Tuesday night was one of the most impactful nights of the season for the Big Ten Conference's regular-season race.
Illinois doing the seemingly impossible and knocking off Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, combined with Purdue surviving a whited-out crowd and furious comeback at Michigan State, tightened what once seemed to be a one-horse race. To boot, Ohio State kept themselves in the race on Wednesday with a dominant win over Indiana.
Michigan State, Ohio State, and Illinois sit tied at 9-3, with Purdue just one-half game behind, and the 8-4 Badgers still lurking, as well.
All five of these teams are likely to be ranked in next week's Top 25, and barring massive collapses, all five should be respectable seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
But how will they stack up when the regular season winds down?
Feb. 13--at Penn State
Feb. 16--at Indiana
Feb. 20--v. Ohio State
Feb. 27--at Purdue
March 4--v. Penn State
March 6--v. Michigan
The Spartans are in a tailspin right now, seemingly provoked by the ankle injury to the Big Ten's reigning Player of the Year, Kalin Lucas. Luckily for them, they have several chances remaining to right the ship.
Three remaining games against Big Ten bottom-feeders Penn State and Indiana offer optimism for the stretch drive, as does a home date with in-state rival Michigan.
Those winnable games, however, are sandwiched around a pair of colossal matchups, one at a highly hostile Mackey Arena, and the other Sparty's only meeting this season with prohibitive Big Ten POY favorite Evan Turner and Ohio State.
If the Purdue and OSU games came first, the potential would exist for a complete meltdown. However, starting with Penn State and Indiana, even if they are road games, should give MSU a chance to nurse Lucas back to better health and stop the bleeding of the three-game skid.
A win in the Ohio State game could set up Spartans-Boilers II as a true title showdown. Returning the favor of bushwhacking the Boilers in their own house like Purdue did them on Tuesday night might be a tall order, however.
PREDICTED FINISH: 5-1 (only loss to Purdue)
Feb. 14--v. Ohio State
Feb. 20--at Purdue
Feb. 23--at Michigan
Feb. 27--v. Minnesota
March 2--at Ohio State
March 6--v. Wisconsin
Back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin have bolstered the Fighting Illini's reputation. With six of their first seven conference wins coming in sweeps of Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State, it was easy to look at Illinois as a mirage.
Now, not so much.
Demetri McCamey has bolstered his All-Big Ten credentials with 49 points and 18 assists over the past two games. Just as importantly, in both games, someone else has stepped up and shouldered part of the load, whether it be Mike Davis with 16 points against Michigan State or Mike Tisdale with 19 against Wisconsin.
All that said, front-loading the schedule with the conference's resident cupcakes carries a steep price. Illinois still has to manage two meetings with Ohio State, avoid a season sweep against Purdue, and welcome a revenge-minded Badger team to Champaign.
Tisdale may be the key, as he was rendered completely invisible in back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Purdue. If he plays up to his size, the Illini may stay in the race. If not, opponents like JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore, and Evan Turner may dominate the lane and wear the Illini down from the free-throw line.
PREDICTED FINISH: 3-3 (losses to Wisconsin, at Ohio State and Purdue)
Feb. 14--at Illinois
Feb. 17--v. Purdue
Feb. 20--at Michigan State
Feb. 24--at Penn State
Feb. 27--v. Michigan
March 2--v. Illinois
Outside of Illinois, Ohio State has arguably the next toughest stretch run of any Big Ten contender. Like the Illini, they've helped themselves immensely at the expense of Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State, but now they must pay for the smooth early season ride with games against the big boys.
Last night's 69-52 win over Indiana is perceived as the Buckeyes overcoming an off night from Evan Turner. This is a testament to just how dominant Turner is, as 10 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and two blocks is a decent night for most, especially in only 21 minutes.
William Buford stepped up strong against the Hoosiers, as did Dallas Lauderdale, but the Buckeyes' largest issue is their rapidly tightening bench. Thad Matta has been increasingly relying on only six players, and no one outside that rotation has been producing when they do get the minutes.
Any team that can actually get Turner, Buford, and/or Jon Diebler in foul trouble and hold them off the court for an extended period of time can wear out the Buckeyes and pull off a win. It's in deference to the team's usual discipline that it's hard to see that happening several times.
PREDICTED FINISH: 4-2 (losses at Illinois and Michigan State)
Feb. 13--v. Iowa
Feb. 17--at Ohio State
Feb. 20--v. Illinois
Feb. 24--at Minnesota
Feb. 27--v. Michigan State
March 3--v. Indiana
March 6--at Penn State
The sour taste left by Purdue's three-game losing streak has been replaced by a sweet run of six straight wins. There haven't been a bunch of totally dominant performances, to be fair, but the Boilers have turned up the intensity when it was needed the most, especially in the Illinois and Michigan State wins.
Especially in the MSU game, however, the intensity wouldn't have been needed late if it had been sustained for the entire second half. The Boilers took their foot off of Sparty's collective neck long enough for an 18-point lead to be trimmed to three, necessitating some late-game heroics from E'Twaun Moore.
Rematches with Ohio State, Michigan State, and Illinois will demand more, especially the trip to Columbus. Even an inconsistent Minnesota team could be dangerous if the right team shows up in Minneapolis.
PREDICTED FINISH: 6-1 (only loss at Ohio State)
Feb. 13--v. Indiana
Feb. 18--at Minnesota
Feb. 21--v. Northwestern
Feb. 25--at Indiana
March 3--v. Iowa
March 6--at Illinois
The man in the picture to the left is Jon Leuer, still the Badgers' leading scorer and rebounder. He's also still on the shelf with a broken wrist and is not expected back until just before the Big Ten tournament.
Luckily for the Wisconsin faithful, they have only one game left against a true contender, that being the finale against Illinois. Leuer may be able to return for that one and the rest of the team will be in a vengeful mood after the Illini sprung one on them in the Kohl Center on Tuesday night.
Players like Rob Wilson, Ryan Evans, and Keaton Nankivil have been making the most of Leuer's absence, and if Leuer does make his return against Illinois, a full-strength Badger squad may be one to be feared in both the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament.
PREDICTED FINISH: 6-0
Michigan State 14-4
Ohio State 13-5
In this scenario, no one gets much breathing room. A three-way tie puts head-to-head records into play.
Michigan State would drop all the way to the number-three seed based on a 1-3 record against Purdue and Wisconsin.
The Badgers, who already own splits against both MSU and Purdue, sit in second place with a 2-2 head-to-head mark.
This would leave Purdue, provided they can finish the season sweep against the Spartans February 27 at Mackey Arena, with a 3-1 head-to-head record, and the Boilers would claim their first Big Ten regular-season title since 1996. They would then be in prime position to defend the Big Ten Tournament crown, and repeat the celebration pictured here.
This would be a fine scenario, but unfortunately, there's the small matter of actually playing the games. The good news for Big Ten fans is that nearly every remaining game will be heavy with meaning and drama difficult for any other conference in the nation to rival.
The next game can never come quickly enough.