While major conferences like the ACC and Big East have excelled this season both have five teams currently in the top 25 the Big Ten has struggled to keep up.

The year began well for the conference with four teams in the top 25 entering Big Ten play. But a series of key injuries have left a number of teams depleted and the conference with just two teams that are a lock for the NCAA Tournament.

The biggest dropoff has probably come from Iowa since the loss of leading-scorer Luke Recker.

Before he broke his knee and went down for the season, the junior guard was averaging 18 points per game and the Hawkeyes were 16-4. Since then, Iowa is 1-4, including losses to Big Ten cellar-dwellers Northwestern and Michigan.

Tonight, the Hawkeyes face another team racked with injuries in Purdue, which has lost leading scorer Rodney Smith and leading rebounder John Allison for the season. The Boilermakers are losers of five straight after starting the season 13-6 and positioning themselves for a run at the NCAA Tournament.

Now, both teams need a win tonight to try to secure their postseason hopes.

“I don”t know if it is a panic button, but there is a pressure button,” Iowa coach Steve Alford said. “I think the loser of this game really hurts their postseason chances greatly. There is going to be a lot of pressure applied to this game.”

Due largely to season-ending injuries to John-Blair Bickerstaff and Mike Bauer, Minnesota fell off the Big Ten map halfway through the conference slate, losing six of seven games from Jan. 24 to Feb. 14.

The injuries have forced the Gophers to play an extremely undersized starting lineup that goes no larger 6-foot-7. Minnesota coach Dan Monson has tried to spread the floor on offense and create matchup problems against larger post-oriented teams.

“We”ve gone to the rope-a-dope, try and spread the court don”t touch us, play zone type of game plan,” Monson said.

The change has had mixed results. The Gophers fell by 20 to Penn State at home last Wednesday when their 3-point shooting went cold, but blew out Michigan three days later, 93-75.

“It”s still a very physical league,” Monson said. “Strength and power prevails in most games. And we all know that going in. You have to recruit that way and compete that way.”

Wisconsin enters the final two weeks of the season with a depleted bench, as well. Sophomore guard Ricky Bower, who averages 14.5 minutes a game, was suspended Friday by the NCAA for nine games because the proper paperwork regarding his transfer from Ricks Junior College in Idaho had not been filed.

“The best case scenario is that our appeal goes through and he is reinstated,” Wisconsin coach Brad Sodderberg said.

“I am under the understanding that there will be no games lost, and the only decision is whether Ricky”s status will be changed from a suspension to something less that that.”

With no significant injuries of their own to deal with, No. 3 Illinois and No. 4 Michigan State have been able to dominate league play by simply overpowering opponents.

“Illinois is a team that can sub at three or four positions without any real drop off,” said Ohio State coach Jim O”Brien, whose Buckeyes face the Fighting Illini tomorrow.

“And that is what has made them the best team in the conference to date.”

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