Best of Times, Worst of Feelings (at Times) in Wide-Open Big Ten

Herb Gould

Here’s what people who say the regular season doesn’t matter in college basketball missed over the weekend.

@ With two of its top players missing and its coach under a dark cloud, Wisconsin delivered an inspired and emotional win over Michigan State on Saturday.

@ Iowa defeated Illinois in a fierce, dramatic showdown on Sunday. Luka Garza got the best of Kofi Cockburn in a battle of two of the nation’s best big men. And afterward, Fran McCaffery erupted, calling off the post-game handshake in mid-shake.

The Illinois bench outscored Iowa’s reserves 29-0, but lost 72-65 in this wacky contest. If you’re looking for a sequel, Iowa travels to Illinois on Sunday, March 8, the final day of the regular season.

Oh, and by the way, games like these will have a big influence on where these teams land on the NCAA tournament bracket. Which will have a big influence on how long they stay alive in the Big Dance.

Iowa’s win dropped Illinois into a three-way tie (in the loss column) for first place in the Big Ten with Michigan State and Maryland. Iowa, Rutgers and Penn State are just one loss back.

With six teams separated by one game, the final stretch of the Big Ten season is going to be very entertaining. So there’s still time to drop your ``it doesn’t mean anything’’ stance and enjoy the wild ride in the league that’s playing the nation’s best basketball this season. If you like college hoops, that is.

Tracking for NCAA bids

In the latest NET rankings, 11 Big Ten teams are among the nation’s top 52: Michigan State 10, Maryland 11, Ohio State 20, Iowa 21, Penn State 24, Illinois 30, Michigan 31, Wisconsin 32, Purdue 39, Minnesota 44, Indiana 52

The league, which has never had more than eight bids, is tracking for a record 10 NCAA tournament teams.

Big Ten Network analyst Mike DeCourcy, a friend who was a go-to guy for college hoops long before there was a BTN, gives the league these seeds in his latest projection: Michigan State, 3 seed; Illinois and Maryland, 4 seeds; Iowa and Penn State, 5 seeds; Rutgers, Wisconsin and Ohio State, 7 seeds; and Indiana and Michigan, 9 seeds.

Before the field is set, though, the finish to the regular season promises to feature some series thrills and spills.

The Badgers’ 64-63 win wasn’t just good theater—an under-manned team sticking up for embattled coach Greg Gard. It kept Wisconsin’s faint hopes alive in the crowd Big Ten race. (More on that later.)

The one-game suspension of Brad Davison, who averages 30 minutes a game, was one thing. The decision of Kobe King, Wisconsin’s No. 2 scorer, was another. A third-year sophomore, King told the Wisconsin State Journal he was leaving because of ``the way we were talked to as a team,’’ that he felt like a servant rather than someone his coaches cared about as a person.

That’s a serious accusation to direct against a coach—especially someone like Greg Gard, who seems to be such a solid and down-to-earth person.

Leaving a program with 10 games to go in the regular season when you are a key starter who’s being counted on for a big role?

I won’t understand this until I know more. It’s so out of character for Gard, who has recruited twins Johnny and Jordan Davis from King’s alma mater, La Crosse (Wis.) Central, in a 2020-21 recruiting class that’s considered Gard’s best.

The implications of King’s departure on the program’s future won’t be sorted out for a while. The implications of his departure on the rest of the season will be known much sooner.

Remaining opponents figure to be a big key

Although Wisconsin is in seventh place in the Big Ten, it is only two games back. Beyond that it has the most favorable remaining schedule of the top seven teams.

I hesitate to draw too many conclusions from that. Northwestern and Nebraska are the only Big Ten teams that have looked consistently over-matched this season. Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota and Purdue are capable of winning anywhere, any time.

That said, a team’s chances for success would seem to be better against the bottom seven than the top seven.

And Wisconsin only has one game left against the top seven.

Beyond the record for most NCAA teams, the Big Ten is well-positioned to break another record this season: Most losses by a conference champion. That record is five, set many times, most recently in 2012, when Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan all were 13-5.

With nine games to go for most teams, three schools have three losses, three more have four losses and one has five.

Here’s the thing, though. With that many teams bunched, and a ton of head-to-head matchups remaining, losses are going to happen. That’s why Wisconsin is still in the hunt along with the six teams ahead of it.

Here’s a breakdown of the remaining schedules of the Big Ten’s top seven. . .

Illinois (8-3)—Next five vs. Maryland, Michigan State, at Rutgers, at Penn State. Finale vs. Iowa.

Michigan State (8-3)—Four of next seven on the road, including home-and-home with Maryland, trips to Illinois and Michigan, and home games vs. Iowa and Penn State.

Maryland (7-3)—Ten games left, including home-and-homes with Michigan State and Rutgers, plus trips to Illinois, Ohio State and Minnesota.

Rutgers (7-4)—Five of remaining nine on the road, including Maryland home-and-home, plus trips to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue.

Iowa (7-4)—Five of remaining nine on the road, at Purdue, at Indiana, at Minnesota, at ichigan State and at Illinois.

Penn State (6-4)—Five of final nine on the road, and five games left against the league’s top five teams: Home-and-home with Michigan State, at Iowa and at home vs. Illinois and Rutgers.

Wisconsin (6-5)—Five of remaining nine at home. Only one game remaining against the league’s top six teams, a home game vs. Rutgers.


Herb Gould