On Tuesday night in East Lansing, Michigan State proved to the rest of the Big Ten that the fight for a conference championship involves more than two teams.
For much of the season, Indiana and Michigan have been the favorites. The Spartans' 75-52 thrashing of the Wolverines simply proved that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country because of the quality of all its teams.
Not only did the Spartans assume sole possession of first place, before Indiana tied things with a 76-47 rout of Nebraska Wednesday, but Wisconsin also has moved ahead of Michigan and Ohio State and now sits just behind Michigan State and Indiana.
The point is simple: This is still anyone's race.
And that makes Michigan State's victory over Michigan, as resounding and impressive as it was, simply a case of keeping pace.
The Spartans are in the driver's seat today, but looking ahead, none of the other top four teams has a schedule to end the regular season like they do. Six games are left for Michigan State and four straight come against ranked teams, including No. 1 Indiana, No. 13 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan and No. 20 Wisconsin. And the Ohio State and Michigan games are on the road.
To get through that gantlet, a Big Ten title would certainly be earned.
But for it to happen, the Spartans will need much more of the effort they had against the Wolverines.
"Now the expectations are high," Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine said. "We've got to bring it more and more every game. We can't take any team lightly. We've got to sustain our energy and bring the defensive pressure."
Michigan State gets what could be seen as a breather on Saturday at Nebraska before hosting No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday.
But in order to make the win over Michigan last and truly cement a spot at the top of the conference, it will take a performance much like the one produced in the 23-point win.
Wildcats take third hit
While a difficult season for Northwestern seems almost certain to end with the typical disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament — something the Wildcats have never done — it's hard not to feel for them.
They've had plenty of adversity, including losing junior guard JerShon Cobb to a season-long suspension for academic reasons. That was followed by the loss for the season of senior Drew Crawford , who tore the labrum in his shoulder.
And Northwestern was dealt another blow this week when senior Jared Swopshire was lost for the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
Swopshire was hurt during Saturday's game at Iowa. He started all 24 games this season, averaging 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Swopshire played his first three seasons and spent four years at Louisville, where he appeared in 109 games and helped the team reach the Final Four a year ago. He now is pursuing his graduate degree in sports administration from Northwestern.
"He has been a terrific addition to the program, both on and off the court," coach Bill Carmody said. "He was enjoying a very productive year and was playing his most consistent basketball of the season when the injury occurred."
Williams expected to be OK
Minnesota's Rodney Williams missed last weekend's game against Illinois because of a shoulder injury, but coach Tubby Smith said this week Williams "should be fine" and likely will play today against Wisconsin.
Williams, who is averaging 11.9 points, missed the 57-53 loss to Illinois on Sunday because of a left shoulder injury suffered in practice Saturday. The Gophers took the day off Monday, but Williams practiced on Tuesday.
"He probably could have played, but we don't want to do more damage to his shoulder," Smith said. "… he should be fine with treatment."
Buckeyes' streak ends
Ohio State's two losses last week not only put it two games off the pace in the Big Ten, it ended a pretty impressive streak.
The Buckeyes had not had back-to-back losses in 121 consecutive games, the longest run among NCAA Division I teams. The streak began in January 2010, when the Buckeyes opened the Big Ten season with losses at Wisconsin and at Michigan.