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Big 10 Second Half Preview

by Chris Mackinder | February 7th, 2007

It’s officially a two-team show. Wisconsin and Ohio  State, as it was presumed in the preseason, are indeed the class of the Big Ten. Both teams have the talent, the coaching and the not-so-tough second-half schedules to make a run at the Big Ten Championship. The only other team that has a realistic shot is Indiana, which, unfortunately for Hoosier fans, already sits two games back.

What makes the Big Ten intriguing down the stretch is parity. While mid-major lovers cry about how the Missouri Valley deserves more respect because of the level of parity from the MVC’s top seven teams, the Big Ten has the same problem, albeit, without all the whining. After Wisconsin, Ohio State and Indiana take up the top three spots, there are a handful of teams worthy – and talented enough – to take the over the fourth spot (one that likely would guarantee a NCAA Tournament bid). Iowa sits in that spot as we speak and Michigan is a half-game back in fifth. Illinois is in sixth and Michigan State and Purdue are in a tie for seventh. Yes, you read that correctly. The powerhouse teams in the Big Ten for the past eight years are in a sixth and seventh!

The Big Ten is down this year. There, it’s been said a million times already. But if down means a bunch of good teams fighting for some of the final at-large spots in the NCAA Tournament, that means the race to the finish line in the Big Ten foreshadows a plethora of future excitement for all of us.

(Records as of Feb. 4)

1. Wisconsin (8-1 conference record)
A 12-1 start to the Big Ten season would indicate that Wisconsin has an inside track to the Big Ten Championship. With its next four games as follows: at Penn State, vs. Iowa, at Minnesota and vs. Penn State, a Final Four caliber team like the Badgers will not slip up. It’s the final three-game stretch, which includes road and home dates against Michigan State, sandwiched around a trip to Columbus to face the Buckeyes, that is a challenge. If the Buckeyes get revenge for an early-season loss, the teams, therefore, would split the season series. The Spartans should split with the Badgers, but a Wisconsin sweep can’t be ruled out. That leaves Wisconsin with three losses – at best, a number that would only be good enough for a split crown, or even second place.

Prediction: 14-2. The Badgers won’t be denied and, by virtue of sweeping the Buckeyes in the season series will claim the Big Ten Championship.  If it happens, it will be so impressive that Wisconsin will not need to win the conference tournament to grab a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

2. Ohio State (8-1)
They’ve been called the most vulnerable Top 5 team in the country and I would tend to agree. While Greg Oden is a monster down low, the last few weeks have shown that his free throw shooting is erratic and he’s still learning to play defense off pick and rolls. That, coupled with an off shooting day by their guards, and the Buckeyes will look like anything but a Final Four caliber team. But, the Big Ten schedule is kind down the stretch. Two games against the Wolverines bookend games vs. Purdue, at Penn State, at Minnesota, vs. Penn State and vs. Wisconsin. There likely will be another loss or two in the Buckeyes’ future.

Prediction: 14-2. Don’t be shocked if yearly bubble team Michigan steals a game from its main football rival, taking advantage of an off night for Ohio State. But the remainder of OSU’s games are eminently winnable. If they can win the Big Ten Tournament title, they’ll likely secure a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

3. Indiana (6-3)
What a job Kelvin Sampson has done in his first year in Bloomington. Big wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin make this a team that can’t be taken lightly at all. But, red flags were raised after the team couldn’t beat Iowa a game after defeating No. 2 Wisconsin. A tough second-half schedule doesn’t help matters for the Hoosiers. With an entire week off, the Hoosiers don’t play again until Saturday vs. Illinois. After that, Indiana travels to Purdue and Michigan, hosts Minnesota, travels to Michigan State and Northwestern before finishing the year vs. Penn State. While all of those games, except the last one, are ominous, we still have to remember Indiana is the third best team in the Big Ten and the Hoosiers will finish out the year looking like it.

Prediction: 11-5. Losses at Purdue and at Michigan State won’t be damaging to the Hoosiers’ NCAA Tournament resume (Purdue is a big rival and Michigan State is, well, Michigan State). Indiana should get revenge against the Fighting Illini and win its other games to secure an NCAA berth.

4. Iowa (5-4)
Leave it to the Hawkeyes to have a forgettable non-conference season – losses at Arizona State (winless in the Pac-10), against Northern Iowa and at Drake stand out – and find a way to sit fourth in the Big Ten halfway through the conference season. If you were thinking of putting your money on Iowa the rest of the season, here’s a tip: don’t. Four of the final seven games are on the road and two of the home games come against fellow – and more talented – bubble teams Purdue and Illinois.

Prediction: 8-8. Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois should all notch wins against the overachieving Hawkeyes. It’ll be interesting to see if Iowa can run the table in its other games (Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Penn State), which would give it a 9-7 conference record and 17-13 overall mark. And there’s just not enough power behind either record to merit an NCAA Tournament bid. Then again, we are talking about the Hawkeyes, historically the team that plays the best in the Big Ten Tournament.

5. Michigan (4-4)
The Wolverines just don’t want to experience life off the bubble. Despite starting 14-3 for the second straight season, Michigan continues losing games it should win and can’t record a meaningful victory. To date, and we’re searching through 16 victories, the best win on Michigan’s resume is a home victory over Illinois. Out of conference, the best win is against Davidson out of the Southern Conference. This is a team that will likely see the win total hit at least 20 this season. However, unless it can record a marquee victory down the stretch, the Wolverines still won’t have justified a spot in their first NCAA Tournament since 1998.

Prediction: 8-8. With a pair of games against Ohio State and Michigan State, a home game against Indiana and a road game at Illinois, it doesn’t look good for Michigan. Even if the Wolverines can split with the Spartans and the Buckeyes – and win both games against Minnesota on the schedule –the Wolverines would carry a 20-11 record into the Big Ten Tournament. As a best case scenario, even that isn’t very impressive.

6. Illinois (5-5)
An easy schedule will make the Fighting Illini look better on paper than they really are. This team is extremely young, but the tough-nosed defense that coach Bruce Weber has demanded maximizes Illinois’ talent. But, like other bubble teams, Illinois is still searching for that marquee victory. Out of conference, a four-point win over Bradley in Chicago is a nice resume-builder. In conference, the best wins to date are home wins over Indiana and Michigan State. The return date in Bloomington this weekend is Illinois’ last chance for an eye-opening victory, despite what is likely to be an impressive overall record.

Prediction: 10-6. The only loss on the schedule appears at Indiana this weekend. Other than that, Illinois should sweep Northwestern, defeat Michigan, and beat both Penn State and Iowa to close out the season. At that point, a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament becomes critical to Illinois’ at-large hopes.  U of I will probably be one of the last teams in or out on Selection Sunday.

7. Michigan State (4-5)
Give Tom Izzo’s Spartans any other Big Ten school’s second-half schedule and there would be no sweating in East Lansing. But, the Spartans will continue playing the Big Ten’s most difficult schedule this season the rest of the way. While the Spartans missed a golden opportunity to take at least one game from Ohio State (which single-handedly may  have been good enough to secure a NCAA bid), there are plenty of chances left. The Spartans have a pair of games against Wisconsin, meaning two chances to secure the final stamp on an NCAA Tournament-worthy resume. Michigan State also gets its home rematch with Indiana and has a pair of games against fellow in-state bubble team Michigan, a game at bubble team Purdue and a home date with Iowa. Regardless of what happens, Michigan State’s schedule strength will continue to climb, and even a .500 record might be good enough for an at-large bid with Texas and BYU (MSU’s best non-conference wins) playing the way they are.

Prediction: 9-7. This obviously is the toughest record to predict as the Spartans could win the majority of their remaining games, but could easily lose most of them as well. The guess here is the Spartans do notch another pair of marquee victories by splitting with Wisconsin and beating Indiana at home. Couple those two wins with victories against Iowa and Michigan at home and the Spartans sit with at least eight conference wins. The biggest negative of the second-half schedule is that, at best, Michigan State likely will finish 5-5 in its final 10 games (pre-Big Ten Tournament).

8. Purdue (4-5)
Matt Painter has done a remarkable job in his second season in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers are probably one year away from the NCAA Tournament, but there’s no guarantee that Purdue won’t want spoil the party for some of its fellow Big Ten bubble-dwellers. This season is already a success for Purdue, and even an NIT bid would be a significant bonus.

Prediction: 8-8. By defeating Indiana, the Boilermakers will get a season-sweep with its rival and the third-best team in the conference. The remaining schedule also gives room for a win against Minnesota and a season sweep of Northwestern. There is a chance that Purdue could add another Big Ten victory (maybe over Michigan State or at Iowa) but that is scratching the surface of optimism.  Purdue’s non-conference profile isn’t quite as good as Michigan State’s, and like Illinois, PU will need a deep Big Ten Tournament run if it wants to make the NCAA’s.

9. Minnesota (3-6)
Another year, another disappointing season for Minnesota basketball. Unfortunately for Golden Gopher fans, things won’t end any better than they’ve started. Minnesota plays three ranked teams – two at home – in its final seven games. Couple that with a pair of games against Michigan and a regular-season finale at Purdue and there is no light, let alone a door, at the end of the tunnel.

Prediction: 4-12. It’s tough to see where that victory will come (likely against either Michigan or Iowa) so the Gophers could go 0-fer down the stretch. With the NIT already out of sight, the Golden Gophers can’t wait for the 2007-08 season to begin.

10. Penn State (1-7)
Obviously, and who thought this would ever be said, Penn State is the most disappointing team in the conference this season. This was a senior-laden team that had improved each of the past three seasons. After a 9-4 nonconference season and starting the Big Ten with a victory, it looked like Penn State would be fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth. Now, the Nittany Lions are praying for an NIT invite.

Prediction: 3-13. The Nittany Lions will play spoiler from here on out. With a pair of games against both Wisconsin and Ohio State, Penn State could “shock the world” in any of those four contests. You heard it here first; PSU could provide the season’s shocker with a win in any of those four games, much as they did in Champaign last year.  A road game against Northwestern and home date against Iowa are the more expected wins coming down the stretch.

11. Northwestern (1-8)
And then there are the Wildcats. I think it is safe to say the Princeton-style offense hasn’t and will never work in the Big Ten. It’s sad that it’s taken this long for Bill Carmody and the Wildcats to realize that. Like the Nittany Lions, Northwestern will claw its way toward the finish line, hoping to stay above .500 for an NIT invitation.

Prediction: 1-15. Will they win another Big Ten game? The guess here is no, but there are a few chances. It could come against Penn State, but the best scenario is against Purdue. That game comes three days after Northwestern takes a break from Big Ten play to take on Texas-Pan American. Putting together back-to-back victories in February would be the best thing to happen to Northwestern basketball all season. Then again, with the way things have gone so far, assuming Northwestern will defeat Texas-Pan American, let alone another Big Ten school, is ludicrous.

– Chris Mackinder

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