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Checking In On The Big Ten Race: Who Wins?

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Who has the inside track toward the Big Ten regular season title?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday night was not only an amazing night of college basketball nationally, but it was also a significant one for the league. The top five teams (at least per the conference standings) were in action and four of them faced one another. It’s often hard to circle which nights will be significant in the Big Ten race, but Tuesday was clearly one of them.

And the results lived up to the hype as well. Purdue went down in thrilling fashion on the road against Maryland, Michigan State was able to battle its way to a win on the road against Wisconsin, and Michigan was upset by Penn State with John Beilein being thrown out of the game at halftime.

Yeah, that’s a pretty good night of basketball.

However, Tuesday didn’t actually separate anyone from the pack in the Big Ten standings. Many expected Michigan to move up a game in the league standings with a winnable game at Penn State, but that didn’t end up being the case. After all was said and done, four teams ended up being within a game of each other in the conference standings. Here’s how everything sat for the league’s top teams coming out of Tuesday night’s madness:

-2/13 Big Ten Standings:

  • Michigan - 11-3
  • Michigan State - 11-3
  • Purdue - 10-3
  • Maryland - 10-4
  • Wisconsin - 9-5
  • Iowa - 8-5
  • Ohio State - 6-6

As mentioned earlier, things remain incredibly close at the top and relatively close all the way down to fifth place. Every single game matters at this point. And by any measure, it’s setting up to be quite the finish down the stretch.

But what should fans expect? We have just under a month left of the regular season and who is the favorite to win the Big Ten crown? Well, let’s dive into some of the key things to keep in mind as we move forward.

1. It’s going to take something shocking for anybody other than the top four to grab the title.

This one may seem obvious, but it’s important to touch on this before we dive into the teams at the very top of the standings. Barring something shocking, nobody other than the Michigan teams, Purdue, or Maryland is going to win the Big Ten title this year.

To start, Ohio State is currently sitting three games out of the lead in the Big Ten standings. Making up a three-game deficit with six regular season games remaining would nearly be unprecedented with five teams above the Buckeyes in the league standings.

Not only would making up that kind of deficit take a nearly flawless performance from the Buckeyes down the stretch, but the top three teams would also need to lose at least three times. Considering that Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue are all favored in the majority of their remaining games, the odds of that happening are incredibly slim. Very similar things can be said in regard to Iowa and Wisconsin. Their odds are certainly better, but making up two full games on three teams in six games is pretty unlikely.

Additionally, it’s important to mention that Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue have two (!!!) combined games against Iowa, Ohio State, and Wisconsin during the remainder of the regular season. The Buckeyes will play at Michigan State on Sunday and at Purdue in early March. That’s it. Essentially, the darkhorses don’t even have the opportunity to knock off the top teams to help in closing the deficit. Throw in that Iowa also still plays Ohio State and Wisconsin and it’s pretty easy to write these three off at the moment.

2. Remember, tiebreakers don’t matter.

Before we jump into the remaining four teams, I did want to take a second to remind readers about the Big Ten’s policies regarding Big Ten regular-season champions. After all, it is helpful to know the policies for determining the champion before evaluating each teams chances.

While many tend to believe that head-to-head matchups matter for purposes of the Big Ten title, the simple truth is that they do not under the current rules. These games may have a significant impact on the standings themselves, but there is no tiebreaker for separating the Big Ten regular-season champion. If teams are tied in the standings, they both learned a share of the title. This will be important to keep in mind as we move forward.

3. There are only four remaining matchups between the top four teams during the rest of the regular season.

Although there are a variety of factors that go into determining who wins the Big Ten championship, one factor that cannot be underestimated is each team’s respective strength of schedule. We would like to think that every schedule is equal in every game it is important, but we all know enough about college basketball to realize that certain games are more important than others.

And heading into the final stretch of the regular season, there is little debating that four-game stand out with regard to the Big Ten title. These games are as follows:

  • 2/16 - Maryland at Michigan;
  • 2/24 - Michigan State at Michigan;
  • 3/3 - Michigan at Maryland; and
  • 3/9 - Michigan at Michigan State.

It might be tough to believe, but the top four contenders don’t face one another for the rest of the regular season outside of these four games. As such, there is little arguing that these four games will have a substantial impact on who will come out on top in such a close Big Ten title race.

Additionally, it is also important to note that one team is notably absent from these four games. While the Boilermakers still have seven regular-season games remaining, none of those games will come against Maryland, Michigan, or Michigan State. That is also a key reason why Purdue is favored in every remaining regular-season game.

Given that Purdue will not participate in these four games, the Big Ten title will not be determined solely as a result of these four games. However, there is little arguing that the other teams’ chances will hang on those four games.

4. Purdue undeniably has the easiest remaining schedule.

This probably pretty obvious given the second point in this article, but Purdue undeniably has the easiest remaining slate of the top four Big Ten title contenders moving forward. To put things in perspective, here’s a look at the teams remaining games:

  • 2/16 - Penn State;
  • 2/19 - at Indiana;
  • 2/23 - at Nebraska;
  • 2/27 - Illinois
  • 3/2 - Ohio State;
  • 3/5 - at Minnesota; and
  • 3/9 - at Northwestern.

Outside of the fact that four of Purdue’s final seven games around the road, that is a pretty manageable schedule. The Boilermakers don’t face any team in the top 30 on KenPom and the most challenging game on paper (at Nebraska) is looking easier by the week. Notably, Purdue has 63 percent odds are better in every remaining game outside of the trip to Lincoln. And if Nebraska keeps struggling, that could change as well.

How Purdue plays on the road will ultimately determine whether the Boilermakers wind up winning the Big Ten title the season, but it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the team’s chances moving forward. After all, it gets to avoid games against teams like Maryland, Michigan, and Michigan State over the last month of the season. The same cannot be said with regard to the other Big Ten title contenders.

5. So, who wins?

At this point, it’s hard to get an accurate read on who will wind up winning the Big Ten regular-season title when all said and done. Purdue clearly has the easiest route and inside track towards the title, but Michigan and Michigan State also both control their own destinies. If the Wolverines or Spartans take care of business down the stretch, they will be guaranteed at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.

With that said, the odds certainly favor Michigan State and Purdue at this time. Not only because of Purdue’ schedule and Michigan State’s impressive resume, but also because Maryland and Michigan have remarkably tougher schedules. The Wolverines still have to play both Maryland and Michigan State twice in the Terps also have a trip to Iowa.

Given the circumstances, the safe bet at the moment is Purdue with a slight hedge towards Michigan State. All told, things may very well go down to the last game of the regular season, as Michigan State host Michigan in East Lansing on March 9th to close the regular season.

Simply put, time to buckle up for fans of all the top four teams.