Big Ten's race to the finish should be one to watch

With three weeks left until the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis, the standings appear to be sending the same message as the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders — an uprising by the middle class. In this case, that charge is coming from an unlikely middle grouping made of perennial league front runners Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State.

Though Iowa, Maryland and Indiana have spent the bulk of the season at or near the top of the league standings, their position has become a little more precarious in the past week.


The Hawkeyes lost on the road to the Hoosiers on Thursday before barely beating last-place Minnesota by four points in Iowa City on Sunday night. Earlier in the day, Indiana stayed with the Spartans for a little more than a half in East Lansing, Mich., before getting crushed by 19.

As for the Terps, they saw their school-record 27-game home winning streak snapped by the Badgers in a 13-point manhandling at Xfinity Center on Saturday. Then, coach Mark Turgeon suspended freshman center Diamond Stone for Thursday's game at Minnesota because of the flagrant foul committed against Wisconsin forward Vitto Brown.

While Iowa (11-2) now leads Maryland (10-3) and Indiana (10-3) by a game, Michigan (9-4) kept itself in the hunt for one of four double-byes in the Big Ten tournament by beating Purdue (8-5) on Saturday, scoring 11 straight at the end. Wisconsin (8-4), Ohio State (8-5) and Michigan State (8-5) are also in that equation.

It will come down to the remaining schedule.

"At this time of year, when teams are beating one another, which is exactly what they're doing, I think the important thing that you have to look at is what their upcoming schedules are, who's playing the toughest schedule," said Dan Bonner, a longtime Atlantic Coast Conference color analyst who now also works Big Ten games. "To win the Big Ten, you have to win your home games."

Iowa plays three of its last five games on the road, starting Wednesday night at Penn State. The Hawkeyes, who have yet to lose in Iowa City this season, play Wisconsin and Indiana at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and also go to Ohio State before finishing the season against Michigan at Crisler Center.

"Look at Iowa's schedule — who are they going to lose to?" said ESPN and Big Ten Network analyst Dan Dakich.

While Iowa doesn't look nearly as deep nor as dominant as it did a month ago, experience should favor the Hawkeyes to hold onto their lead and be the top seed in Indianapolis as well as potentially a top seed in the NCAA tournament if they don't falter down the stretch..

Maryland seemed to have control of its fate going into Saturday's game against Wisconsin. But in losing to the Badgers, the aura of invincibility on its home court took a major hit, especially with Michigan visiting Sunday.

Despite winning close games at Nebraska and Ohio State, the Terps have also not played that well away from College Park and that could present problems, particularly at Purdue and Indiana. It could even possibly be a concern in Minneapolis on Thursday with Stone out of what is already a thin rotation.

"The loss at Wisconsin at home hurts Maryland because they still have to play on the road at Purdue and Indiana, and I think that's really hard," Bonner said. "Maryland played very poorly against Wisconsin, I don't think there's any question.

"But I don't think the team that you saw play Wisconsin is the real Maryland team. I still think this is a Maryland team that's capable of winning a national championship. I still think they can still win the Big Ten. They just have to play well."

Sunday's game at Xfinity Center against Michigan looms large.

"I think that's a huge game, not just for Maryland but for the Big Ten," Bonner said.


Indiana, which many believe had the most favorable overall schedule this season, is a difficult team to figure out, given that the Hoosiers can lose at Penn State and beat Iowa in a span of six days, which they did recently.

Still, Tom Crean's team should win its next three — home games against Nebraska and Purdue and a road game at Illinois — before finishing the season at Iowa and at home against the Terps in what could be a significant game for tournament seeding on Yogi Ferrell's senior day March 6.

Michigan appeared to be a dead team walking with back-to-back double-digit home losses recently to Indiana (80-67) and Michigan State (89-73). The Wolverines weren't impressive in winning over Penn State at Madison Square Garden and then looked like they were going to lose Saturday against Purdue.

But then came the 11-0 run to close the game, and suddenly a team playing the entire Big Ten schedule without its best player, Caris LeVert, had new life. The coming week will determine a lot, with road games at Ohio State on Tuesday and Maryland on Sunday.

Wisconsin, by all rights, shouldn't even be in this discussion. But the way Wisconsin played in College Park seems to be an indication that the Badgers are buying into what interim coach Greg Gard is selling. With four of their last six games on the road, it's still going to be difficult.

"Wisconsin has won seven in a row. They've put themselves clearly in the conversation with a huge road win at Maryland," Dakich said. "You've got to win some of [the road games] just to stay around it. Great opportunity, but you need to win some."

Though Michigan State is technically not among the top five teams in the Big Ten standings, coach Tom Izzo's history for having his teams peaking going into the postseason and a favorable schedule the rest of the way should not eliminate the Spartans from making another late run.

"I think Michigan State is playing better than anybody," Dakich said Monday. "It took one of the crazy crowds [at Purdue] and a guy going nuts in Rapheal Davis to beat them last Tuesday. But the best resume and the league champ I think is going to be Iowa. They should be a No. 1 seed [in the NCAA tournament]."

A lot can change in regards to seeding for the NCAA tournament.

"If Iowa loses one and still wins the Big Ten [regular season] and Michigan State runs the table, you can see a Michigan State team seeded better than Iowa [in the NCAA tournament]," Dakich said. "I think the Big Ten tournament is going to be big for both of those teams."

Aside from a home-and-home against Ohio State, Michigan State hosts Penn State and Wisconsin, and goes on the road to Rutgers. Still, despite what Bonner called "a very light schedule," the fact that the Spartans already have five losses in the league leaves "no margin for error there at all."

After what has been viewed by many as a weak year in the Big Ten, the recent surge by the teams that were supposed to be down such as Wisconsin and Ohio State, and one that struggled early such as Michigan State, has helped make the last three weeks resemble most years — a battle of attrition.

"If you look at the schedules, they're back loaded for a lot of teams, with the possible exception of Iowa," Dakich said. "Everybody is going to have opportunity, or everyone is going to beat the living hell out of each other and nobody is going to reap the benefits."



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