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