Big Ten will be a photo finish
The victory kept his team in the thick of the Big Ten race. But he was well aware there was no time to relish it.
“We knew we had to do something special if we were going to fight to get in this race,” he said. “We’ve been able to do that. You get a huge win like this, this just means that your reward is you get to play Illinois next. So it never gets any easier.”
Over the next three weeks, the Big Ten will determine its regular-season champion, or champions. It seems all 11 teams in the conference still have something on the line—a better tournament seeding, individual honors, making the NCAA field. That means almost every game is up for grabs.
Barring a major upset, the trophy will go to the team or teams who survive the major showdowns still left on the schedule. Michigan State (11-3) hosts Ohio State (10-4) on Sunday, and plays at Purdue (10-3) on Feb. 28. The Boilermakers host Illinois (9-4) on Saturday before welcoming the Spartans. The Illini also play at Ohio State in early March and host Wisconsin (9-5).
There hasn’t been a tie for the top spot in the conference since Michigan State and Illinois in 2001, but it seems unlikely that any of the top teams can escape the rigors of these final weeks without at least one more loss.
“I tell the guys this all the time, the last undefeated team was in 1976,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said, referring to the last team to run the table in Division I, Indiana. “It’s how you pick yourself up and get ready to go again.”
One very possible scenario has Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin finishing at 14-4. That’s a novelty in itself: Not since 1979 has the Big Ten had a three-way tie for the title.
The conference crown isn’t the only honor still up for grabs.
Kalin Lucas was the conference’s player of the year last March. He has returned to be Mr. Big Shot for the Spartans time and time again this season, even while battling a high ankle sprain.
Ohio State’s Evan Turner came on at the end of last season and has been spectacular this season despite missing 41/2 weeks with two broken bones in his lower back. He had two triple-doubles during the cream-puff part of the schedule, and has flirted with several more.
Averaging 19.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 6 assists a game while playing point guard, the 6-7 junior is the front-runner to win the Big Ten’s top individual honor this season. He is also in the running with Kentucky wunderkind John Wall for the national award.
“I thought we did a pretty good job and he gets 29 points,” Painter said of Turner after Purdue’s win on Wednesday night. “That’s what great players do.”
Then there is the All-Big Ten team. All five of the first-teamers from a year ago are back—Lucas, Turner, Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson, Talor Battle of Penn State and Michigan’s Manny Harris.
There’s no disputing the first three. Battle has been brilliant, leading the Big Ten in scoring while doing his lonesome best every night to make a sorry supporting cast better.
Harris has had an up-and-down year, and so have his Wolverines. Either Illinois’ Demetri McCamey or Wisconsin’s Trevon Hughes could replace him on the first team.
Purdue’s E’Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel, Michigan’s DeShawn Sims, Northwestern’s John Shurna and Wisconsin’s Jason Bohannon are all in the mix for second-team mention.
The coach of the year race appears to be just as close as the play on the court.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has two or three erratic starters who seem to either score 22 or 2 points on any given night. Yet the Spartans may win their sixth title in the last 13 years.
He won the award last year and there are plenty of worthy candidates this year, including Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan.
He’s self-assured and crotchety but Ryan squeezes a lot out of what he’s got. The Badgers play a system that emphasizes passing and defense over shooting and individual stardom.
Finally, and most importantly, how many Big Ten teams are going to make it to the NCAA tournament?
Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin appear to be locks. The usual barometer is that a Big Ten team with at least 18 wins and a winning conference record will get in. So Illinois (17-9, 9-4) is close.
Weber told the Chicago Tribune that reaching 11 conference wins would “give us a chance” at an NCAA Tournament bid. If the Illini reached 12, then “we’d have to feel pretty good about it.”
Northwestern (17-9, 6-8), which has never made the big tournament, probably needs to win out and then make a deep run in the Big Ten tournament to end that drought.
But like fans of the Chicago Cubs located not far from campus, the Wildcats may just have to wait until next year.