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February 4, 2014

No getting a handle on this year's Big Ten

It's a three-team race - wait, make that two. Iowa is the real deal - or not. Ohio State is lousy - oh, wait.

Trying to make sense of the Big Ten this year is like attempting to predict the weather - chances are you're going to be wrong as much as you'll be right.

There's not a game on the schedule that's a guaranteed win. Ask OSU, which lost at home to Penn State - before improbably winning at Wisconsin and at Iowa to improve to 5-5 in conference play. Nebraska, Wednesday night's Michigan opponent at the Crisler Center, is 3-6 in the Big Ten, but still only has just one home loss - to Michigan, by one point on a missed tip-in.

One message board poster called Northwestern "the worst Big Ten team in a decade" before the Wildcats lost at Michigan earlier this year. Since, they've ripped off five wins to stand at .500 in the conference with eight games to go, including a victory at Minnesota (now 4-5 in the conference) and Wisconsin.

What's it all mean? That there's no predicting what's coming next. That doesn't mean we can't try, however, so assuming the Wolverines take care of business tonight against Nebraska (the way we assumed OSU would knock off PSU and Wisconsin would take care of the Wildcats last week), here's what U-M needs to do to capture a Big Ten title:

  • Win the ones they'd better win. Nebraska, Minnesota and Indiana at home fall into this category. None of these teams is terrible, obviously, and the Hoosiers will beat more teams at home this year. But Big Ten champions aren't going to lose these games in their own buildings.

  • Beat the sub-.500 teams on the road. That's Purdue and Illinois at this point, and while the Illini, especially, have had trouble holding serve in their building, Champaign can still be a tough place to play. Illinois is 2-8 in conference play, though, and if you want to be a Big Ten champion, that's one you have to have.

    As for Purdue - that one could be tricky come Feb. 26, especially if the Wolverines don't play their 'A' game.

  • Split road games at Iowa and Ohio State. The Hawkeyes have now dropped two straight at home, to Michigan State and OSU, and seem ripe for the picking. That said, teams go into slumps all the time in Big Ten play, and that's a good basketball team when things are clicking.

    At OSU, meanwhile - this is becoming like Bloomington for the Wolverines, a place Michigan just doesn't play well. Part of that is because the Buckeyes are usually very good, and this year they're starting to jell at the midway point. They defend, and they'll be tough to beat in Columbus.

  • Split games with Wisconsin and Michigan State at home. Yes, Wisconsin should be a home win this year, but something tells you that Bo Ryan's team, now 5-5 in the conference, has its best ball ahead of it. Lose that one and the game with MSU a week later (Feb. 23) becomes a must win.

    Take care of business against the Spartans, though, and U-M could be in great shape. That would be two wins over MSU, giving the Wolverines the tiebreaker, and give them a bit more margin for error.

    The prediction: Michigan loses three more to finish 14-4 in conference play, which usually would be good enough for first place in the Big Ten. This year, though, that would probably put the Wolverines second to MSU, which should finish strongly when Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson return.

    As one close to the program said after the MSU road win, 'you keep underselling and we'll see if we can keep over-delivering.'

    Consider this a challenge …




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