UPDATE 2/25 - 3:40 PM: Robbie Hummel is out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
After Wisconsin's uncomfortably close home win against Northwestern, it was easy to worry about the Badgers. Wisconsin shot a blistering 75% in the first half against the porous Wildcat defense, but needed every ounce of energy to hold on in the second half. [box score] Even though the team reached the 20-win mark for the sixth time in Bo Ryan's tenure, something has not seemed right as Jon Leuer tries to get assimilated back into the lineup off the bench.
But tight finishes turned out to be the growing norm in the Big Ten this week.
On Wednesday night, Purdue needed a Keaton Grant jumper to overcome Robbie Hummel's knee injury at Minnesota and Ohio State ended up getting all it could handle from Penn State. So if Wisconsin was planning on making up ground when someone else above them stumbled, it's time for Plan B.
Despite splitting it's last four games, Wisconsin still had an efficiency footprint identical to the streaking Boilermakers prior to Wednesday's games. Along with Ohio State, these teams clearly have posted the best combined offensive and defensive efficiency numbers in league play. That is a compliment to how well the team started out in conference. But it's not time to go back to the drawing board for the Badgers, since there is still positioning and seeding to play for.
Among the five top tier teams in the Big Ten, only three of their 21 combined losses have been to "bottom six" conference teams. And those losses came only to Northwestern (twice) and Minnesota (once). So it's safe to assume that Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin can be penciled in for wins against anyone named Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. That leaves about 3-4 important games left in the Big Ten:
Minnesota @ Illinois (Feb. 27)Purdue has now won 10 in a row, but it's reasonable to think they may drop a game or two unexpectedly if Hummel is shelved for an extended period. The Boilers' tilt with the Spartans is the most likely spot. If Purdue can win, say hello to your 2010 champion.
Michigan State @ Purdue (Feb. 28)
Illinois @ Ohio State (Mar. 2)
Wisconsin @ Illinois (Mar. 7)
If not, we could be looking at a three-way tie at 14-4, depending of course on OSU's ability to get by Illinois. Illinois has three tough remaining games. Wisconsin should control it's own destiny with respect to finishing above Illinois for fourth place (to keep that other "streak" alive) because of their season finale in Champaign.
Any way you slice it, the top of the Big Ten will be a cluttered mix of quality teams.
: : :
While the Badgers are probably anxious to work out the kinks on their road trip to Bloomington, Trevon Hughes is will continue to move up the Wisconsin record books. With one more steal, Hughes will tie Michael Finley for fifth place in career thefts. With one more made free throw, Pop will tie Dick Cable for ninth on that all-time list.