Things can change a lot in the Big Ten standings in the next few days, but Michigan has resolved who the top team in the regular season conference play was, with their destruction of the Illini last night. I mean, 16-for-23 on threes? That's just mean.
1. Michigan (14-3, 22-7) W @ Purdue (OT) 77-76, W v Minnesota 66-56, W @ Illinois 84-53
So, the Wolverines clinched an outright Big Ten championship in convincing fashion. After looking thoroughly ordinary in the preconference slate, and losing Mitch McGary to injury just before conference play, I would've thought squeaking into the NCAA tournament was their best-case scenario. I don't know how Beilien is getting so much out of guys like Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, not to mention Nik Stauskas, but hey. Kudos, coach Beilien and Wolverines. You truly surpassed expectations this year.
2. Michigan State (11-5, 22-7) L v Illinois 46-53
On the one hand, I always think that a starting player's first game back for a team is one of the most dangerous games for anybody. Teams just seem to need a game to adjust to having a guy back, and they often end up on the losing side, so maybe a loss should've been expected in Branden Dawson's return . On the other, the Spartans home performance this season has been pretty unimpressive. Losses to Illinois and Nebraska just stack on top of the loss to Michigan, and OT contests with Minnesota and Ohio State. When will Izzo's club get it together? Can they get their mojo rolling in time?
3. Wisconsin (11-5, 24-5) W v Indiana 69-58, W @ Penn State 71-66
The Badgers have now won 7 straight games, and look every bit the terror that the conference feared when they steamrolled into Bloomington undefeated on January 14th. There's no reason for them to lose to Purdue, but Painter does have his guys play well in Madison, inexplicably. The game at Nebraska may be too much to ask, though. There's little at stake for the Badgers, and it's a road game that's the season finale that also holds the key to that team's NCAA tourney chances. Only Bo Ryan's voodoo magic could possibly sabotage that script.
4. Iowa (20-9, 9-7) L @ Minnesota 89-95, L @ Indiana 86-93, W v Purdue 83-76
At least the Hawkeyes snapped their losing streak against the Boilers. Hosting the red-hot Illini and traveling to East Lansing doesn't exactly suggest that McCaffrey's team will be finishing strong. They lose both those games, and fourth-place in the conference could be a four-way tie! That almost certainly won't happen, but it's possible. Hawkeye fans are upset at this slide, but I think this spell of misfortune is mostly just due to timing. Iowa's a pretty good team that just hasn't learned to how to outgut another team in a conference with no room for error.
5. Ohio State (22-8, 9-8) L @ Penn State 63-65, L @ Indiana 64-72
Again, I've thought OSU was a bit overrated for most of this season, but they'll probably enter the NCAA tourney a bit under-rated after having been put through the Big Ten grinder. I saw a BTP piece on the Hoosiers' saying that the Buckeyes should be embarrassed about their performance, but really, there aren't any truly embarrassing losses in this year's conference (lots of shocking ones *cough MSU at home* or regrettable ones: Indiana at home). The bottom of the conference is just too tough. And nonconference teams will discover that the Buckeyes have an incredible defense, and that the OSU offense will probably thrive once they stop facing Big Ten teams, just like last year.
6. Nebraska (17-11, 9-7) L @ Illinois 49-60, W v Northwestern 54-47
I think it's pretty simple for the Nebraska Cornhuskers' NCAA tourney chances: Win and you're in. The Huskers control their own destiny with games at Indiana and at home against Wisconsin. Another quality road win and triumph over a top team should have the Selection Committee convinced that Tim Miles has team worthy of inclusion (and never mind those early season losses to UAB and UMass). Tonight, I think the Huskers have to come out and hit their threes early if they want to knock off the Hoosiers.
7. Indiana (17-12, 7-9) L @ Wisconsin 58-69, W v Iowa 93-86, W v OSU 72-64
The Hoosiers pulled off almost as good a week as could be had. Even the loss at Wisconsin, they at least had a good half before the Badgers finally started hitting their shots. I think beating Ohio State without Noah Vonleh may be their most impressive win. Everyone's noted Sheehey's 11th hour revival, and that Jeremy Hollowell is starting to get minutes and look like an actual player again, but how about Evan Gordon: 43 minutes, 21 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and a block. Pretty decent. Close strong, Hoosiers.
8. Minnesota (18-12, 7-10) W v Iowa 95-89, L @ Michigan 56-66
Pulling a split out of this week was honestly as good as it was going to get for the Gophers. However, they've definitely faded as the season has gone on, winning only three of their last ten games. The season finale, hosting Penn State, is a must-win for Minny's NCAA hopes. Also, right now, you'd rather be the 7th seed going into the Big Ten Tourney than 8th or 9th, which means facing off against either Illinois or Indiana, who seem to have both rediscovered how to play.
9. Illinois (17-13, 6-11) W v. Nebraska 60-49, W @ Michigan State 53-46, L @ Michigan 53-84
So, last night's beatdown in Ann Arbor aside, it was John Groce's turn to have turned around his club into the red-hot team of the week, taking down last week's darling at home and then humiliating the newly-healthy Spartans in East Lansing. I think winning in Iowa City on the last game of the season is still too tall an order for these Illini, but I thought that the Wolverines seemed like they were coming in primed for an upset, having just clinched a piece of the Big Ten title. Oops. Still, after a dramatic midconference swoon, the Illini could be building some momentum for next year.
10. Penn State (14-15, 5-11) W v Ohio State 65-63, L v Wisconsin 66-71
If Penn State drops their road games (NW, Minny) to close out the season, they may well be the best team ever to finish last in the conference. And I don't mean most-talented-but-underachieving or most-snakebit, etc. I mean, they may be the best team to ever make the most of their potential, never quit, and go down swinging, that ever finished last in the Big Ten standings. Tough year. At least they swept Ohio State.
11. Purdue (16-14, 5-11) L v Michigan (OT) 76-77, L @ Iowa 76-83
The Boilers are not giving up, as they just took two very tough teams to the limit. Michigan was pretty luckily to escape Mackey with a win, and Iowa generally has just outclassed teams in the lower half of the conference. They close with what should be a couple of good opportunities to pick up some wins: Hosting Northwestern and traveing to Wisconsin(!). Purdue fans love to point out that they've played Wisconsin tough in the Trohl center (at least, since Robbie Hummel started playing), and indeed, Coach Painter got his 3rd win in five tries last season, mysteriously trumping the Badgers on their homecourt by 13 points. One to watch.
12. Northwestern (5-11, 12-17) L @ Nebraska 47-54
Tuesday's hosting of PSU will likely decide the last place team in the conference standings, (although Sunday's visit to Purdue will also figure) but without JerShon Cobb, Northwestern is now undoubtably the weakest team in the conference. New Coach Chris Collins had a nice start to the conference season, winning 5 of 7 games, but reality set in at last. Still, Collins returns most of the roster and adds one of the most talented bunch of recruits that has ever stepped foot on the Evanston campus, so in a year, probably two, NU could start contending for an actual postseason.