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Evaluating Michigan State’s chances of winning the Big Ten

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Can the Spartans still fight back into winning the Big Ten regular season championship this year?

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Last week everyone was acting like the sky was falling for Michigan State basketball. I personally wasn’t too worried and even told you how they could get things back on track. Since then, the Spartans have mostly done what I said they must do and because of that things are looking good again.

Michigan State has bounced back from its rough three-game rut to pick up back-to-back double-digit victories. The first was a complete domination of Indiana at home, winning by 28 points, and the second victory came on Monday at Illinois with Michigan State never trailing in the second half. With the two wins, the Spartans are now 6-2 in league play.

So the Spartans are back on track and playing some good ball again, but the problem is Purdue and Ohio State are playing incredible right now. So good that neither has lost in conference play yet, leaving Michigan State still two games back in the loss column of both teams.

With it being basically the halfway point in conference play, I’m beginning to wonder if Michigan State’s early season rut may have already cost them their chance at winning the Big Ten regular season title. Could the Spartans win out to stay in the championship picture? Will Purdue or Ohio State lose at least two games? Both probably need to happen for the Spartans to hang a regular season championship banner this year.

Let’s take a look at what each team has remaining on their schedules and truly evaluate the Spartans’ chances at winning the Big Ten regular season title.

Michigan State Spartans (6-2 in Big Ten)

Remaining Schedule:

  • Jan. 26 vs. Wisconsin
  • Jan. 28 at Maryland
  • Jan. 31 vs. Penn State
  • Feb. 3 at Indiana
  • Feb. 6 at Iowa
  • Feb. 10 vs. No. 3 Purdue
  • Feb. 13 at Minnesota
  • Feb. 17 at Northwestern
  • Feb. 20 vs. Illinois
  • Feb. 25 at Wisconsin

If you look at this schedule, you could see the Spartans possibly running the table down the stretch. Their toughest remaining opponent — Purdue — will come to the Breslin Center and while the Spartans do finish with six road games, they should be favored in each one of those contests. Some of those road games will be challenges — Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern are all NCAA/NIT caliber squads — but this schedule isn’t terribly challenging. That’s good news for Michigan State who probably can’t afford to lose more than one more game this year.

Purdue Boilermakers (8-0 in Big Ten)

Remaining Schedule:

  • Jan. 25 vs. No. 25 Michigan
  • Jan. 28 at Indiana
  • Jan. 31 vs. Maryland
  • Feb. 3 at Rutgers
  • Feb. 7 vs. No. 13 Ohio State
  • Feb. 10 at No. 6 Michigan State
  • Feb. 15 at Wisconsin
  • Feb. 18 vs. Penn State
  • Feb. 22 at Illinois
  • Feb. 25 vs. Minnesota

Purdue’s final 10 games features three ranked opponents, however, two of those games are at Mackey Arena. The slate also include five road games with the hardest being at Michigan State, but there are some other possible slip ups against rival Indiana and Wisconsin. Neither of those teams are great but could possibly put together inspired performances for the upset.

Ohio State Buckeyes (9-0 in Big Ten)

Remaining Schedule:

  • Jan. 25 vs. Penn State
  • Jan. 30 vs. Indiana
  • Feb. 4 vs. Illinois
  • Feb. 7 at No. 3 Purdue
  • Feb. 10 vs. Iowa
  • Feb. 15 at Penn State
  • Feb. 18 at No. 25 Michigan
  • Feb. 20 vs. Rutgers
  • Feb. 23 at Indiana

Purdue plays more ranked teams down the stretch but Ohio State definitely has the hardest schedule of these three teams. The Buckeyes will most likely be underdogs in road trips to Purdue and Michigan, and will also be challenged against possible NCAA Tournament bubble teams in Penn State and Indiana — who they play twice each. I would be shocked if the Buckeyes made it through this slate with less than two losses and could see as many as four.

Thoughts On How Things Could Play Out

So can Michigan State still win the Big Ten? Well, that’s a tough question to answer right now but I believe they at least have a shot.

Since moving to the 18-game conference schedule in 2007-08, no Big Ten team has ever had only one loss in league play. This year isn’t the same as previous seasons with this possibly being the biggest gap between the elite teams and the rest of the league. So there’s a chance Purdue or Ohio State could finish 17-1 — maybe even undefeated — but I’m not betting on it.

Going to the Breslin Center will be really tough for Purdue, and if there’s any chance of Michigan State winning this league they’ll need to take that game. Home tilts against Michigan and Ohio State won’t be easy, and that road game at Indiana really seems like the perfect upset special. Along with a victory over the Boilermakers, the Spartans need Purdue to lose at least one of those games in order to give them any chance at a conference championship.

As for Ohio State, the Buckeyes keep winning but they haven’t looked as dominant as Purdue. So with their schedule only going to get tougher over the next month, I believe they’ll eventually hit a rocky patch and drop a few games. Six of the final nine games on the schedule will be against quality teams so I’m confident the Buckeyes will drop at least two games.

I predict Purdue and Ohio State will each have at least two losses so that cracks the door open for Michigan State but I don’t know if it’ll get much wider than that. My gut feeling says Purdue will have a stronger finish than the Buckeyes and end up 16-2. So you know what that means: Michigan State will most likely need to win out in order to earn a share of the Big Ten title. Will the Spartans be able to reel off an impressive finish like that? That’s what we’ll have to wait and find out.