Coming into the season, it was clear that there was simply no heir apparent for the Big Ten regular season title. That sentiment remains, with Indiana and Wisconsin undefeated and Michigan State and Purdue close behind with just one loss; over a third of the season cashed and the standings look as locked up as the predictions did in October (save for a strong surprise start from the Boilers).
Indiana seemingly looks to be the most impressive thus far in that they have lost just one game overall, as opposed to Michigan State and Wisconsin, who have each dropped a deuce. But looks can be deceiving — especially when you have a known cheater for a coach. Let’s take a look at the three obvious choices for Big Ten supremacy this season.
Michigan State can play ball. Anyone who has watched the past decade of college basketball knows damn well that no matter the year, Tom Izzo has a winner. Oh sure, they may not be the NCAA Title shoe-ins from 2000, but they will always challenge for the Final Four. It’s a good time to be a Spartan fan and a long time since the ball-stealing, nose-bleeding days of Judd Heathcoat. Their loss at Iowa, while one of the most pathetic offensive displays of the season (though not the worst), seemed more like a mid-season hiccup than a telling sign into their potential pitfalls: they have some nice wins against the RPI Top 50 and if things go the way they are supposed to, they should be looking at a top two finish come March 9.
Indiana’s may have only one loss on its record, but the slide against Xavier is a testament to the fact that they still need to find their stride. Whether or not they can find that stride will be the question of the night next Thursday, when they travel to Wisconsin to face a surging Badger team. After that comes a sure win versus Northwestern, and they’ll find themselves at Illinois, at Ohio State and then, against Wisconsin (again), Michigan State and Purdue. And don’t kid yourself: Illinois might have a busted season, but fans here in Champaign want nothing more than to see their team somehow kick the ever-loving crap out of Sampson and Gordon. And they know it.
Wisconsin has a chance to shine this week, too. They can really step up — or, as the cards may fall, sit down — this Saturday against Purdue and then again next Thursday against Indiana. Stepping up seems a real possibility. After all, Bo Ryan can just flat out coach. Years of toiling as the toast of Wisconsin’s “other schools” has seasoned this life-long cheesehead into one of the nation’s finest motivators: He lost the Big Ten Player of the Year for 2007 and is somehow leading the pack in the fight for the Title in 2008.
One of the main reasons for the Badgers’ success is the increased playing time and confidence of junior forward Marcus Landry, younger brother of former Purdue star Carl Landry. His stats have him playing like a second-round draft pick with 10.6 ppg and almost six boards every time out. Additionally, a healthy Brian Butch is making sure that no one player is without a rest here and there. And that is just the way that Ryan likes it.
Another factor that might have Wisconsin looking at a big basketball on a stick come March is the fact that they only play Michigan State once — and it’s a home game. These factors have the Badgers potentially looking at a 17–1 season in conference play, which, coupled with a Big Ten Tournament title, could very well net them a number one seed come time for the Big Dance.
Let’s see what’s on tap for this week:
Season Record: 90–25
Last Week’s Record: 7–3
Big Ten Record: 22–7
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 23
Penn State 62
THURSDAY, JANUARY 24
Michigan State 78
SATURDAY, JANUARY 26
Penn State 55
Ohio State 73
SUNDAY, JANUARY 27
Michigan State 75