Big Ten Title Preview: Opportunity Lost...or Should I Say Stolen?

Jeff StineCorrespondent IFebruary 18, 2009

Michigan State entered their game Tuesday evening at Purdue with an opportunity—win and they extend their lead in the Big Ten to two on Illinois and three on Purdue with five games to play. While certainly not insurmountable, that lead would have made it unlikely that either Illinois or Purdue would catch the Spartans.

But all that changed Tuesday evening. In front of a raucous crowd and a national television audience (including Dickie V and Erin Andrews), Purdue imposed its defensive will on the Spartans. Consider the following numbers:

  • Michigan State turnovers - 22 (a season high)
  • Purdue steals - 8
  • Purdue blocks - 10
  • Kalin Lucas (MSU's likely first team all Big Ten point guard) stat line - 2-11 from the field and 6 turnovers
  • Purdue charges taken - 6
  • Michigan State field goal percentage - 32.7 (a season low)

In addition, against a team that had given up 47, 47, and 42 points in its previous three games, Purdue score 46 in the second half en route to a commanding 72-54 win.

Much has been written about the impact the return of preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Robbie Hummel to the Boilermakers has had (Hummel missed three games recently with a stress fracture in the L5 vertebrae in his back). Never was that more evident than in this game. 

In addition to his two huge three-pointers early when Purdue was struggling with its offense, Hummel gave Purdue a versatile defensive presence who could defend in the paint on the Spartans' big front line. Just as importantly, he also clogged the passing lanes, as evidenced by his big steal and breakout early in the second half as Purdue was blowing the game open.

So where does the Big Ten go from here? Fortunately, there are a number of pivotal games on the upcoming Big Ten schedule that will figure prominently into who will ultimately finish atop the standings. 

When looking in aggregate at the schedules, it would appear that Purdue and Michigan State have an advantage over the Illini as they each have two remaining games against teams without NCAA aspirations (Purdue—home games against Indiana and Northwestern—and Michigan State, a home date with Iowa and a road trip to Indiana).  The Illini, on the other hand, play all five games against teams currently above .500 in the conference.

Below are the nine games I see as most pivotal as the Big Ten heads down the stretch:

9) Penn State at Illinois (2-18) - With wins already at home against Purdue and at Michigan State, Penn State certainly has the resume to pull out a win in Champaign.  While they recently had a three-game losing streak (to Michigan, Wisconsin and Purdue), they rebounded nicely last week with a win over a quality Minnesota team. More importantly, it appears that star guard Talor Battle has regained the shooting stroke that made him a midseason favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year.

8) Purdue at Michigan (2-26) - Michigan has kept their name on the bubble lists by virtue of non-conference wins over Duke and UCLA, coupled with solid wins over Illinois and Penn State in conference. However, with a 6-7 record in the Big Ten (and 16-10 overall), they currently sit on the outside looking in on most brackets. A win over the Boilermakers in Ann Arbor would most certainly get them much closer to the right side of that bubble.

7) Wisconsin at Michigan State (2-22) - While it's apparent that this Wisconsin team is a step below the Bo Ryan squads that won 30+ games each of the previous two seasons, it would be a mistake for Tom Izzo's team to sleep on the Badgers.  After struggling through a six-game losing streak, Wisconsin has rebounded to win four straight, including home wins over Illinois and Ohio State, as well as a road win over Penn State.  Wisconsin is steadily making their ascension off of the bubble and squarely into the tournament. A win at Michigan State would certainly put them squarely in, barring a late season collapse.

6) Minnesota at Illinois (2-26) - After jumping out to a 16-1 start and No. 17 ranking, Tubby's guys have stumbled a bit, winning just three of their last eight games. What Illinois fans certainly remember, however, is that one of those wins was a 59-36 beatdown of the Illini in Minneapolis. Illinois's usually efficient offense was held to 29.4 percent shooting (and 12.5 percent from three) by a hounding Minnesota defense. In what will likely be their last chance to play a ranked opponent before the Big Ten Tournament, Tubby will have his guys geared up in hopes of a repeat of that dominating performance.

5) Illinois at Penn State (3-5) - See No. 9 above, but change the venue to Bryce-Jordan Arena and the date to the final week of the regular season. Penn State's anemic non-conference schedule would imply that they may need this game to elevate their status to securely in the field. 

4) Ohio State at Purdue (2-28) - Ohio State won the first game in overtime at Value City Arena (a place where Purdue has amazingly never won). But Robbie Hummel didn't play in that game. I noted above what he means to Purdue. Will that be enough to overtake a Buckeye team that has as much talent as anyone in the conference? By the way, Ohio State may still be clinging to Big Ten title hopes, provided they can beat Illinois in their game, that is.

3) Illinois at Ohio State (2-22) - Provided Illinois gets past Penn State, this date is setting up to be one where Boilermaker fans (and players?) will be glued to the TV. This 1:00 game on CBS precedes Michigan State's matchup against Wisconsin at 3:00.    Ohio State struggled at Illinois, losing 67-49, while star Evan Turner struggled uncharacteristically. But this isn't the same Ohio State squad from that first game. Ohio State was still struggling to get used to playing without team leader David Lighty and freshman William Buford had yet to emerge as a legitimate star. The Buckeyes have won four of five with their lone loss being to Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. 

2) Michigan State at Illinois (3-1) - In what will be the first of two monstrous games to include two teams from top three in the conference, Tom Izzo's team will invade Champaign hoping not to do what they did against Purdue, which is blow a golden opportunity. In what will likely be a must win for the Illini to sustain their title hopes, can they avenge their earlier 63-57 loss in East Lansing (Illinois made just one basket over the final 6+ minutes while being outscored 12-3 by the Spartans)?

1) Purdue at Michigan State (3-7 or 3-8) - When the Big Ten schedules came out, many pundits from around the Big Ten and across the country circled this game as one that would likely decide the Big Ten title. As you can see above, there still is much basketball to be played before that holds true, but it certainly seems more likely to be the case than it did 24 hours ago. There are numerous questions to be answered in this game. Can Robbie Hummel continue to go with his broken back? Will Raymar Morgan be back to 100 percent? Can Kalin Lucas rebound from one of the poorest efforts of the season? Will Chris Kramer and Lewis Jackson cause the Spartan guards to lose sleep again with their suffocating defense? Will the Izzone be in full force with it being the first weekend of Spring Break for Michigan State?

And the most important question that will certainly be answered when the final horn sounds: Who will win the Big Ten? 

Nine pivotal games in eighteen days. It's going to be a fun ride.