February 9, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Rod Beard

Big Ten hoops race no longer is a two-team hunt

Guard Devyn Marble and the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate a big victory over Michigan on Saturday. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

The Big Ten has been topsy-turvy all season, with surprising upsets for both home and road teams.

How unpredictable has the conference been? Northwestern, a perennial bottom-half team in the conference, was 5-5 before falling Saturday at home to Nebraska. It’s the first time the Wildcats were at .500 since 2006.

Ohio State and Wisconsin, each ranked No. 3 in the AP earlier in the season, have fallen out of the top 25 and each has five conference losses. The Buckeyes (19-5) were in a freefall — losing five of six during one stretch — before getting on a three-game win streak, including wins at Wisconsin and at Iowa.

Wisconsin (19-5) has righted the ship after a span of five losses in six games, with a win over Michigan State on Sunday. Paired with Iowa’s victory over Michigan on Saturday, the conference leaders took a step back and the other contenders closed the gap.

Although only five teams have winning records, the gap between them is only three games, with U-M and MSU tied at the top with 9-2 records. Iowa (18-6, 7-4) got a big win and some momentum in a push to enhance its resume for the NCAA Tournament.

The Hawkeyes weren’t desperate, but getting a win over a ranked team was critical for their psyche, as all six of their losses have come against teams ranked in the top 25.

“I thought they had great focus,” coach Fran McCaffery said Saturday. “In no way, shape or form is there anything close to desperation.”

It’s far from a two-team race with seven games to go, as both U-M and MSU have three games remaining against the other four teams atop the standings.

This week’s top games:

■Michigan at Ohio State, 9 Tuesday

■Minnesota at Wisconsin, 9 Thursday

■Wisconsin at Michigan, 1 Sunday

Midterm awards

Just past the midpoint of the conference season, there’s still plenty to hash out in terms of player of the year and coach of the year.

Several players are in the running for the top individual award, with Michigan State’s Gary Harris, Iowa’s Roy Devyn Marble (Southfield-Lathrup) and Michigan’s Nik Stauskas among the contenders. Each has had a stellar season, keeping their teams in the thick of the race for the regular-season title.

Harris, the preseason player of the year, missed three games in the nonconference season but has scored in double figures in all but two Big Ten games. He averages 17.6 points and 4.6 rebounds and hits 41 percent from the field in his sophomore season.

Marble is averaging 16.5 points and has perked up of late, with 26 points in a big win over Michigan. Much like the conference standings, he’s keeping it from being a two-horse race for player of the year.

Stauskas has had the greatest leap of the three, pushing his scoring average to 17.0 but has scored in single digits in two of the last three games. He’s increased his assist and rebounding numbers and is the engine that drives Michigan’s offense; when he’s off, Michigan has a hard time scoring.

Edge: Stauskas — though it’s close. The player whose team wins the Big Ten probably gets the nod.

Top coach

As for coach of the year, it’s essentially the same discussion as for player of the year. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo will get plenty of votes for the way he has navigated the Spartans through a litany of injuries and kept them among the top 10 in the country.

John Beilein lost preseason All-America Mitch McGary for most of the season and still has U-M tied for the league lead. He’s transformed Stauskas into a versatile weapon and made Caris LeVert maybe the league’s most improved player.

McCaffery had higher expectations this season with a loaded and experienced roster, but he’s carried them through and has them on the verge of getting back to the NCAA Tournament.

Northwestern’s Chris Collins and Minnesota’s Richard Pitino, in their first seasons, also will get some consideration

Edge: Beilein, especially if Michigan wins the league.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

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