Last week was pretty big in the Big Ten with the showdown between Iowa and Maryland and now two more teams will face major tests this week. Easily one of the biggest highlights of the week will be Indiana and Michigan, which will be detailed further below. It's a big week for the Wolverines, while the Hoosiers will face their most meaningful game since facing Notre Dame in December. Also of note will be a showdown out in College Park between Maryland and Purdue while Ohio State and Wisconsin play what could amount to a knock out game when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.
Also one last note before getting to the table, but things are about to get pretty difficult for Michigan State as the Spartans will travel to Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State, while hosting Indiana and Wisconsin over the next five games. The Spartans already have four early Big Ten conference losses and while they can win their way back towards the top of the conference, things could get tricky this month so it'll be interesting to see if Tom Izzo can keep his team from fading down the stretch heading into March.
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Indiana and Michigan set for a big week
Indiana went from hyped to forgotten and back to hyped, with the two most recent changes in perception both being relatively unwarranted. On one hand their "hot" start to conference play was largely overstated, with their best win being a home game against either Wisconsin or Ohio State. Mix in a soft schedule with the fact that the Hoosiers could have lost to Rutgers, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota (twice) and you have a somewhat lackluster opening when you actually break it down. Even more so with the team losing at Wisconsin last week, even if Madison gives fits to basically every team in the Big Ten. That being said, the teams fall from grace after the poor showing in Maui was definitely overstated, with a national contender falling off a cliff with the national media / fans simply because they had a bad showing out west early in the season.
The end result was Indiana was, at worst, likely somewhere in the middle. While Tom Crean's track record doesn't exactly lead to much confidence across the fan base, the Hoosiers aren't a bad team and their strong start over a manageable Big Ten schedule was promising enough. Either way, the team still has only one win against the top 50 (Notre Dame), a RPI barely inside the top 50 (48) and a bad SOS (138), with a schedule set to finally toughen up over the last month of the season. The first big test for Indiana in Big Ten play? A Michigan team that has also benefited from an easy enough conference start.
That Michigan team had a lot of people come out of the woodwork after a home win against Maryland earlier in the month. Suddenly a lot of fans that were quiet the first few months of the season started hyping the team up once again, ignoring the fact that the team had gotten demolished in almost every single one of their games against quality opponents not named Texas. Following an Iowa loss on the road (which was expected considering how hot the Hawkeyes were), beating Minnesota, Nebraska, Rutgers and Penn State has allowed the hype to grow even more in Ann Arbor. I'd point out that Michigan has looked underwhelming in pretty much all of those wins, though numerous Big Ten teams have been coasting by the bottom of the conference as well.
If Michigan is for real we'll find out down the stretch, starting this week as the Wolverines are set to host Indiana and Michigan State. Michigan hasn't fared very well against stronger opposition, but luckily for the Wolverines their next three quality opponents all have to make the trip to Ann Arbor. And that Indiana game today is definitely winnable, especially considering the fact that Indiana has also benefited from a favorable schedule. What will be more interesting his how Michigan fairs against the Spartans and Boilermakers, or how they handle teams like Maryland and Wisconsin on the road, but tonight's game could be the first sign as to which team is more of a legitimate contender between the Hoosiers and Wolverines. Both teams could definitely work there way up towards a nice seed in March, especially Indiana, but they'll have to prove themselves throughout the next month first.
Ohio State blows huge opportunity
With three games last week the Buckeyes did enough early in the week, knocking off Penn State and Illinois, to put themselves into good shape if they could upset Maryland at home on Sunday. And while Ohio State had a prime opportunity for the upset, a poor shooting performance (35.6% from the field) and a horrible day from the charity stripe (58.3% on 24 attempts) cost them the chance for a win that could have changed the direction of their season.
Now sitting at 14-9 (6-4) with a RPI of 84, a 1-6 record versus the top 100 and three bad losses, things look pretty bad for Thad Matta and company. The good thing is that Kentucky win and the 6-4 mark in conference play. If Ohio State can rattle off some wins, they could get to a pretty solid 11-7 conference mark and that would probably put them in position to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament and sneak into the tournament. There are several winnable games, with Northwestern, Rutgers and Nebraska still remaining, but they also face Michigan State twice, Iowa and Michigan. Or in other words, the Buckeyes will need to add several upsets over the last month of the season if they want to seriously entertain a NCAA Tournament bid. That's what makes this Thursday's road trip to Madison so important, with Ohio State really needing to win their next five games and then adding an upset if they want to be serious about their odds in March. While a loss to Maryland didn't kill their chance at reaching the postseason, it was a setback and losing to a team like Wisconsin would likely be the last blow for Matta and his Buckeyes.
Wisconsin still in the hunt
The Badgers looked down and out just a few weeks ago and they're probably still on the outs, but Greg Gard still has his team fighting. The reality is Wisconsin is extremely difficult to beat in Madison and if not for blowing several winnable games (Maryland, Purdue, at Indiana and a trio of non-conference games) this Badgers team could be right in the running for another postseason bid. That being said, at 13-9, a so-so RPI (65th) and 4 losses to teams outside of the top 100 (including Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Northwestern and Western Illinois), the Badgers are in a tight spot.
They did, however, manage to stay alive this week with their second best win of the season in a home upset over Indiana. Beating Indiana and Michigan State last month provide two quality wins, as well as a few other pretty solid wins over teams like VCU and Syracuse. The problem is Wisconsin also has numerous bad losses and too many losses in general, meaning their back end of the schedule is a huge problem. With Maryland, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and Purdue all remaining, there are opportunities for wins, but there is also a legit shot at falling to 14, 15 or 16 losses on the year and that would be a deal breaker. Even worse is that the home friendly first half gives way to road trips to Maryland, Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue. It's not going to be an easy for Gard so if he wants to pull off a massive upset and get to the postseason he'll need to win this weeks game against Ohio State.
Ohio State vs. Wisconsin (2/4 7:00 PM)
The showdown between the Buckeyes and Badgers this Thursday in Madison is going to be critical. The reality is both of these teams probably will end up missing the NCAA Tournament, but they each have an outside shot right now and losing this game would probably be it for either team.
Maryland finally gets a big win
Believe it or not but the highly hyped Terrapins didn't pick up their first win versus a top 50 team until last week's home win against Iowa, finally getting a sizable win. It wasn't that Maryland had coasted on a weak schedule (well, they sort of did if being honest), it was just that the team had faced a limited number of tests over the first three months of the season and couldn't show what they were fully capable of until knocking off the Hawkeyes. Of course it should still probably be mentioned that Maryland hasn't taken care of business on the road, though, losing all three games away from home and having their best road win coming against either Wisconsin or Ohio State.
Either way, the win was a solid start for Maryland and if they want to get back to where they were at the beginning of the season that is easily within reach, especially considering the talent and depth Mark Turgeon has at hand. The schedule is set to pick up somewhat, with two games against Purdue, a road trip to Indiana and home game against Michigan all coming up in the last month of the season. Still, the Terrapins drew a favorable draw with Iowa and Michigan State only appearing once on the schedule and should be fully capable of winning most of the games down the stretch and continue to trend upwards.
Maryland's next test and chance for another quality win will also come at home this weekend when they host Purdue on Saturday afternoon, a winnable game, especially with it taking place in their own arena. With Wisconsin and Michigan also traveling to Maryland, the Terrapins won't face a major road test (Nebraska and Minnesota don't count) until the end of February when they head to West Lafayette. if Maryland wants to make a serious run for a #1 seed now is the time to get the ball rolling and the schedule, which does toughen up somewhat, still happens to be predominantly at home and to the favor of Maryland.