Michigan State's 60-51 loss to Nebraska at home coupled Michigan with Michigan's 75-62 drubbing by Wisconsin, also at home, only muddled the Big Ten title race. (Dale G. Young)
A funny thing happened on the way to the conference title for Michigan and Michigan State.
February brought lots of snow — and plenty of tough games for both teams.
And then the Big Ten happened.
Both schools are tied atop the Big Ten at 10-3, but since the calendar turned, U-M and MSU each has gone 2-3 — and turned what some pundits thought was a two-team in-state stroll through the second half of the schedule into a blindfolded trek through the Big Ten minefield.
In the past two weekends, both top teams have lost and the field has gained more ground, with a gap of just three games between first and sixth place.
“It’s still 12 teams the last time I looked,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said Monday on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. “If you can tell me there are teams not in the first eight spots and (9 through 12) aren’t good and they can’t beat you — I’ve never seen it like this.
“That’s in eight years as an assistant, too, from ’76-’84.”
Iowa (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) was three games behind on Jan. 31 but has gone 3-1 since, with road wins at Illinois and Penn State, and a home win against Michigan. Now, the Hawkeyes are one loss behind — and if not for an overtime loss at MSU on Jan. 28, they would be even closer.
Road wins are more prevalent, which means there aren’t many “gimme” wins in the league this year. Even Illinois, which is in last place with a 3-10 conference record, is above .500 overall after a 13-2 start, including two wins in the Big Ten.
Northwestern (12-14, 5-8) is the only team will a sub-.500 record, but the Wildcats boast wins this season at Indiana, at Wisconsin and at Minnesota. Even first-year coach Chris Collins is amazed at how difficult the conference is on a game-to-game basis — and the thought that there’s no respite from one game to the next.
“It really doesn’t matter who you’re playing on a given night — everyone has shown they can win, not only at home but on the road. You have to play a great game in order to win,” Collins said Monday. “Win or lose, you take a deep breath and your assistant coaches give you the folder for the next game — and it’s another Top 25 team.”
This week, there are five Big Ten teams in the AP Top 25: Michigan State (13th), Iowa (15th), Wisconsin (16th), Michigan (20th) and Ohio State (24th).
The final few weeks of the season will shake out the ultimate contenders from pretenders. If the standings are any indication, Michigan has the most favorable schedule remaining, with MSU as its last ranked foe in the final four games. But playing at Purdue, vs. Minnesota, at Illinois and hosting Indiana isn’t a cakewalk, either.
The Spartans have one of the toughest remaining roads, playing at U-M on Sunday, along with home against Iowa on March 6 and at Ohio State on March 9.
Wisconsin (21-5, 8-5) has a history of making things tough in the conference race, finishing among the top four seemingly every season. The Badgers’ four-game win streak — with victories over MSU, Minnesota and Michigan — is the longest current mark in the conference.
Rod Beard's Power rankings:
6. Ohio State
11. Penn State