The Big Ten men’s basketball standings appear to resemble a three-horse race at the top of the conference, but not all three contenders are entering the final stretch firing on all cylinders.
A hairline fracture to Michigan State’s Nick Ward, suffered during Sunday’s win against Ohio State, has sidelined the junior center indefinitely and given the Spartans a second significant injury with which to contend.
Ward’s injury, coupled with the season-ending ankle injury suffered by guard Joshua Langford in late December, should tamp some of the expected hoopla around the two remaining showdowns between Michigan and Michigan State.
It may also allow Purdue to swoop in and take advantage. Big Ten coach of the year candidate Matt Painter has taken a Boilermakers team that lost four starters from last year and now has won 10 of their past 11 games, including a season sweep of rival Indiana.
Here’s a look at the conference:
* Big risers: With Michigan State and Michigan facing two head-to-head battles remaining on the schedule, Purdue has the easiest path to a Big Ten title. A gritty (read: ugly) win at Indiana shows that the Boilermakers have the mettle to nab the hardware.
* Big fallers: It’s not just that Ohio State has now lost two straight, it’s that the Buckeyes have done so in particularly rough fashion. Ohio State was held to 56 points in a home loss to Illinois, then turned in a clunker of a second half in a defeat at Michigan State. If they can’t start taking better care of the ball, the Big Ten’s most-prolific turnover team is going to come up short in an NCAA Tournament bid.
* Big picture: Iowa is arguably the most dangerous team in the league, but their recent surge carries an aura of unsustainability. Indiana and Nebraska seem to know no depths to their free-falling seasons, while the race atop the conference is poised for a thrilling finish.
Here are this week’s rankings (records and statistics through Tuesday’s games):
1. Purdue (19-7, 12-3): A troubling loss to Maryland was vanquished with a pair of hard-fought wins. (Last week: 5)
2. Michigan (23-3, 12-3): Perimeter shooting remains a concern, but the Wolverines remain in the top class of the league. (LW: 2)
3. Michigan State (21-5, 12-3): With Joshua Langford and now Nick Ward out, expectations certainly must be lowered for the Spartans. (LW: 1)
4. Maryland (20-7, 11-5): The Terrapins’ one-point win at Iowa was Maryland’s first road win against a ranked team since 2008. (LW: 4)
5. Iowa (20-6, 9-6): The Hawkeyes couldn’t make it three straight buzzer-beating wins when their last two chances didn’t fall against Maryland. (LW: 3)
6. Wisconsin (18-8, 10-5): It’s troubling when all-conference shoo-in Ethan Happ is a late-game liability due to his foul shooting. (LW: 6)
7. Minnesota (17-9, 7-8): A 21-point win against Indiana was the Golden Gophers’ most lopsided victory in 33 Big Ten games. (LW: 8)
8. Illinois (10-16, 6-9): Nobody wants to play Illinois right now. The Illini are young, dangerous and improving. (LW: 9)
9. Ohio State (16-9, 6-8): The 13 points scored during the second half at Michigan State were the fewest for OSU in a half in 23 years. (LW: 7)
10. Penn State (10-16, 3-12): A season-high 95 points delivered a major blow to Nebraska’s postseason hopes. (LW: 10)
11. Rutgers (12-13, 5-10): It took an Iowa miracle to deny the Scarlet Knights a second upset of a ranked team this season. (LW: 12)
12. Indiana (13-13, 4-11): A 48-46 home loss to Purdue felt like the final push off the cliff for this disappointing Indiana season. (LW: 11)
13. Northwestern (12-13, 3-11): Since beating Indiana and Rutgers back-to-back, the Wildcats are averaging 55.8 points in a six-game losing streak. (LW: 13)
14. Nebraska (15-12, 5-11): A two-game winning streak was negated with a shocking, 24-point loss at Penn State. (LW: 14)