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12/20 Big Ten Basketball Mailbag: Title Contenders; MSU; and Illinois

Check out BTPowerhouse's Big Ten mailbag.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois vs Brigham Young Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

We haven't been able to do a mailbag in quite some time and with conference play right around the corner, it seemed like a good time to dust off the mail and answer a few questions. This mailbag will be a bit shorter this time than some in the past, but there was one question I wanted to tackle in detail.

As always, you can ask questions by emailing or tweeting at @BTPowerhouse or @tbeindit. The best questions will be selected and answered.

The 12/20 BTPowerhouse Mailbag:

-Question #1

Let’s start with the first part of this question, which is the assumption that one of Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin will win this year’s Big Ten title. While there’s a clear divide in perception between these three and everyone else in the Big Ten, eliminating 11 teams from title contention this early deserves at least some discussion.

At this point, there’s really no denying that Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin are the Big Ten’s best three teams. There’s a reason that KenPom has a 12-team divide between these three and the Big Ten’s next closest team (Michigan) and a 19-team divide to the Big Ten’s fifth highest rated team (Ohio State).

However, one team to watch here is Maryland, who has an incredibly favorable Big Ten slate this season. The advanced stats don’t love Maryland, but I think the schedule is going to keep Maryland in this discussion for some time. The trick for the Terps will be stealing enough games to stay in the race until March.

But outside of that scenario, this is Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin’s league to lose.

And even more so, I don’t think there is any serious divide between these three. All of them are probably on the same tier and as such, the title margin is going to be incredibly thin this season. Don’t be shocked if there’s a split title at season’s end.

However, I view Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin this way. I believe Indiana is the most talented team with the most upside. Purdue creates the biggest matchup problems, but has an underwhelming backcourt. Wisconsin is consistent, but rarely sees a player reach that next level where he can take over a game and win it himself.

As I’ve mentioned, I believe this is going to be an incredibly close race. But at the moment, I’m going to lean with Wisconsin. I think the Badgers will be the best of the three on the road and matchup well against Indiana. Purdue has the easiest slate of the matchups between the three, but I think Wisconsin will take home the title.

-Question #2

For those who are lost on this question, Gerald Bostock was asking about what Michigan State needs to do to make the NCAA Tournament following the team’s shocking home loss to Northeastern on Sunday night.

As I’ve often said about topics like this, trying to evaluate a team’s resume or what it needs to do this early is always a dangerous proposition. Nobody can accurately assess where a team sits exactly in mid-December. It’s just impossible. For all we know, Northeastern could heat up and make the NCAA Tournament.

We just don’t know how things will shape up.

But with those comments out of the way, I think Michigan State’s entire season will be decided in its next six games. As I wrote about on Monday, Michigan State needs to go 5-1 (or better) in its next six games. That’s because this is arguably the team’s easiest remaining stretch of the season. Lose here and it’s over.

If Michigan State can go 5-1 or 6-0, then I think Gerald’s scenario becomes more likely. The Spartans are then sitting at 13-6 or 14-5 with momentum and three potential resume wins coming next. Just score one or two marquee wins, take care of business at home, avoid upsets, and things look good.

However, that’s a lot easier said than done. I would wager good money on Michigan State losing at least one of its next six games and I think there will be at least one more frustrating loss this season.

In that scenario, Michigan State probably needs at least two marquee wins and two more good wins. With just two games against ranked teams remaining, winning those matchups against Purdue and Wisconsin will be imperative. Additionally, it puts a lot of pressure on Michigan State to beat teams like Michigan, Northwestern, and Ohio State at home.

I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel on Michigan State’s season just yet, but all hands need to be on deck for this next stretch. Otherwise, the rough start might be too much to overcome.

-Question #3

Illinois is an interesting position right now. Most in the media have written off the Fighting Illini after the team’s rough performance in November, but Illinois is actually sitting in a pretty good position heading into Big Ten play. In fact, I wrote last week about the unique position that Illinois sits in at the moment.

Whether Illinois can take care of business in the coming weeks remains up for debate, but the Illini currently sit at No. 45 in RPI with a handful of winnable games upcoming on the schedule. Maybe Illinois fades down the stretch (again) this season, but at the moment, Illinois needs to be considered a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender.