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Big Ten Notebook

March 4, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Big Ten Notebook

by Chris Burke

Wednesday night quickly has become the most important night of the Big Ten’s regular season.

That’s because, thanks to Illinois and Wisconsin each pulling off huge road victories, the Fighting Illini and Badgers will duel for first place in the conference. A Wisconsin win would clinch the Big Ten title outright; an Illinois win would leave the Illini needing only a win at home over Minnesota to take the title home alone.

Either way, Wednesday’s game is by far the biggest of the season.

Illinois started the road warrior trend on Saturday afternoon, holding off Michigan, 82-79 in what Bill Self and Tommy Amaker both referred as possibly the best Big Ten game of the year. The game was back and forth, featuring 22 lead changes, the last of which put the Illini ahead late in the second half after the Wolverines had led by as much as seven.

Michigan had a chance to tie and take command of the Big Ten lead, but freshman Lester Abram missed a wide-open look at a 3-pointer to knot the game at 72 and it’s looking like the Wolverines’ Big Ten title drought will extend to 17 years.

Brian Cook was phenomenal again for the Illini, posting 26 points, including several key buckets down the stretch. Guard Sean Harrington nailed the game-tying 3-pointer with seven minutes left, one of four 3-pointers he hit on the day. And point guard Dee Brown struggled offensively, but stifled Michigan’s Daniel Horton, holding him to 4-of-17 shooting and 12 points.

Wisconsin then matched the Illini, pulling off a surprising victory at Minnesota, 69-61.

As always, it was the Wisconsin defense that led the charge. The Badgers held the lead for the entire game, even managing to fight off several Golden Gopher comeback attempts that dwindled that margin down to two or four points on many an occasion in the second half.

Kirk Penney was solid as always, draining four second-half 3-pointers in helping to aid the cause, handing the Gophers their second home loss of the conference season.

NCAA Tournament Outlook

Speaking of Minnesota, its NCAA Tournament stock is plummeting dramatically.

The matchup with Wisconsin was a spectacular opportunity to clinch no worse than a 9-7 mark in the Big Ten and solidify a top-50 RPI rating.

Instead, the Gophers missed that chance, and will travel to Indiana and Illinois in the season’s final week, making an 8-8 mark and 16-11 overall heading into the Big Ten Tournament not only possible, but likely.

Reaping the benefits of the sudden Minnesota collapse are Michigan State and Indiana. The two teams both have high RPI thanks to difficult schedules, but the Minnesota loss and Purdue’s sudden downturn have the Spartans and Hoosiers in position to get a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and to be locks for the big dance.

Michigan State’s victory over Purdue on Saturday was huge as the Spartans will host Iowa and close at Ohio State. With that schedule, one win is likely and two is possible, meaning the Spartans should, at the very least, get to that magical nine-win conference mark.

Indiana also snuck out a victory over the weekend. After blowing a huge second-half lead to Iowa, freshman Bracey Wright nailed a 3-pointer with under 20 seconds left to give the Hoosiers a much-needed victory. The Hoosiers close by hosting Minnesota and traveling to Penn State – another potential two-win week.

Purdue already has nine conference wins and a decent RPI rating. At 17-9 and 9-6 in the conference, the Boilermakers are on the bubble, but even a loss to Michigan on Saturday would only put them at 9-7.

The Locks: Wisconsin and Illinois are the only two definite locks right now. Both could be dangerous in the tournament, and with over 20 wins, both should be looking at high seeds.

The Bubble: If everything goes the way it is expected to this week, and there are no major upsets at the Big Ten Tournament, expect the Big Ten to send five teams. Michigan obviously cannot go, so unless Minnesota pulls out a win at Indiana or Illinois or upsets someone at the postseason tournament, look for the Spartans, Boilermakers and Hoosiers to all be dancing in two weeks.


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