We’re just a few weeks away from the end of the college basketball regular season. We’re also exactly back to where we started in the Big Ten race — all square.
After Wisconsin’s 64-58 loss to Michigan on Thursday it brought up a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings.
It truly is an amazing feat considering just two weeks ago the Badgers looked like a team running away with it. A few games later and Wisconsin is on a two-game losing streak and no longer has a stranglehold on the B1G title.
We’ve got the preseason favorites of Wisconsin and Purdue in the mix, while afterthought Maryland also sits atop the B1G with a 10-3 conference record.
As we wind down the season, exactly which one of those three teams will end up winning a conference that no one seems to want to win? Could we even see a free-fall that allows Northwestern in the mix at
Let’s examine each teams chances…
The Case for Maryland:
Three of the final five games of the season are at home for the Terps. That’s a huge advantage in this scenario. In fact, the three most difficult games on the schedule — Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan State — all come at the Xfinity Center.
Maryland’s case is also helped by seeing Melo Trimble go off for a career night against its biggest recent competition — Northwestern. He went off for 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting in a 10-point Terps victory.
Seeing Trimble starting to play his best basketball down the stretch has to be good news for Terps fans.
The Case Against Maryland:
It’s biggest remaining game is against Wisconsin, and it is at the Kohl Center. That hasn’t been good news for a whole host of teams throughout the years. Even if Wisconsin has been literally limping around as of late, UW at home is always dangerous.
Additionally, this is a team that needs more than Melo Trimble to be successful. Trimble is averaging 15.6 points per game in the three losses in conference play, yet is averaging 17.2 points per game overall on the season.
Looking deeper than just Trimble, Maryland also is a team that struggles to get it done at the line in its losses. The Terps shot just 68.9 percent from the free-throw line in the three conference losses. Additionally, they sit just eighth in the B1G from the free throw line in conference games.
While not as bad as the Badgers are at the free throw line, those are points left off the board that would’ve been the difference between winning and losing. Could it be that when the pressure is on, this young team cracks a bit?
Well, the pressure of a Big Ten title is squarely on their shoulders. Let’s see how they react to that.
The Case for Purdue:
When you are looking at schedules, Purdue may have the best of the bunch going forward. It gets both Michigan State and Indiana at home and two its remaining three road games are not hostile environments. Going to Penn State and Northwestern? I think I’d take that road slate, any day of the week.
Oh, and if Purdue just holds serve it will be a two-team race against the winner of Maryland-Wisconsin on Sunday. Guess what? Purdue owns wins in the lone matchups against both teams this season.
Talk about the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed, huh?
That speaks nothing of having the monster that has become Caleb Swanigan. He leads all scorers with 19.1 points per game in conference play, leads all players with 13.1 rebounds per conference game and is shooting 50.3 percent from the field in conference games alone.
Few teams have the firepower up front to combat that kind of production, and if you do then Isaac Haas can light you up from the inside as well. That one-two punch is about as deadly as it gets in the Big Ten this season.
This team is built to withstand big challenges thanks to its frontcourt strength, and that will be put to the test in the final weeks.
The Case Against Purdue:
All of that is well and good, but the Boilermakers do have three road games in their final five games. One of them is the black hole that is the Bryce Jordan Center, while there is also the red-hot Wolverines to face and Northwestern’s formidable bunch to play at Welsh-Ryan arena.
Sure, Purdue owns a blowout win over Northwestern, but that was at home. Purdue’s true road record is not a good one, at just 4-3 on the season.
There are certainly games that can be pitfalls for Purdue’s hopes of a Big Ten title. Navigating what is a tough road schedule will be key to Purdue’s chances of getting a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
The Case for Wisconsin:
Up until the injury bug hit the Badgers, they were the clear-cut favorites to take the conference crown. Missing a healthy Koenig certainly wasn’t helpful on the road at Michigan, and the sooner this team gets him back to 100 percent the sooner things are going to click once again.
Additionally, few teams in the Big Ten have as efficient and dangerous an all-around player as Wisconsin does with sophomore center Ethan Happ. He is deadly around the basket on offense (22 points on 10-13 shooting on Thursday alone), but he also leads the team in rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in conference play.
Stopping Happ is more than not allowing him to score at will. You have to play well against him at both ends of the court.
The question that seems to be facing Wisconsin right now is if it can find more than one person to carry this team across the finish line. What made Wisconsin dangerous earlier on this Big Ten season was its ability to have three or four players scoring in double digits and stretching defenses because of it.
That is no longer the case, as teams double and triple-team Happ down low and dare the Badgers to beat them any other way. if Wisconsin finds its swagger from earlier in the season this team can and will beat anyone in front of them. Will they find that swagger though?
The Case Against Wisconsin:
Great teams are just hitting their stride heading in to the final weeks of the season. Wisconsin is stumbling and stumbling bad as of late. Blame injuries all you want, but this team was having major offensive troubles before injuries really hit.
While Wisconsin is averaging 73.2 points per game on the season it has hit rock bottom in conference play. It was once the deadliest of offenses, but is now 12th in the Big Ten during conference games — scoring just 68.4 points per game.
Inconsistent offense, uncharacteristic turnovers and no bench help outside of D’Mitrick Trice is not a good recipe for success. That’s especially true with Michigan State, Iowa and Minnesota still on the schedule.
Of the three big contenders, no team has more unanswered questions or are playing on the back foot like Wisconsin is. That’s not good news down the stretch, but we’ll see if they can pull it all together for Sunday’s all-important matchup against Maryland.
Who Wins Big Ten Regular Season Title?
We’re going to rock with Purdue taking the Big Ten title. Not only does it have a nicer path to the title with its five remaining games, it also owns the wins needed to break any tie at the top of the standings.
I’ll also rock with Caleb Swanigan at any point in time, and he seems to be the one player who can be consistent for the three top contenders.
Look for Matt Painter’s crew to find a way to get the job done in a season in which anything and everything has already happened.