February 4, 2022
Just five weekends remaining in the regular season as the Big Ten comes down the stretch on the second half of the season. Let's take a look at the key contenders and what's in store:
Illinois (16-5, 9-2 - 1st place)
Saturday at Indiana
Tuesday at Purdue
Why was Brad Underwood smiling after his 18th ranked Illini thumped Big Ten co-leader Wisconsin Wednesday night to take sole possession of 1st place in the conference? One part was obvious -- massive All-American center Kofi Cockburn had just turned in a career performance with a Big Ten personal best of 37 points to go with 12 rebounds. But the other part was having everyone (unfortunately I'm not including talented wing Austin Hutcherson in this) healthy at the same time since the preseason.
We may know a lot more about what this team can do and how far they can go in the next week. They're at Indiana tomorrow (11am, ESPN) to face an improved Hoosiers team under first-year coach Mike Woodson. Then the rematch everyone has been waiting for: Tuesday night at 6th ranked Purdue (8pm, ESPN). The Boilermakers survived a double-overtime thriller in Champaign last month to hand Illinois one of its two conference losses and pose the biggest hurdle between the Illini and their first recognized regular season league championship since 2005.
IlliniGuys Insider/Analyst Brad Sturdy said it best on this week's Sports Spectacular radio show: the winner of Tuesday night's game takes the inside track to the Big Ten crown.
Purdue (19-3, 8-3 - 3rd place tie)
Saturday vs. Michigan
Tuesday vs. Illinois
Thursday at Michigan
Speaking of the Boilers, they also face a litmus test in the next week with three games in a 6-day span. They'll play Michigan twice sandwiched around the Illinois game; the second meeting in Ann Arbor is a makeup from a COVID-forced postponement last month.
Purdue has rebounded from an early 1-2 start in Big Ten play to win seven of eight and now stand just a game behind conference-leading Illinois. But their early stumbles mean they may have to run the table this week to establish their dominance entering the latter stages of the season as they still have to visit Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Michigan St. (17-4, 8-2 - 2nd place)
Saturday at Rutgers
Tuesday vs. Wisconsin
The Spartans are in a unique position in that they are the only one among the Big Ten frontrunners who still must play each of the other four contenders at least once. Which means they very much control their own destiny.
Michigan State joins the Illini as the only conference teams with just two losses and they will play three of those four key games at the Breslin Center, starting with a rematch vs. #11 Wisconsin Tuesday night. The Spartans beat the Badgers in Madison last month.
Wisconsin (17-4, 8-3 - 3rd place tie)
Saturday vs. Penn State
Tuesday at Michigan State
Was Wednesday night in Champaign (13-5, 6-3) just an off night? Or did the Illini expose the Badgers? Time will tell with a home game vs. Penn State to get things right again before heading off to avenge that earlier home loss to the Spartans.
It's too early to count the Badgers out. With their season series with Ohio State done and no return game with the Illini on the schedule, they only have the Spartans and a home date with Purdue remaining against the league's front runners.
Ohio State (13-5, 6-3 - 5th place)
Sunday vs. Maryland
Wednesday at Rutgers
The good news for the Buckeyes is - they have only three conference losses.
The bad news is - they've played a league-low nine games.
Ohio State is a team that was probably the most overlooked in the offseason when it came to ranking contenders, but they've already beaten Wisconsin and lost at Purdue on a Jaden Ivey three-pointer in the final second.
The schedule gods smiled on Chris Holtmann's program as well, as Ohio State faces Illinois, Michigan State, and Purdue only once each this season. As a result, they could well be in the mix for a league title or at least a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament come March.
Michigan (11-8, 5-4 - 7th place)
Saturday at Purdue
Tuesday vs. Penn State
Thursday vs. Purdue
The tag "contender" fell off the Wolverines several weeks ago, but - thanks to COVID-delayed games and a schedule loaded with frontrunners - Michigan could make a late run or at the very least play spoiler for other teams. A program universally picked in the nation's top five in the preseason would be on the outside looking in if the NCAA tournament field was selected today.
Of Michigan's eleven remaining Big Ten games, six are against the conference elite. That includes a pair of games against Purdue, after the meeting postponed last month due to a COVID outbreak within the Wolverines team was rescheduled for next Thursday.
A year ago, Michigan played only 17 conference games as critics wondered why the conference didn't take advantage of open dates in the schedule to make those up. Clearly that won't be the case this year, with a postponed game against Iowa moved to the first week of March.
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