Illinois Shuffles Up the Big Ten After Putting the Brakes on the Boilermakers
The Big Ten has not been the easiest conference to figure out this season.
On Sunday, Illinois (19-5, 7-4 Big Ten) muddled up the standings a bit more by blowing out Purdue (17-6, 6-4) 66-48 and tying Ohio State (17-5, 7-4) for second place in the conference.
Just when it began to look like Purdue was going to make a run at Michigan State (19-4, 9-2) for the Big Ten title, the Boilermakers dropped two straight, losing to Ohio State last Tuesday before today's loss at Illinois.
The victory provided Illinois with a sweep of the regular-season series against Purdue and leaves the Fighting Illini just two games behind the Spartans, with one game remaining between the teams, to be played in Champaign.
Illinois has been extraordinarily inconsistent on the road of late, putting up just 39 points in a loss at Minnesota and only 50 in their most recent loss at Wisconsin (a team they easily defeated at home). The Illini, in fact, remain undefeated at home in conference play.
The only time Illinois has lost this year in front of their famous "Orange Crush" fans was a two-point defeat to the (equally orange) Clemson Tigers way back in early December during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Fortunately, the schedule-makers were kind enough not to bring in Syracuse to Assembly Hall this year.
Despite a two-game lead and a home victory over Illinois, first place can hardly be considered secure for Michigan State. Four of the seven remaining games are road matchups for the Spartans, including in-state rival Michigan, Purdue, and Illinois (as well as a much easier tilt at Indiana).
The home games are significantly easier, consisting of Iowa, Wisconsin and a season-ending heavyweight battle with the Boilermakers.
Ohio State and Penn State (17-6, 6-4) could still make some noise, though the Nittany Lions' embarrassing 71-51 loss at Michigan indicates they are unlikely to challenge for the regular-season championship.
They also have a brutal remaining schedule that includes a home-and-away with Illinois and tough games against Purdue, Minnesota and Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have a slightly smoother road, though they still must face Illinois and Purdue themselves. They handled Purdue at home earlier in the week 80-72 and have won four straight. Two losses to Michigan State would cost them any tiebreaker with the Spartans, however.
So how will the Big Ten shake out? Anyone who insists they have the definitive answer better be channeling Nostradamus, because very little of the last few weeks has been predictable.
If Illinois takes care of business against weaker opponents on the road and can remain stout at home, the Mar. 1 game vs. Michigan State may well determine the regular-season Big Ten title.
Just don't bet on it.
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