Charboneau: MSU playing well, not out of title chase

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

With roughly a month left in the Big Ten regular season, the championship is Iowa’s to win or lose.

Saying that before the season would have likely been met with a few snickers, especially after the Hawkeyes lost at home in the exhibition season to Augustana College of South Dakota.

But that’s where we stand with seven games left to play. Iowa (19-4, 10-1 Big Ten), which dispatched Illinois on Sunday, is in position to win the Big Ten regular season for the first time since 1979 when it shared the title with Michigan State and Purdue. The last time the Hawkeyes won the title outright was in 1970.

It sure looks like that drought is about to end.

While Iowa’s one loss came at Maryland, it has swept both Michigan State and Purdue and is ranked in the top five in the nation. A top seed at the Big Ten tournament seems almost certain.

However, that doesn’t mean anyone else is conceding the conference title.

Maryland sits a half-game game back and holds the tiebreaker over Iowa. Indiana is another half-game behind the Terps, and Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan trail Indiana by two games. Only Indiana, Michigan State and Purdue have a legit shot of catching the top two teams, and that might be stretching things.

This is Iowa’s championship. Take care of business, as the Hawkeyes should, and it will grab the title all by itself, something they haven’t done in 46 years.

Each of the teams still holding out any hope have difficult paths. Here’s a look at what the contenders face in the final few weeks.

Iowa (19-4, 10-1)

The Hawkeyes have done their heavy lifting and might have the most favorable finish of any team in the top half of the Big Ten. Four victories over Michigan State and Purdue make up for the tough loss on the road against Maryland.

Iowa has four of its last seven games at home and gets to play Indiana twice, giving it a chance to further strengthen its grip on first place while knocking Indiana out of the race. Those two games will likely be the biggest challenge for the Hawkeyes, though a home date with Wisconsin won’t be easy. Iowa closes its season at Michigan, a team that might be fighting for its NCAA Tournament life by then.

Maryland (21-3, 10-2)

The Terrapins might have as much talent as any team in the nation and have the benefit of beating Iowa in their only meeting. They’re only other loss came at Michigan State, which could potentially hurt in a tiebreaker, but the final six games are all winnable.

Maryland gets Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois at home, but its two toughest games left — Purdue and Indiana — come on the road. The Terrapins have a shot — a better one than most — but like the rest of the conference, they’ll be hoping for a slip-up from the Hawkeyes.

Michigan State (20-4, 7-4)

The Spartans might be playing as well as any team in the Big Ten, winning four straight, including their victory over Maryland and Saturday’s blowout on the road against Michigan.

Even with Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. still out of the lineup with plantar fasciitis, Michigan State is playing solid defense and is shooting as well as it has all season. The Spartans have a tough test at Purdue on Tuesday and host Indiana on Sunday, but if they manage to win those they’ll be looking at a favorable schedule over the final five games. A shot at first place is a long shot with the two losses to Iowa, but a share of the title is something MSU will still be shooting for.

Indiana (19-5, 9-2)

The Hoosiers were a team that benefited from a favorable early schedule and had an impressive win over Michigan early in the week. However, it followed that with a devastating upset loss at Penn State, and considering the difficulty of the remaining schedule for Indiana, it was an especially critical loss.

Indiana has a brutal week coming up that includes a visit from Iowa followed by a trip to Michigan State. It could end with the Hoosiers on a three-game skid, one that would almost certainly knock them out of the race considering they close the season with a game at Iowa followed by a visit from Maryland in the regular-season finale.

Purdue (19-5, 7-4)

Aside from a bizarre loss at Illinois, the Boilermakers have proven they can take care of the bottom half of the Big Ten but have simply not been able to make it happen against the league’s upper echelon.

Purdue had lost twice to Iowa and came up short on the road against Maryland. The Boilermakers will have a chance to turn it around with a visit from Michigan State on Tuesday along with a trip to Indiana later in the in the season followed by a home date with Maryland. If it can get over the hump against those teams, Purdue will still have a shot in the Big Ten and prove it belongs with the big boys.

Michigan (17-7, 7-4) and Wisconsin (14-9, 6-4)

We’ll group these two teams because the records say they have a shot, but reality says something far different.

Michigan is struggling mightily after getting drilled at home twice last week and there’s still no timetable on when Caris LeVert might return. The remaining schedule is no piece of cake, either, as the Wolverines must go to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Maryland while hosting Iowa.

The Badgers have won five straight, but their remaining schedule is brutal. Wisconsin must go to Maryland, Michigan State and Iowa, a stretch that will almost certainly knock it out of the race.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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