Believe it or not, the stretch drive is here for college basketball, at least when it comes to deciding conference races.
For the Big Ten, that comes a week earlier than usual considering everything has been moved up a week in order to play this season’s conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York.
It’s not a deep battle of teams, and Purdue is the clear favorite at this point considering it hasn’t lost a Big Ten game, but the battle for the regular-season championship is still up in the air.
Ohio State and Michigan State remain within striking distance, which means this week is pivotal considering Purdue hosts Ohio State on Wednesday and travels to Michigan State on Saturday.
By the end of the week, things could look much clearer at the top. Or, things could simply be setting up for wild finish.
■ Purdue (23-2, 12-0) — It’s been so long since the Boilermakers have lost — they dropped back-to-back games back in late November — you have to start wondering if they will again this season. There are few teams playing as well as Purdue, and when it comes to the Big Ten race, the Boilermakers have put themselves in prime position to capture the regular-season championship.
They flirted with disaster a bit on Saturday at Rutgers and they’ll face their biggest tests of the conference season this week against Ohio State and Michigan State. It could provide the only potential pitfall for Purdue on its way to a Big Ten title, but it could also be the moment the Boilermakers lock up the championship and push to become the first unbeaten champion since Indiana in 1976.
There’s a good shot they pull it off, too, as their depth and experience is tough to match. Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards are as good as it gets while Dakota Mathias is shooting nearly 47 percent from 3-point range. Add in Isaac Haas in the middle and the Boilermakers match up favorably every night out.
■ Ohio State (20-5, 11-1) — Following the loss to Penn State last week, the Buckeyes have been struggling to get back into a rhythm. They’ve won a pair of games but haven’t been dominant. The win early in the week over Indiana was ho-hum and the Buckeyes flirted with a home loss to Illinois on Sunday before pulling it out late.
What it means moving forward is the Buckeyes have the best shot, still, to overtake Purdue for the top spot with a head-to-head matchup looming on Wednesday. It comes at Purdue, meaning pulling off the upset will be a tall task, one made even tougher with the uncertain status of now-suspended Kam Williams. But with the Keita Bates-Diop pushing toward a Big Ten Player of the Year Award, it would be unwise to bet against the Buckeyes.
■ Michigan State (22-3, 10-2) — The home loss to Michigan might prove to be the killer in the Spartans’ shot at winning their first regular-season title since 2012, far more so than the road loss to Ohio State. Dropping one at home in a tight race can be critical, especially considering they’ll only get one shot at Purdue and got their one shot at Ohio State.
The top-five matchup with Purdue on Saturday will be the marquee game of the week, and could be a preview of two teams that have as good a shot as any to reach the Final Four. But in terms of the Big Ten race, a win for the Michigan State would only bring the Spartans to within a game of the Boilermakers. The Spartans would then need to run the table over the final four games and hope Purdue drops another game, not likely considering what’s left on the Boilermakers’ schedule.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
■ Michigan (19-6, 8-4) — The Wolverines, like Nebraska, will need all sorts of help to end up winning even a share of the Big Ten, but four games back with six to play means the math works — they could find a way to win the Big Ten title. OK, the likelihood is pretty slim, and considering Michigan gets to play just one team ahead of it in the standings — Ohio State — it will need plenty of help to make up ground.
What’s a bit more interesting will be the battle between Michigan and Nebraska for the fourth spot in the standings. With that comes a two-day bye in the Big Ten tournament as the top four teams are automatically in the quarterfinals. It looks like Purdue and Ohio State have locked that up and Michigan State is close to doing the same. That leaves No. 4. The Wolverines are technically tied with the Cornhuskers, but the head-to-head loss means Michigan will need to see Nebraska falter down the stretch.
■ Nebraska (17-8, 8-4) — Moving to the top of the standings will be nearly impossible for the Huskers. Just like Michigan, they’d need all sorts of help and they happen to have no more games against the top teams in the conference. The good part about that is Nebraska — easily the surprise team of the season — is in prime position to finish in the top four and get the bye into the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
Nebraska has the head-to-head edge on Michigan and the schedule is favorable. That’s hardly a guarantee for a team that hasn’t exactly been blowing teams out, but it does, at least, mean the Huskers will be worth watching down the stretch.
KEEP AN EYE ON
■ Penn State (16-9, 6-6) — It’s been a disappointing season, to say the least, for Patrick Chambers and the Nittany Lions. They’ve been far too inconsistent this season and have no chance of rallying in the regular season, but this is a team most won’t want to see in the Big Ten tournament.
They have all sorts of individual talent and the return of Josh Reaves has given the Nittany Lions some fire they’ve been missing. It might not result in a crazy run to a tournament title, but it could lead to an upset or two in New York.
REST OF THE BUNCH
This group includes Northwestern, which entered the season with high expectations after finally reaching the NCAA Tournament last season. But things have been a mess all season for the Wildcats as they’ve been unable to build any momentum. Injuries have played a big role in helping derail the season for Maryland and Wisconsin while Minnesota has dealt with that and a suspension to Reggie Lynch. The bottom line for each is they’ll likely all spend March at home.
The same appears likely for Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Rutgers. Each have shown some flashes this season, but don’t count on any of them mixing it up in New York.