MADISON, Wis. — The unpredictability of this year’s Big Ten basketball standings is comparable to weather patterns in the Midwest. You don’t like it? Wait five minutes. It’s sure to change.
Who foresaw Purdue coming into the Kohl Center on Sunday and wiping away a double-digit deficit to defeat Wisconsin during senior day? How many expected Ohio State to take down Indiana on Tuesday and shatter the Hoosiers’ senior day festivities as well?
Those outcomes are among several that have helped to create an intriguing final surge to the regular season finish line in the toughest conference in the country. With less than a week remaining, five teams have an opportunity to earn at least a share of the Big Ten championship.
When No. 22 Wisconsin (20-9, 11-5) plays at No. 10 Michigan State (22-7, 11-5) at 8 p.m. CT Thursday, it will go a long way toward determining which school joins the fracas. Both teams are behind Indiana (13-4) and Ohio State (12-5) and could earn anywhere from a No. 2 seed to a No. 5 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament. And if Wisconsin wins its final two games and Michigan beats Indiana, the Badgers could still take the No. 1 seed by virtue of tiebreakers against Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State.
It’s all part of the madness that is March.
“This week, it’s almost the calm before the storm,” Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “It’s an interesting week. You’ve got to make sure you take care of business because you can’t look too far ahead. But you also get those butterflies in your stomach because you know right around the corner all the fun stuff is coming. The police escorts. The adoring fans. Everything like that. It’s a pretty special time coming up.”
Bruesewitz is among those Badgers who recognize it will only be special if they can find a way to win games such as the one in East Lansing. Wisconsin is coming off a shocking 69-56 defeat against Purdue, and the lingering bitter feelings were evident during Tuesday’s practice. Players on the scout team and first team took out frustrations on each other during a scrimmage that featured plenty of chatter.
“Every time you lose, especially in a game that you should take out a W, you’re going to be upset with yourself and upset with the outcome of the game,” Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker said. “Today we were still pretty upset about that stuff and we got a little testy with each other. But that just comes with being a competitive team and a team that’s in the thick of a race and trying to get a good seed in the tournament and Big Ten Tournament as well. That’s just stuff that’s going to happen.”
Wisconsin and Michigan State will enter Thursday’s contest just one game back in the loss column to first-place Indiana. The Hoosiers, guaranteed of at least a share of the Big Ten title, still must play at Michigan. A loss there could create an opportunity for Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin to earn a share of first as well. But only the winning team on Thursday will have that chance to join a possible four-way tie at the top.
Back on Jan. 22, Michigan State escaped with a 49-47 victory against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. In that game, the Badgers made just 8 of 27 3-pointers and shot 7 of 18 from the free throw line. Spartans point guard Keith Appling scored 19 points, and guard Brenden Dawson went for 18 points with 13 rebounds.
Wisconsin’s 3-point shooting has been all over the map this season, and it took another downward turn during Sunday’s loss against Purdue. The Badgers missed their final 18 long-range attempts, including all 12 in the second half, and converted just 6 of 27 tries.
Wisconsin also inexplicably lost the rebounding battle, 39-27, and generally was outmuscled and outhustled. Coaches and players admitted a similar effort put forth against Michigan State would result in an embarrassing defeat.
“That wasn’t the Wisconsin team that I’ve been watching for the past two months get better,” Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard said. “Whatever the reason, we’ll have to be much, much better. If we play like that and attack like that, we’ll get beat by 50.”
Neither Wisconsin nor Michigan State was predicted to be in this position when the season began. A group of 24 media members that cover the Big Ten projected the Spartans to finish fourth and the Badgers fifth in conference play. Indiana and Michigan were the only teams to receive first place votes, with the Hoosiers earning 21 of 24.
Wisconsin has never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten since Bo Ryan took over as coach 12 seasons ago. A victory on Thursday certainly would leave pundits looking silly once again.
“Everybody said this was the year we’re not going to finish fourth or higher, and I’d like to prove a lot of people wrong,” Bruesewitz said. “That would be fun for me.”