As the crucial portion of the conference season approaches, each basketball game takes on greater significance and has larger NCAA Tournament implications. The Big Ten, perennially one of the stronger conferences from top to bottom, is going through a down year. The conference might see just four teams make it to the Big Dance. There are two elite teams (Wisconsin and Ohio State), one good team (Indiana), a handful of average teams and three doormats (Northwestern, Minnesota and Penn State). We’ll elaborate on those average teams with the Michigan Daily’s (a little past) Midseason Report Card:
Illinois: After opening the conference season with a rough stretch that included losses at Michigan, at Michigan State and home against Ohio State, Illinois coach Bruce Weber seems to have righted the ship with three consecutive victories and a big home win against then-No. 24 Indiana. The Illini’s conference record currently stands at 6-5, good enough for fifth place. We’ll find out a lot about the team that was picked in the preseason to finish third in the Big Ten when it travels to Bloomington on Saturday for a rematch that could be its toughest contest for the rest of the season. Grade: B Tournament chances: 45 percent
Indiana: Coinciding with Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson’s arrival in Bloomington has come a return to prominence for the Hoosiers. Sampson brought his tough defense, no nonsense attitude with him from Oklahoma, and the Hoosiers have once again become a team to fear. At 6-3 in the Big Ten, Indiana boasts impressive victories over then-No. 2 Wisconsin and then-No. 24 Michigan State, albeit both at home. With three of their final six games against the bottom-feeders of the Big Ten, the Hoosiers look to be in good position entering the last month of the season. Grade: B+ Tournament chances: 75 percent
Iowa: Many pundits counted the Hawkeyes out after they entered conference play 8-6, and promptly lost three of their first five conference games. But consecutive impressive wins at Michigan and at home against No. 25 Indiana have them back in the Big Ten race. While most still don’t consider it a serious contender, Iowa currently stands at fourth in the conference, and with the conference-leading scorer in senior Adam Haluska, it has an outside chance to sneak into the Tournament despite its disappointing nonconference results. Though the Hawkeyes face tough games at Wisconsin and at Michigan State, the schedule also features contests against Penn State and Northwestern. Grade: B- Tournament chances: 40 percent
Michigan: Yet again, the Wolverines have teased and teased their fans. And yet again, they seemed primed to fall short at the end. After starting the year 16-4, Michigan has dropped four consecutive games, and should be relieved to host Minnesota this Saturday at Crisler Arena. But after their date with the Golden Gophers, the schedule toughens up, with games at Michigan State, at home versus Indiana and then back on the road to Illinois. The Wolverines also close the season with home games against Michigan State and Ohio State, and without a “signature” win that they can point the NCAA Selection Committee toward, it seems Michigan coach Tommy Amaker’s squad will come up short yet again. Grade: C+ Tournament Chances: 30 percent
Michigan State: After losing three starters to the NBA Draft, the Spartans boast the Big Ten’s closest resemblance to a one-man squad. Michigan State starts and ends with point guard Drew Neitzel, who leads the team in minutes and scoring and leads the conference in free throw percentage (90 percent). An impressive nonconference victory over then-No. 18 Texas will score the Spartans points with the NCAA Selection Committee, but with a conference record of 4-6, and two games against Wisconsin and one versus Indiana remaining, it’s possible Izzo’s team misses out on the Dance for the first time since 1996-97. Grade: B- Tournament Chances: 35 percent
Purdue: Amaker has talked all season about how tough it is to win on the road in the Big Ten, and the Boilermakers exemplify Amaker’s emphasis. They’ve recorded double-digit wins over Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois at Mackey Arena, but have dropped contests at Michigan, at Indiana and even at Minnesota. At 5-5 in conference play, Purdue probably needs a win in one of its next three games (at Ohio State, Indiana, at Iowa) in order to gain entry to the Tournament. Grade: B- Tournament Chances: 35 percent.