Bo Ryan watches his Badgers blow a 13-point lead and eventually lose to Purdue, 69-56. (Andy Manis/Associated Press)
Wisconsin entered Sunday's home game against Purdue in pretty good position in the Big Ten.
The Badgers, a team almost nobody expected to be anywhere near the top of the Big Ten standings this season, could have remained a game behind first-place Indiana with a victory. Instead, Wisconsin's loss combined with Michigan's win over Michigan State on Sunday allowed Indiana to clinch a tie for the Big Ten title. The Hoosiers will have two chances this week to win the title outright.
However, on the way to continuing an improbable season, Wisconsin became the latest team to fail to take care of business against a sub-.500 team.
Purdue outscored Wisconsin by 18 points in the second half and handed the Badgers a 69-56 defeat, ending an 11-game win streak on Senior Day in Madison.
A 16-1 run by the Boilermakers early in the second half proved to be the difference on this day. Wisconsin is hardly the first team in the Big Ten this season to get stung by a team that, on most nights, wouldn't have a shot.
But as almost every team in the conference can attest to — Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State — there are no givens this season. Only Michigan State has avoided the upset, suffering all five of its conference losses to ranked teams.
Now Wisconsin, which had won six of its previous seven, can join the rest of the Big Ten. Sure, Wisconsin did have a loss against Iowa earlier this season, but that was on the road and came on the heels of knocking off Indiana at Assembly Hall.
The loss to Purdue, with plenty on the line heading into the final week of the season, was truly unexpected. But, of course, in this year's Big Ten, the unexpected seems far more like the expected.
What was at least a bit surprising Sunday was that it happened to a Wisconsin team that rarely finds itself on the short end of such a result.
The Badgers shot just 6-for-28 from 3-point range and turned the ball over 11 times while getting outrebounded, 36-26. They also held a 32-19 lead with 6:59 left in the first half but were outscored, 50-24, the rest of the way.
"They definitely played with more energy than we did," Wisconsin associate coach Greg Gard said. "They outhustled us, they outrebounded us, they beat us to the loose balls and they made shots. They deserved to win because they totally outplayed us."
And that's been the common theme around the conference this season — trying to explain something that is difficult to explain.
It's life in the toughest conference in the country this season, and now Wisconsin joins the club. However, it couldn't have come at a worse time for the Badgers.
On the rebound
Early in the Big Ten season, two teams stormed into conference play, riding an amazing run through November and December. For Illinois and Minnesota, it was an impressive streak, and a bit unexpected.
For the Gophers, it was a matter of finally staying healthy and avoiding any off-court issues to derail momentum. For the Illini, it was a first-year coach riding the wave of some outstanding shooting from some talented guards.
But once the thick of the Big Ten schedule began, each team tumbled out of the top 10 in the nation and into the middle of the conference pack. Minnesota lost four in a row and six of eight while Illinois dropped six of seven.
Suddenly, even a spot in the NCAA Tournament — a certainty just weeks prior — was no longer a guarantee.
However, instead of fading to oblivion, each team has bounced back, virtually locking up a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota has won two straight, including a victory over No. 1 Indiana, while Illinois has lost just once in its last seven games.
"I just know it's better than being 7-9," Illinois coach John Groce said after Saturday's win over Nebraska. "We're going to keep grinding and see if we get a little better."
Said Minnesota senior Trevor Mbakwe , "You have a big win like that (against Indiana), you don't want to come back and have an emotional letup on a team that you feel like you should (beat). We want to turn the season for the better this time."
It appears both teams are hitting their stride once again, and with a week to go in the regular season, it is coming at exactly the right time.
"I think they have kind of united as one, sort of an us-against-the-world type thing," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "It's a group, that I've said before, I enjoy."
Key games this week
No. 16 Ohio State at No. 1 Indiana, Tuesday: The Buckeyes have an outside chance to grab a share of the conference title, and winning this game is the first step. Indiana will be attempting to lock up the title outright.
No. 17 Wisconsin at No. 9 Michigan State, Thursday: The teams are tied in the standings, but this battle is likely for second place and seeding in the conference tournament. The loser might not get a first-round bye in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.
No. 1 Indiana at No. 4 Michigan, Sunday: Michigan must get past Purdue and hope Ohio State can pull off the upset early in the week, setting up a shot at winning a share of the conference title.