Welcome to February. The home stretch. The final frontier. It’s the last chance for some teams to put together a winner — and for others, it’s a chance to start anew and make something of a slow start. Teams come together and teams fall apart. ESPN.com reporting becomes far more frequent. Joe Lunardi updates Bracketology twice weekly and Rivals Week nationwide foreshadows the types of contests yet to come in the conference tournament and, for some, in the Big Dance. It’s the month where everything gets real. Nothing left to do except win your way into the post-season.
Unfortunately for the Big Ten, most teams don’t really even have that option.
Iowa isn’t dancing this year, and neither is Michigan. Minnesota, like most assumed, cracked under any sort of real pressure against real competition and will probably be heading to the NIT. Ohio State definitely needs to close out their season with a 5–4 record to ensure that twenty-win benchmark that tends to clinch an at-large bid for Big Ten teams looking to groove in March. And with the Buckeyes’ high RPI and solid SOS, they should be fine as long as they play like they know how.
So, that leaves just four teams that look like they have a bid locked up. Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin were in from day one and somehow, the baby Boilers are currently sitting atop the Big Ten at 8–1 and 17–5 overall. Unless Purdue seriously slides, they should be able to score an At-Large as well.
Overall, however, pretty weak for a conference that boasts some of the best and most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation.
Oh, right: Illinois isn’t Dancing this year. In fact, the chance of even being invited to the NIT slipped out the door on Saturday when Purdue’s E’twaun Moore decided that he needed to remind Illini Nation what a superstar looks like during his 8-for-9 shooting display in the second half. With the Illini’s tough upcoming schedule, going 6–2 is beyond comprehension. To the chagrin of Illini fans, going 0–8 seems more likely.
It’s too bad, because the Illini really aren’t that awful of a ball club. I say this after having seen them play both their worst and their best games this season, and sad as it may be, it appears as though they have two different teams that can show up during the course of one night, at any given time, seemingly without warning.It’s just that when the slower and less confident team appears, the good team that knows how to close the game can’t find its place.
So, which team will show up on Thursday when the Illini host Kelvin Sampson and his band of overrated Hoosiers? My money is on the team that took Arizona to the wire and handled early season foes like Arizona State and Missouri. My money is on that team and my guess is that it is that side of the Illini that could have taken them deeper into March than the Big Ten tournament.
How bad will it be for Indiana? I’d guess that this will be the most hostile crowd in recent history at Assembly Hall West (IU also plays in Assembly Hall, and their football team plays in, you guessed it, Memorial Stadium).
Fans — from the Orange Crush to the aging townies with hearing aids — will be taking out their season-long angst on the one person that they can legitimately point a finger at: Kelvin Sampson.
Expect a sold out crowd. Expect a game filled with screaming freaks from second one. Expect Chester Frazier to play like he is Dee Brown. (Ok, maybe not).
But expect an upset.
As I have said before, the Hoosiers would barely be a contender in a different league like the Big East or ACC. And in a different Big Ten year, they would probably be middle of the pack. I suspect that they have a feeling about what they will be walking into when they arrive in Champaign on Thursday for warm-ups — and that feeling is going to make their heads spin. Prediction below.
Let’s see what’s on tap for this week:
Season’s Record: 107–27
Last Week’s Record: 8–2
Big Ten Record: 39–9
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 5
Penn State 66
Ohio State 72
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 6
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 9
Penn State 79
Michigan State 77
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10
Ohio State 69