With fewer than ten regular season games remaining for Big Ten teams, the stretch run has truly arrived. While one-loss Wisconsin looks to be a lock to win the crown and take the top seed in the conference tournament, the remainder of the league is packed in tight. Eight teams have at least six wins, so every game the rest of the way is meaningful.
The next few weeks will determine how the conference shakes out behind the Badgers, and which squads will get their hands on double byes in the Big Ten tourney. Positioning is everything for teams that need to build their resumes for NCAA tournament consideration.
Of the six teams in action on Thursday, four are within a game and a half of being in the top four. With a lot on the line, these games can be the beginning of a run or a step backwards for these schools.
Let's take a look at the matchups.
Game of the Day
Michigan (13-11, 6-6) at Illinois (16-8, 6-5) 9 pm ET on ESPN/WatchESPN
A pair of teams headed in opposite directions will take the floor at the State Farm Center in Champaign. Illinois is riding a three-game winning streak after holding on to beat Michigan State last Saturday. For the Illini, who have faced plenty of adversity this season, it is the first string of victories all season in conference play.
Head coach John Groce has had a Coach of the Year sort of season, holding Illinois together through myriad injuries and suspensions.
"I think just taking it one day at a time and believing in the guys we have," Groce said. "I think believing in the `Next Man Up' philosophy that we've talked about, some guys have taken advantage of that opportunity. Some guys' roles have expanded or changed a little bit because of that. I think they've adjusted pretty well. We just kind of take it one day at a time. I appreciate the fact that they let us coach them and they're willing to adapt and adjust from some of our original schemes, trying to make us as competitive as we can considering some of the roster changes."
The "Next Man Up" philosophy has helped to unearth the next star for the Illini in sophomore Malcolm Hill. Stepping into the role of leading scorer in the absence of Rayvonte Rice, Hill is averaging 17 points and 5 rebounds per game in Big Ten play, and is shooting nearly 42 percent from the three-point line on the season.
"I have become more of a scorer," Hill said in a recent interview with the Big Ten Network. "I have been playing the "3" spot more. I also am asked to play hard on defense and rebound, while also staying aggressive on offense. It has been a team effort without Rayvonte."
The Illini are sitting on the NCAA tourney bubble. Pushing the winning streak to four on Thursday ahead of traveling to Madison to take on the Badgers on Sunday would be a big momentum boost.
Much like Illinois, Michigan has been bit hard by the injury bug this season. The Wolverines' lost their best player, Caris LeVert, for the season and have had point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. miss time. Unlike the Illini, though, John Beilein's squad has struggled to persist through the adversity. Michigan is in the midst of a three-game losing streak, and has come up short in four of its last five.
Adding insult to the injuries for the Wolverines is that, though they are undermanned, they have fought hard in games only to fall just short. Last Sunday's game in Bloomington against Indiana was a microcosm of the difficulties the team has had throughout the Big Ten schedule. The Hoosiers pulled out a three-point win after Michigan cut an 11-point second half deficit, but ultimately couldn't get over the hump.
"That's our story and we're getting tired of it," Beilein said after the game. "But it beats the alternative of giving in. So we're making progress. We're growing in both victory and defeat."
The absences of LeVert and Walton have opened the door for others to step up their play. Sophomore Zak Irvin, who is an Indiana native, had a game-high 23 points against the Hoosiers, and players like juniors Spike Albrecht and Max Bielfeldt, and freshmen Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman have had big games recently.
While March Madness is likely out of the question for Michigan unless it should win the conference tourney, the team still has a lot to play for. After losing a bevy of stars to the NBA the past couple of seasons, the Wolverines have a young team that needs to develop and grow together for the future.
"We do not believe in moral victories," Irvin said after the Indiana game. "We have to find ways to finish strong. These are the guys we will be depending on in the future."
With upcoming games against Michigan State, Ohio State, and Maryland, Michigan could use a win in the worst way on Thursday night.
Minnesota (15-9, 4-7) at Iowa (15-8, 6-4) 7 pm ET on Big Ten Network
A couple of teams riding two game winning streaks will hook up at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Gophers are fresh off a four-point win against Purdue that saw the team open the second half on a 21-2 run.
"We really turned up the intensity, and when we really do that, we're a really good team," senior DeAndre Mathieu said. "It's something different that you don't see in the Big Ten. Definitely the best defensive game we've played."
After dropping its first five Big Ten games, Richard Pitino's squad has reeled off four wins in its last six. Senior Andre Hollins has been on a tear during that span, averaging over 21 points per game. For the Gophers to pull another upset on Thursday night in Iowa City, the Memphis native will likely need another stellar performance.
Iowa, which lost three games in a row prior to its current winning streak, has begun to regain the form it showed earlier in the season. Back-to-back big wins over Michigan and Maryland have seen the Hawkeyes get out to fast starts, outscoring the Wolverines and Terrapins by a combined 33 points in the first half.
"I think we played more consistently on both ends of the floor," head coach Fran McCaffrey said after the Maryland game. "In this conference, that will be critical moving forward."
The Hawkeyes are still on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, but they are trending in the right direction. Senior Aaron White, who had gone through some struggles and injuries during the three-game losing streak, looks to be back on track. The 6'9" Strongsville, Ohio native has averaged 15 points and 6.5 boards the past two games. As Iowa looks to solidify its postseason resume, it will need White to be playing at a high level.
Purdue (15-9, 7-4) at Rutgers (10-15, 2-10) 7 pm ET on ESPNU/WatchESPN
Prior to Saturday's defeat in Minneapolis, there was perhaps no hotter team in the Big Ten than Purdue. The Boilermakers had won four in a row, and five of six, vaulting into the conversation for a double bye in the conference tournament. Included in that streak were wins over Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio State, all of whom were ranked at the time.
The loss to the Gophers is somewhat understandable, given that The Barn is a tough place for opponents, but failing to extend its winning streak fell mostly on Purdue's shoulders.
"We were compounding our mistakes," head coach Matt Painter said. "One mistake leads to another and then you're shuffling guys in and out trying to find the right guy who will have the confidence to bring the ball up and settle you down. We struggled doing that."
The Boilers have been riding the hot hand of junior A.J. Hammons, who has been bullish in the paint on both sides of the ball. The Gary, Indiana native blocked 8 shots against the Hoosiers, 7 against the Buckeyes, and 5 in the loss to Minnesota, and has shot an astounding 80 percent from the floor in the past five games.
While Purdue has been hot, Rutgers has been anything but. Losers of eight straight, and nine of their last ten, the Scarlet Knights are receiving a brutal welcome in their first season in the Big Ten.
"I tell them if there is any frustration, they should turn that into determination," head coach Eddie Jordan said after Sunday's 79-60 loss to Ohio State.
Senior Myles Mack and junior Kadeem Jack have been setady for Rutgers all season, but this is a fairly young team that is going through growing pains. One bright spot has been sophomore Bishop Daniels, who has looked like a legitimate scoring threat when he's received playing time. The Raleigh, North Carolina native put up 17 points in the loss to the Buckeyes.
A win at home against Purdue is something the Scarlet Knights sorely need.
"Nobody wants to lose," Mack said after Sunday's game. "We thought we could win this game and it just didn't happen. And it hasn't happened in a while. It's frustrating."