February 11, 2010

Down the stretch they come

MADISON - A month ago, when Wisconsin went down to Evanston and defeated Northwestern, head coach Bo Ryan said the Big Ten was about to get "crazy."

He was right.

With less than a month remaining in the regular season, five teams are within reach of a league title. Four of those five are currently tied for a share of the conference lead. With most squads having six games left on the slate the next three weeks will be nothing but a bruising sprint to the finish line.

Considering the conference standings are as tight as they are, BadgerBlitz.com thought it would be fun to take a look into the five schools in contention. The following is a look at the schedules, players that could make a difference and favorites to win the crown.

Obviously these predictions are just that, predictions. If you beg to differ, feel free to head on over to the Den and let your thoughts be heard.


THE FAVORITES:

Ohio State:

Opening thought: Is there a team in the Big Ten that has a better starting five than Ohio State. With Evan Turner running the point, Jon Diebler sniping from the perimeter and Dallas Lauderdale manning the post, there are not many schools that have the same number of athletes and specialists on the floor. And we didn't even mention what William Buford and David Lighty bring to the table.

Remaining schedule: @Illinois, Purdue, @Michigan State, @Penn State, Michigan, Illinois.

With three of their next four games on the road, Ohio State does not have an easy road to championship glory. At the same time the Buckeyes have shown they can win on the road when they came from behind to stun Purdue earlier in the year. Obviously Illinois is red-hot right now, but they are far from unbeatable at home.

Should OSU get through the next three games with at least two wins, it should be a contender all the way through the end of the season.

Players that could make the difference: Obviously Evan Turner will be the primary focus for many teams that Ohio State plays, but don't let Buford slip your mind. The sophomore guard is averaging 14.2 points per game on 43 percent shooting from the field. He also reels in more than five rebounds on average. When Buford and Diebler get it going it takes a lot of pressure off Turner, which makes him all the more dangerous.

Purdue:

Opening thought: It seems as though the Boilermakers have gone through their rough patch for the season, corrected the ship and are focused on making a title run. You don't have to look much further than the beating they put on MSU at the Breslin Center earlier this week.

Remaining schedule: Iowa, @Ohio State, Illinois, @Minnesota, Michigan State, Indiana, @Penn State.

Purdue is awfully tough at home, so the fact it has Illinois and Michigan State at Mackey will play to their favor. A tough game at Ohio State and another at Minnesota will likely win or lose the conference title for the Boilermakers. The defacto league title game could take place when Michigan State heads to West Lafayette late this month.

Players that could make the difference: A lot of the times when someone is talking about Purdue, most of the attention is directed towards Robbie Hummel. Obviously that's warranted because he's one of the more dynamic players in the league. But this season, he might not even be the best player on the team. E'Twaun Moore is the player that nobody seems to talk about, yet he always gets the job done.

Michigan State:

Opening thought: If anything has been learned about Michigan State over the years, particularly under Tom Izzo, it's that the Spartans start playing their best basketball as winter turns to spring. Thought they've lost three straight, they will bounce back and fight tooth and nail for the conference title.

Remaining schedule: @Penn State, @Indiana, Ohio State, @Purdue, Penn State, Michigan.

For a team that is struggling to regain its early season form, the schedule couldn't have set up nicer. With back-to-back games against Penn State and Indiana, two conference bottom feeders, it seems as though MSU will have some momentum brewing when Ohio State comes to East Lansing. Like Ohio State, assuming the Spartans win the next two, a split from the Ohio State and Purdue tilts would likely keep MSU at the top of the league standings.

Players that could make the difference: Kalin Lucas is the unquestioned leader on the Spartans squad, but if this team is going to make a deep run, he will need some help. As a senior, Raymar Morgan could be the perfect compliment. He is shooting over 54 percent from the field, now the question remaining is whether he will develop that killer mentality that could lead Sparty to great things.

WHY NOT?

Illinois:

Opening thought: If you stayed away from Illinois alumni and fans, the number of people that thought the Illini would go into the Kohl Center and get a win over Wisconsin probably could have been counted on two hands. It's cliché, but that's exactly why they play the games. If Illinois didn't already have the league's attention, they do now for sure.

Remaining schedule: Ohio State, @Purdue, @Michigan, Minnesota, @Ohio State, Wisconsin.

The Illini probably have the toughest remaining schedule of any of the conference contenders. But for a team that just beat Michigan State at home and followed it up with a win at Wisconsin , anything is possible. A win against Ohio State the next time out would really have people paying attention to the Illini.

With that brutal schedule, Illinois might not win it but you can be sure they will play a major role in who does. And heck, with the way they are currently playing, why couldn't they win it?

Players that could make the difference: Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale have combined to form a dangerous one-two combo. If you don't believe me, just look back at what those two did against an equally hot UW team on their home floor. If those two players stay hot, so will Illinois.

DON'T COUNT THEM OUT

Wisconsin:

Opening thought: Sure that loss to Illinois at home hurt probably more than any other loss all season for the Badgers. But like Keaton Nankivil said after the game, there is still a lot of season left to be played and a lot of things can still happen. Plus, with Bo Ryan at the helm, don't be surprised if the Badgers hung in this thing until that final tilt at Illinois.

Remaining schedule:: Indiana, @Minnesota, Northwestern, @Indiana, Iowa, @Illinois.

Wisconsin may very well have the easiest remaining schedule of the five contenders, but road games at Minnesota and at Illinois will be the real measuring stick. Historically, the Badgers have struggled somewhat at both of those venues. Without that loss to Illinois earlier this week, UW could afford to slip up. But since that's not the case, one more slip up and the conference title hopes for the Badgers will likely be squashed.

Players that could make the difference: Trevon Hughes has been in a bit of a slump over the past few games. He started the Illinois game with 12 points in the first half only to follow it up with a disturbing 0-for-8 shooting display in the second half. He will be needed, and needed big, for UW to pull at least a share of the conference title.

Also, don't forget about the return of Jon Leuer. Should he come back and perform at a fraction of the level he was playing prior to his wrist injury, UW will be in good shape to make some noise in postseason play.




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