losing.
“I think our new recruits have fit into the system much better than I thought they would, and our returning players are hungry to win,” Keady said. “We’ve been through a lot over the years, and we’re just playing basketball now. We’ve played hard, and we’ve stuck together.”
Led by swingman Willie Deane, who ranks second only to Illinois’ Brian Cook in conference scoring with 20.3 points per game, Purdue has broken into the top 25 and isn’t planning on going anywhere. But with five of their remaining eight games away from home, the Boilermakers will have to work for it. Their last game of the season is at Michigan, and the two teams could potentially be competing for the Big Ten title if conference positions hold.
After their night off yesterday, the Wolverines have eight games remaining (four home, four away) and a shot at winning the conference title. Last season, the four teams that tied for first had 11 wins apiece. If that statistic holds true for this season (which is highly possible), Michigan needs to win its remaining home games and one road game to finish in first.
The Wolverines have Penn State on the road left – probably their best shot at a road win – but must deal with some tough home games first, beginning Saturday with Iowa.
“I’m hoping the rest this week will give our team a renewed spirit,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “We’re looking to get rested and be at full health for the rest of the season.”
Meanwhile, after dropping its first two conference games, Wisconsin has regained its footing and won five straight as it tries to repeat as conference champions. Minnesota is also beginning to heat up with three straight victories.
As usual, each team has taken a few licks, but each is right in the thick of things as the conference hits its halfway point. Each team – with the exception of Northwestern and Penn State – still has a good shot at making a run to the top, and it should be an exciting fin