In college basketball, February is critical in determining conference championships and NCAA tournament berths. With six teams within two games of first place in the Big Ten, the last three weeks of the regular season will determine who”s dancing and who”s staying home.
With key matchups this week like No. 4 Michigan State visiting No. 7 Illinois and No. 14 Wisconsin at Purdue, this week could have as big a place as any in dividing the top teams from the also-rans.
No. 14 Iowa which stands just half a game behind the Spartans and Fighting Illini for first place in the standings needs to keep pace by fighting off let downs against Ohio State and Northwestern.
“It”s separation week,” Iowa coach Steve Alford said. “By the end of this week you”ll see that the majority of the leagues have gone through the tiering process. By the end of this week, the Big Ten will be a three-tier league, and we are doing everything we can to be in that top tier.”
For a team like Purdue that is 5-4 in the Big Ten and 13-7 overall, games against Wisconsin and Illinois are critical not only as conference games but in determining whether or not they will make the NCAA Tournament.
“This week is real important. I don”t think we have ever gone in as (less than an 8-seed),” Purdue coach Gene Keady said. “This is a big week for us. If we are going to be in the NCAA, we”ve got to get one this week.”
Main event: In a battle of the two conference heavyweights, first place teams Illinois and Michigan State square off tonight in the biggest matchup of the Big Ten season this year.
The two schools were picked by both the coaches and the media to finish at the top of the Big Ten this season and have not disappointed.
The game features matchups of some of the premier players not just in the conference but in the country. While Illinois” big men Brian Cook and Marcus Griffin go head-to-head in the paint with Zach Randolph and Andre Hutson of the Spartans, the Fighting Illini”s Frank Williams and Corey Bradford with also be in a war with Michigan State”s two leading scorers, Jason Richardson and Charlie Bell.
“Those teams are explosive,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “On Saturday (at Illinois), we got outscored 20-0 at one point. They both are very athletic and both well coached.”
Most importantly, this is the only regular season matchup between the two schools making this game all the more important as far as winning the regular season title.
“There is no question that whoever wins the game has a leg up on the other people,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
Another one bites the dust: With nine straight losses to start the Big Ten season, Northwestern finds itself not just at the bottom of the Big Ten again but also without a conference win since March 3, 1999 when it beat Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
The pressure is mounting on Carmody and his players to get that first win.
We are “0-9 right now and with no wins last year,” Carmody said. “We are just trying to see if we can break through somehow.”
The pressure is also on the Wildcats” Big Ten opponents not to be the first team to give them a conference win in over a year and a half. Next on the list is 3-6 Minnesota.
“Northwestern is going to win games in this league. It”s just a matter of time,” Minnesota coach Dan Monson said. “Hopefully it won”t be (tonight).”