Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Big Ten: Weekly Look Ahead (Feb. 21)

*Every week, I’ll take a look at Big Ten’s current landscape, recap the previous week and analyze how the next seven days will impact the teams' NCAA Tournament hopes.

Michigan State took sole possession of first place in the Big Ten this week, thanks to rival Michigan knocking off Ohio State on Saturday night. What's extremely impressive about MSU's chances at a conference championship is the notably difficult schedule. The Spartans only play Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern and Penn State once (teams currently in 7th, 8th, 10th and 12th place in the conference), meaning two games against every other contender.

Teams like Michigan (avoid playing at Wisconsin), Ohio State (avoid playing at Purdue) and Wisconsin (avoid Purdue at home and Michigan on the road) have at least one scheduling "relief." That isn't to take anything away from those teams and their chances at a Big Ten Championship. What it should do, however, is illustrate how Tom Izzo is in the middle of one of his best coaching jobs at Michigan State.

MAJOR STUMPER: Ohio State. The Buckeyes won a nice road game at Minnesota, but the lack of continuity on offense was evident in the 56-51 loss to Michigan. Sure, some of Ohio State's issues would be solved if a few more 3-pointers - many being pretty decent looks - started falling again. Nevertheless, every possession that Jared Sullinger doesn't touch the ball in the post is a wasted possession. There were way too many of those against the Wolverines. All of a sudden, the Buckeyes don't look like a Final Four team. In fact, the best comparison would be last year's Texas team that was ranked No. 1 for a while and a February title favorite. Then came a late-February slump which preceeded the Longhorns slipping to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament before an early exit.

MAJOR SURPRISE: Michigan State. With the way the Spartans have played as of late, nothing - not even a NCAA title this season - should surprise people about Michigan State. What is surprising is how dominant MSU has been on defense. When Purdue scored 62 points on Sunday, it was the first time since a January 14 loss at Northwestern that MSU had allowed more than 60 points in a game. Keep in mind MSU plays at around 67 possessions - the NCAA average - per game, not at Wisconsin's walk-it-up pace. Therefore, holding opponents to fewer than 60 points when the Spartans ideally like to push the tempo is incredible.

BRACKETOGRAPHY: Last week's edition of Bracketography 2012, seven Big Ten still held firm in the field, but one team continues it slide to the NIT. Michigan State and Ohio State headlined the group, both securing No. 2 seeds. Michigan State also has the inside track on a No. 1 seed if the Spartans win out or, at worst, claim a non-shared regular season Big Ten Championship. Ohio State still has a great resume, but recent problems have the Buckeyes trending downward. It's unlikely Ohio State drops past the No. 2 line, but crazier things have happened thanks to some surprising deep runs by teams in conference tournaments.

Michigan continues to surge and looks like a pretty good bet to fall on the No. 3 line on Selection Sunday. Wisconsin and Indiana are both No. 5 seeds and, depending on how each team's season concludes, could both bump up to the No. 4 line and a protected seed.

Purdue was a No. 8 seed and looks pretty safe at this point barring a collapse. The Boilermakers have good wins and are playing great in recent defeats to the Big Ten's best.

Illinois' overall resume is still better than a lot of bubble teams, but wins against Gonzaga, Ohio State and Michigan State - all at home seem like eons ago. The Fighting Illini are clinging to an No. 11 seed and have lost eight of nine games. The lone win in that stretch was a never-watch-the-game-film-again 42-41 win against Michigan State. Since last Friday's bracket, Illinois was blown out at Nebraska, 80-57. At 5-9 in the Big Ten, Illinois needs to win three of its final four Big Ten games to be in the NCAA Tournament discussion. An 8-10 Big Ten team would get serious consideration, especially with Illinois' remaining schedule featuring games at Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan and at Wisconsin.

Northwestern got a nice win over Minnesota and, believe it or not, the entirely weak field might be enough for the Wildcats to slip into a "First Four" game. We saw a few 14-loss teams make the tournament last season, so it wouldn't be shocking to see the same happen this year.

Below is a snapshot at where Big Ten teams stack in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.


THE WEEK THAT WAS: Michigan State now leads the Big Ten by a game over Ohio State and Michigan with Wisconsin a game behind. Those seem like the top four seeds in the Big Ten Tournament for sure. The order, however, has yet to be determined.

Ohio State 78, Minnesota 68: Ohio State got a nice road win to avoid what would be presumed as a total collapse in the Big Ten race.

Purdue 67, Illinois 62: The Illini got down early and the fight to win the game was too much. Purdue won this game playing its best ball of the year and before Kelsey Barlow was dismissed from the team for the rest of the season. Purdue plays hard enough on most nights that it looks like a tournament team, albeit it one that stays a short time.

Michigan State 69, Wisconsin 55: The Spartans dominated this game from start to finish, leading by 21 points at one point. This shouldn't discount how good Wisconsin is, just how well the Spartans are playing at this moment.

Michigan 56, Ohio State 51: College GameDay saw Michigan play well enough and Ohio State miss enough 3-pointers for Michigan to climb within a game of the Big Ten lead. It's tough to discount how well Michigan played, but Ohio State's problems seem to be more internal (selfishness on offense, communication problems) than external (how well the opponents are playing).

Michigan State 76, Purdue 62: Playing without two starters, Purdue came out on fire offensively and led at halftime. But when the Spartans found a solution, it was evident who the better team was. MSU held Purdue to 1-for-21 shooting from the field to open the second half to push the lead to 16 points in another big road win for the Spartans.

THE WEEK AHEAD: How will Illinois, Minnesota and Northwestern respond to a win or enjoy the NIT scenario.

Tuesday, Feb. 21 - Illinois @ Ohio State: The Buckeyes are 16.5-point favorites in this game. That should tell you, as bad as Ohio State has played of late, how bad terrible Illinois has been. This win would save Illinois' season.

Tuesday, Feb. 21 - Michigan @ Northwestern: The Wildcats squandered a nice lead and lost, 66-64, in overtime to the Wolverines earlier in the season. Northwestern needs this game and is actually a 2.5-point favorite. Both teams play similar styles and it's a game Michigan can afford to lose in terms of NCAA seeding. If Michigan wants to win the Big Ten Championship, however, this game can't be lost.

Wednesday, Feb. 22 - Michigan State @ Minnesota: The Buckeyes just went into the barn and won and Minnesota couldn't recover to beat Northwestern on the road. It's desperation time for Tubby Smith's Gophers. Road games haven't scared the Spartans as of late and MSU dominated the early-season meeting. This is crucial to Minnesota's NCAA Tournament hopes.

Saturday, Feb. 25 - Purdue @ Michigan: This should be a game with plenty of 3s. The Boilermakers will have played two games without Kelsey Barlow at this point and D.J. Byrd will have one game under his belt. The team that shoots the triple better wins a game that might, surprisingly, be played in the 70s.

Sunday, Feb. 26 - Wisconsin @ Ohio State: The motto for both teams here will be simple: If you want to keep a Big Ten Championship dream alive, just win, baby! Should be a low-scoring classic in Columbus.

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