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Big Ten Notebook

February 20, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Big Ten Notebook

by Chris Burke

Turns out that, in the Big Ten, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

One year after four teams tied for first in the Big Ten regular season conference, there are three schools knotted at the top, and two others still in contention just one loss behind.

Wisconsin (8-3) is far from a surprise, as the Badgers’ overwhelming swarm of defense combined with guard Kirk Penney’s play once again has the underrated team on top of the conference. They’ve even managed to recover from that seemingly devastating loss to Michigan to open the Big Ten season, when the Badgers blew a 15-point lead in the game’s final six minutes.

But the big surprises come in the form of Purdue (8-3) and Michigan (8-3), a pair of teams that still have to meet twice – including the game’s final weekend and Wednesday in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers have jumped on guard Willie Deane’s back, as he has posted over 17 points a game, and waited out others to pitch in on random occasions.

Michigan, meanwhile, has seen a five-man freshman class lead its resurgence. The Wolverines are, of course, still led in scoring by LaVell Blanchard who is a month away from finishing his career having led the team in scoring and rebounding during all four of his years in Ann Arbor.

Illinois (7-4) served notice that it is still alive in the chase for the title, demolishing Michigan State 70-40 on Tuesday, firmly planting the Spartans (6-6) back on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Minnesota (6-4) has also stayed in the hunt by protecting its home court, save a loss to Illinois, in conference play. The easiest schedule the rest of the way? It’s probably Illinois – the Fighting Illini play two more at home now, against Northwestern and Indiana before closing at Michigan, at Wisconsin and home to Minnesota.

Wisconsin has a favorable road as well. A trip to Penn State is very manageable, as are, potentially, road games at Iowa and Minnesota and home games vs. Michigan and Illinois.

Minnesota is more or less done, with six games to go, but Michigan and Purdue’s two battles with each other will probably be the key.

Spartans In?

If there was ever a time for Michigan State to return home for four straight games (three in conference, one vs. Syracuse), it’s now.

The Spartans were absolutely embarrassed on national television Tuesday, trailing Illinois 37-17 at halftime, and watching the second half deficit climb over 30 before “rallying” late for the 70-40 final.

At 6-6 in the conference and 14-10 overall, the Spartans are very much on the bubble for the tournament, although Digger Phelps claimed on College Hoops 2Night on ESPN Tuesday, that if the Spartans finish at .500 heading into the Big Ten tournament, they should be a lock for the NCAA tournament.

Because of their tough schedule, the Spartans are staying fairly high in the RPI considering that they have 10 losses — and they have an impressive road win at Kentucky, a home win over Illinois and a near-win at Oklahoma.

8-8 should get it done, but that would require the Spartans to get past the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, most likely.

This Week In The Big Ten

Purdue and Michigan’s matchup in West Lafayette on Wednesday is no doubt the highlight of the weekday slate. The winner takes a HUGE step toward at least a share of the conference title – especially if it’s Michigan, who has two home games and a trip to Penn State looming as potential wins.

On Saturday, Purdue will be challenged again, traveling to a desperate Ohio State. Wisconsin heads to Iowa for a tricky matchup, while Michigan State hosts Syracuse in an important non-conference game.

P.S. – Think the Big Ten’s struggling this year?

Well, let Hoopville reader David Grasher put your fears to rest:

The Big Ten is getting no respect. Over the course of the season, I have heard nothing more than how “weak” the Big Ten Conference is this season. Wisconsin should be ranked right now and its [sic] a pity they aren’t. What – and Xavier is a powerhouse? Bring any teams [sic] to these arenas and they will go home with a big fat “L” on their record – period. You would perish in Champaign or West Lafayette! The Cameron Crazies are a piece of cake compared to the Orange Krush!

I am not doubtful that the Big Ten will blow the rest of the competition out of the water in the NCAA tournament this year. All of those games in hostile arenas will pay off immensely. Critics of the Big Ten need to get their facts straight before spouting off such ignorance! They need to sit down, shut up and turn on the tube, because they obviously have not been watching enough SportsCenter over the years – da da da – da da da!

Well, there you have it. Thanks, David.

To be fair, the Big Ten has seven teams separated by three games in the standings, and currently has a conference RPI of 4th, behind only the SEC, Big 12, and ACC. Plus, the Big Ten is ahead of the Big East (5th), who has four teams in the Top 25.


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