Big Ten with three clear tiers


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With three weeks remaining in the Big Ten season, the conference standings have been divided into three tiers.

At the top, five teams realistically seem to be locks for the NCAA Tournament next month. No. 9 Ohio State and No. 11 Michigan State are tied for first place at 10-3, and No. 4 Purdue sits a half-game behind at 9-3.

Both No. 14 Wisconsin and Illinois are a full game back at 9-4.

Of the five, the Buckeyes are the ones with a monumental opportunity to become the clear front-runner with two marquee showdowns this week. They’re also riding a nine-game winning streak.

The first contest will occur Wednesday, when Ohio State will host Purdue. The Buckeyes won the first meeting last month in West Lafayette, Ind., 70-66.

Should Ohio State take care of Purdue again, sole possession of first place could be in play when the Buckeyes travel to East Lansing, Mich., for a Feb. 21 battle with Michigan State.

But as big as this week is for his program, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta hasn’t found himself looking too far ahead.

“There’s a lot of basketball still to be played,” he said on Monday during the Big Ten teleconference. “We’ve still got five games left in the regular season, and unfortunately, all five are going to be wars.”

The middle Big Ten tier consists of Northwestern, Michigan, and Minnesota — all of whom are either on the bubble or staring at NIT bids.

Of those three squads, the Golden Gophers are in the most trouble. Following a home loss to Michigan and an overtime defeat at Northwestern, Minnesota’s chances of making the NCAA tourney took a crippling blow.

“We’re coming off a tough week where we really didn’t play well,” Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said during the Big Ten teleconference. “We played well in stretches, but there were moments where we just couldn’t sustain our consistency.”

However, all is not lost. Minnesota will play four of its final six games in “The Barn” in Minneapolis, including its next three contests. The home stand begins with archrival Wisconsin arriving on Thursday and includes a game with Purdue next week.

With the Badgers and Boilermakers both emerging as strong contenders for the conference crown, wins in either or both of those games would put Minnesota back in the conversation of bubble teams battling for at-large spots.

Meanwhile, the bottom tier features Indiana, Iowa, and Penn State, and the Nittany Lions (0-12) are still in search of their first Big Ten win.

Last week proved to be an awful week for the Hoosiers. In its last two games, Indiana posted two dreadful performances, losing to the Buckeyes at home by 17 points, then getting pummeled by the Badgers, 83-55.

This week doesn’t get any easier for Tom Crean’s squad, with Michigan State visiting Assembly Hall this evening, followed by a trip to Minnesota to play a Golden Gopher squad that is seeking payback for an 81-78 overtime loss last month.

“I’ve got to keep doing a better job of making sure that we understand how we tough we have to be,” Crean said on Monday during the Big Ten teleconference. “Right now, we lose belief real quick, and in the course of games, that’s what I think hurts us.”

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