Saturday, February 23, 2008

Badger basketball: they could win the Big Ten again

Overall, you have to be impressed with this year's edition of the Badger hoops team: they lost superstar Alando Tucker and sharpshooter Kammron Taylor and have still managed to play their way to a top-ten ranking during the last weekend of February. Currently, they sit atop the Big Ten standings, tied with Purdue and half a game ahead of Indiana. Let's take a look at the five teams that are still in contention for the regular-season crown and show why the Badgers have a great shot at winning it all.

Wisconsin currently 12-2; remaining games are @Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, @Northwestern: The Badgers need to get through the Buckeyes -- a foe that has the ability to make things a little more interesting than the team would like -- and then get to host Michigan State. The Spartans haven't fared well at the Kohl Center, historically, and this year's team is faltering in Big Ten play. A home date with Penn State and a road finale at Northwestern should be a couple autowins. 4-0 to close out the season is probable; 3-1 is a worst-case scenario.

Purdue currently 12-2; remaining games are Minnesota, Northwestern, @Ohio State, @Michigan: The Boilermakers took care of business against the big boys of the conference early, and the reward for that is an end-of-season stretch against middle-of-the-pack teams and bottom feeders. They have just about the same remaining schedule as UW, and the results should be similar: 4-0 is likely, anything less than 3-1 would be a jaw-dropper.

Indiana currently 11-2; remaining games are @Northwestern, Ohio State, @Michigan State, Minnesota, @Penn State: the Kelvin Sampson fiasco has finally reached its end, and while the Hoosiers played some inspired ball for their embattled coach down the stretch, I just don't see them finishing the season strong under interim coach Dan Dakich. I'm predicting 2-3 for what could be a tentative Hoosier team -- they'll bookend a three-game losing streak with wins at Northwestern and Penn State.

Michigan State currently 9-4; remaining games are Iowa, @Wisconsin, Indiana, @Illinois, @Ohio State: you never want to count the Spartans out, even when they're trailing three teams by two full games. Head-to-head matchups with the Badgers and Hoosiers will provide an opportunity to close the gap with a couple of the top teams in the league, but this schedule is grueling. The finale could be the difference between the Big Dance and the NIT for the Buckeyes, so they'll be up and ready. The big issue for the Spartans, though, is that three games are on the road; in conference play, Tom Izzo's team is 7-0 at the Breslin Center and 2-4 on the road -- including a loss at Penn State and an absolute travashamockery of a game at Iowa in which the Spartans gave up 43 points and LOST. Look for this trend to continue; at best the Spartans finish 3-2; they'll lose at Wisconsin and at Illinois or Ohio State (or both).

Ohio State currently 8-5; remaining games are Wisconsin, @Indiana, @Minnesota, Purdue, Michigan State: the Buckeyes are still technically in the race, but it would take a lot of surprising losses by top teams to propel them to the conference title. They play each of other top-six teams in the conference one more time. Obviously, there are no gimmes on that schedule. Thad Matta's boys blew a chance to keep pace with the Spartans last weekend when they lost their "easy" game against the lowly Wolverines. If OSU winds up winning the conference title, expect the Big Ten to send a gaggle of nine-seeds to the Big Dance and none to the Sweet Sixteen.

So, as has been the story since they dropped both matchups with them this year, the Badgers will need to rely on a Purdue miscue to win them the outright conference crown. At this point, though, the Badgers are in control of their season and will grab a share of the title if they can win out.