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Big Ten Notebook

February 4, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments



Big Ten Notebook

by Chris Burke

Every team in the Big Ten has either hit or is nearing its midway point of the conference season. Up to this point, there have been plenty out-of-whack, unexpected happenings, leaving some of the conference favorites hanging on for dear life with some supposed bottom-feeders up on top.

A team-by-team look at the first half of the year, and what it’s going to take to win the conference crown:

Purdue (6-1)

Every time the Boilermakers enter into a game that is expected to cool them off, they find another way to pull out a victory.

Case in point — Saturday’s game at Iowa. Purdue has not always been the best road team, and Iowa pulled out to a quick lead in the first half of Saturday’s game. But the Boilermakers weathered the storm, scoring on a late free throw to send the game to overtime where they put the defensive stoppers on, allowing a mere three points in overtime for the 80-77 win.

Okay, so that’s what we know. What no one knows is how Purdue is 14-4 and ready for an NCAA Tournament appearance (remember the Boilermakers not only beat Indiana handily, they also handed Louisville its only loss of the season.

The other thing no one can predict is how Purdue will respond to the schedule getting tougher down the stretch. Four of the five home games for the Boilermakers are potential losses (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois), while trips to Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan look like land mines as well. Last year, 11 wins grabbed a share of the conference crown, which means Purdue needs to win five more to match that. But a 3-6 finish is far from out of the question.

Michigan (6-2)

The key for the Wolverines is to continued to believe they have something to play for, in spite of the self-imposed sanctions guaranteeing no postseason trip this year.

That, and getting LaVell Blanchard going again.

Blanchard was nonexistent in the Wolverines’ key win over Michigan State. The senior then disappeared in a second-half collapse at Illinois and was held under double-digits and sat the pine down the stretch at Minnesota. Michigan did put five freshman in double figures for points during that loss to Minnesota, a sure sign that they are growing up rapidly.

If Blanchard and junior Bernard Robinson Jr. can find their strokes, Michigan could combine its fairly tenacious defense with a potent offense — and possibly a Big Ten crown.

The Wolverines schedule is also difficult, as they still must travel to Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin and Penn State while hosting Iowa, Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. That last game with Purdue could be for, at the very least, a share of the conference title.

Michigan’s game against Iowa next Saturday could be a huge hint at how the Wolverines will play down the stretch now that the reality of a definitive ending date for the season is setting in.

Wisconsin (5-2)

Every single year people wonder how Wisconsin challenges for the Big Ten title. Maybe people should stop wondering.

The Badgers have — yet again — risen toward the top of the conference and are desperately fighting to defend their Big Ten crown from last year.

Kirk Penny has been as outstanding as expected for the Badgers, and the rest of the pieces have fallen into place during their current five-game win streak. But four of those win came at home, and the last two were against Northwestern and Penn State.

Wisconsin needs to find a way to win on the road, having dropped two of three in conference play outside of Madison, including that meltdown at Michigan. With trips to Purdue, Indiana and Minnesota still on the docket, the two-loss Badgers could turn into the five-loss Badgers real quick. Plus, the four remaining Wisconsin home games come against Indiana, Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan.

Ouch.

It’s all about defense down the stretch for Wisconsin, who could make a major statement on Wednesday at Purdue with a victory.

Illinois (5-3)

The Illini are struggling to find consistency — especially away from home, and it might cost them a Big Ten title.

Illinois has lost at Indiana, Iowa and Michigan State and still must travel to Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin before this thing is said and done. The Illini did pick up a big win at Minnesota at the start of the conference year, but they will need to run the table at home and pull out one more road game to get to that potentially-magical 11-win plateau.

Champaign hasn’t exactly been a fortress, either. Michigan outplayed the Illini for 30 minutes, and Wisconsin hung with Illinois the entire game as well.

Teams are keying on Brian Cook, and too often the rest of the Illini have disappeared. They still need a consistent second scorer if they are going to win the Big Ten.

Indiana (4-3)

Hmm — when will the real Indiana Hoosiers show up? Or has this been the real Hoosiers?

Whatever the case, what’s been going on in Bloomington won’t be bringing home a conference crown. The scoring has been there with Bracey Wright, Jeff Newton and Tom Coverdale.

But, surprisingly, the defense has disappeared sometimes, as was the case against Louisville on Saturday. First off, give the Hoosiers credit for going to Louisville in the midst of the conference season. Secondly, try and figure out why the Hoosiers gave up 91 points to the Cardinals.

It was the exact opposite of Indiana’s 61-54 loss to Michigan State, when the offense didn’t show up. Consistency must be established or Indiana won’t be cutting down any more nets in the very near future.

The Rest

Minnesota (4-3), Iowa (3-3), Michigan State (4-4), Ohio State (3-5), Northwestern (0-7) and Penn State (0-7)

Why clump the rest of these teams together? Because none of them can win on the road, and without that aspect of play, forget a Big Ten title.

Michigan State has hit its stride with HOME (surprise) wins over Indiana and Illinois, but already at four losses, the Spartans are going to have to go no worse than 6-2 to have any semblance of a chance in the second half. But games at Indiana, Illinois and Ohio State should take care of that.

Iowa, especially without Jared Reiner, the Hawkeyes’ leading rebounder, have almost no chance to keep playing as well as they have — and that’s only gotten them to 3-3 in the conference. Probably 3-4 after a trip to Ann Arbor on Saturday.

Minnesota’s got a shot. And with an RPI near 50, the Gophers are going to need as many wins as they can get to get into the Big Dance. But the Gophers are 1-4 on the year away from home, and that win was at Penn State. They still have to head to Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois. Hmm — NIT NIT NIT? Just a thought.

This Week In the Big Ten

Wisconsin and Purdue duke it out for first place on Wednesday’s biggest contest. Minnesota travels to Ohio State. Meanwhile, Iowa and Indiana look for “sure-wins” at Penn State and Northwestern, respectively.

     

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