BTP's Game of the Week features the two 1st place teams in the Big Ten (Michigan & MSU) this Sunday. The winner will likely take sole control of 1st place and be in the driver's seat for the remainder of the season. However, is that game really going to decide the championship? After all, there are still a few weeks of the season left and still a few teams within reach. With this in mind, let's break down each team's chances at a Big Ten title.
Before we get started, something must be clarified. Technically, the only teams that are currently eliminated from Big Ten title contention at this point are Minnesota, Northwestern, Indiana, Penn State, and Illinois. Right now, Michigan and MSU both have 3 conference losses and each have 5 remaining games this year. With a head-to-head matchup, that means at least one of these teams must finish with at least an 11-7 conference record. All five of those teams have more than 7 conference losses. Purdue is currently at 7 losses.
The issue here is that you have to discuss what is realistic. In this case, it's either guaranteed or a near certainty that the bottom 6 teams in the conference are out. Boilermaker fans may not want to hear it, but it's pretty unlikely that the winner of the Michigan-MSU game isn't going to win at least one other game and that Purdue will go undefeated the rest of the year. Along with this, it's also reasonable to point out that Ohio State and Nebraska are both likely out at this point. Both have 6 conference losses and though they have been playing better, the winner of that Michigan-MSU game only has to win half of their other games to keep them out and that assumes either OSU or Nebraska can win out the rest of the year. It's not a near certainty they are out like Purdue, but it's pretty close. Considering this, we are only going to look at the conference's current top four teams.
The Spartans had sole control of 1st place on Sunday afternoon, but fell on their face and lost to Nebraska at home. The Cornhuskers are an improved team, but that loss is still a shocker. With that, they are now tied with Michigan in 1st at 10-3. Let's look at their upcoming schedule:
Spartans Basketball Schedule
The first thing that jumps out at you here is that 3 of these games happen on the road. For a team in such a tight battle, playing on the road is never a welcome thought. Along with this, the Spartans have a relatively difficult schedule. In the current standings, they still have to face #1, #3, #5, #8, and #12 including two of the top three teams they face on the road.
The biggest key to MSU's Big Ten title chances are to win that game against Michigan. As we will see below, Michigan has a much easier remaining schedule following that head-to-head game this week. If the Spartans lose that game, there's a pretty decent chance they don't ever catch up, especially with Iowa and Ohio State to close the season. Though MSU has beaten both already this year, those are never easy games.
The Wolverines got gifted a game by MSU losing to Nebraska on Sunday, but with that game looming against the Spartans this week, they will have to secure their own footing at the top. They are now tied for 1st with a 10-3 conference record. The Wolverines had the best Big Ten opening of any team this year, but have now lost 3 of the team's last 5 games. Let's look at their upcoming games:
Wolverines Basketball Schedule
Unlike MSU, the Wolverines get the majority of their remaining games in Ann Arbor. Along with this, they avoid most of the top end Big Ten teams. In current standings, they play #1, #7, #8, #10, and #12. Plus, when you add in that the MSU matchup comes in Ann Arbor, it's easy to see why the Wolverines have a serious shot at the title. The only road games (Purdue & Illinois) don't jump out as that tough either. Nobody can take any games for granted this year, but most top conference teams are going to assume those will be wins.
The biggest thing Michigan wants to do is beat Michigan State this week. However, as discussed above, it's not as essential for Michigan. Even if the Wolverines lose and win their remaining 4 games, they have a great shot at tying for the title considering the difficulty of some of those games for the Spartans. The win would give them a lot of breathing room, but it's almost just as important to avoid the upsets.
The Hawkeyes are currently in 3rd place with a 8-4 conference record just 1 loss out of the lead. The Hawkeyes have also been trending up. They have won their last 2 games including a game over Michigan and 3 of the last 4 games. Let's look at what they have coming up:
Hawkeyes Basketball Schedule
Iowa has an unusual schedule due to the postponed game between the Hawkeyes and Hoosiers. Due to this, Iowa has the most remaining games of any of the top 4 teams and have an even split between home and away games. The most difficult game remaining is probably that road game against the Spartans who already beat Iowa this season. In the current standings, Iowa still has to play #1, #4, #7, #8, #10, and #12 this season. That's a pretty even distribution of games, especially with Minnesota and Indiana on the road.
As we will see soon with Wisconsin, Iowa probably has the most difficult remaining schedule of any of the top teams, especially with that postponed game being on the road. Many of these games will probably be wins, but it's pretty hard not to see Iowa coming out of those Wisconsin and MSU games with at least a loss. When you add in Minnesota and Indiana on the road as well, it's not hard to see at least 2 more losses coming this season, even considering how good Iowa has been playing. The biggest game for Iowa is probably that MSU matchup considering it's their only shot at a team above them in the standings, but considering the difficulty of that one, beating Wisconsin may be more crucial. That could knock the Badgers out of serious contention as well.
The Badgers are currently 4th in the Big Ten standings at 8-5. They have been playing very well recently featuring a 4 game winning streak including wins over both Michigan State and Michigan. They could be the hottest team in the conference. Let's look at what they have left:
Badgers Basketball Schedule
The only team who perhaps has an easier remaining schedule is Michigan and that's only because they get their top opponent at home instead of on the road. In the current standings, Wisconsin has to face the #3, #6, #8, #10, and #11 teams in the Big Ten. The most difficult games will clearly be those road games against Iowa and Nebraska, but if the Badgers keep playing well, they could sweep all these games.
The most important game for Wisconsin is absolutely that Iowa game. Nebraska has been great lately, but as mentioned earlier, they are probably out of the title race. If Wisconsin beats Iowa, they will be tied for 3rd in the conference and have a much easier remaining slate than Iowa. The biggest problem of course is that Wisconsin is already 2 games down to the top teams. They will need at least a few upsets to get in contention and that assumes they win out. For the Badgers to have any serious shot, they have to win out.
This Big Ten season has been pretty wild, but with only a few weeks left, the conference has separated 4 teams from the pack with a serious shot at winning the title. In terms of making a projection, it's hard to think that anybody has better odds than Michigan right now. A win by MSU this Sunday would change that significantly, but the Wolverines are currently tied for 1st and probably have the easiest remaining schedule. If they win that game, the Wolverines are going to be nearly guaranteed a share of the title and it's hard to see either Iowa or Wisconsin making a run if they do indeed win that game. Plus, even with a loss they are absolutely still in the title race.
Wisconsin has a pretty easy schedule, but are still 2 games back and though Iowa is within striking distance, they have a pretty tough schedule remaining. One of these teams could clearly still make a run, but it's going to take some great play and some bad luck for the remaining teams above them. Finally, MSU is in a great spot at #1, but that schedule is a lot tougher than many think with those Iowa and OSU games looming. The Spartans could easily drop both those games. The season's biggest remaining game takes place on Sunday, but this year it might just be Michigan's title to lose.