I had to look through the AP Top-25 rankings a few times, just to make sure. I couldn’t believe it, but there isn’t a Big Ten team in the top-15. Wisconsin is the conference’s highest ranked team at 17th. The Big Ten has such parody at the top and even in the middle.
Wisconsin’s benefiting from the parody. (Purdue already lost to Iowa on the road, giving them a second conference loss.) This Big Ten season is pretty strange, from a game-to-game standpoint. Even so, the Badgers are only a half-game behind Maryland in the standings (3-1). The path to the Big Ten title for Wisconsin is pretty clear.
Take Purdue, for example; the Boilermakers put it to Wisconsin at home, and then dropped a road game in Iowa City. Michigan State also looked like it had rebounded from early season struggles, and jumped out to a 4-1 conference record, after dismantling a talented Minnesota squad. Then, the very next game, the Spartans lose by five at Ohio State. These same Buckeyes hadn’t won a Big Ten game and lost to the Badgers by 23 the previous game.
Let’s take a look at Wisconsin’s remaining schedule, and try to determine their path to a Big Ten regular season title.
-Home vs. Road
The commonality, between the Purdue and Michigan State examples, is the difference between playing at home and on the road, no matter the opponent. Winning the Big Ten title may hinge on performance in should-win road games (i.e. not totally blowing it).
Wisconsin has 14 conference games left, and they’re evenly split between home/road games. (Technically, there’s one neutral site game on the schedule at Madison Square Garden vs. Rutgers, but we’ll include it in the road schedule. Although, KenPom considers it a semi-road game.)
At this point, with what has happened to Purdue, Michigan State and even Minnesota (losing to the Spartans and Penn State), I’m prepared to categorize all Big Ten road games as difficult.
But, it essentially boils down to this: If Wisconsin wins all seven home games, which is conceivable, the Badgers are 10-1 in conference. Then, going 4-3 or 5-2 on the road (also conceivable) makes them at 14-4 or 15-3. Four of the last five Big Ten regular season champs have had at least three losses. (Ironically, since we’re talking about it, Wisconsin’s the only team over the last five years to have fewer than three losses as conference champions.)
-Specific Road Games
Truly, this Saturday’s game against Minnesota is huge. To keep pace, the Gophers need this win more than Wisconsin, and the Barn will be rocking. For Wisconsin, a good start is important to deflate the crowd, and over the course of the game, they’ll need to weather any Gopher scoring runs (which will happen).
KenPom considers at Minnesota (60 percent chance of winning) and at Michigan (61 percent chance of winning) as the two most challenging road games, with Michigan State in a close third. The Spartan game is so late in the season; we may be splitting hairs between the teams clustered at the top of the standings, which adds importance.
Wisconsin’s odds are good to reach the mountain top in the Big Ten, but it’s all about the games away from Madison. We know what the program does at home; it’s now about taking that execution to the road. The Big Ten title is at stake.