Initial predictions for Big Ten Champion change over span of season

By Jeremy Werner

Michigan State and Indiana were the popular picks to win the Big Ten at the beginning of the season, but a lot has changed since then.

The Spartans (20-5, 8-4) have failed to live up to expectations in conference play, while the Hoosiers (22-4, 11-2) have been able to continue their winning ways despite NCAA allegations against Kelvin Sampson.

Indiana, led by probable All-Americans D.J. White and Eric Gordon, seems to have rallied around their beleaguered coach, defeating Michigan State on Saturday and streaking Purdue on Tuesday. Gordon and White, the Big Ten’s top two scorers, form the best tandem in the nation. Although Indiana has one of the most talented teams in the country, the Hoosiers cannot rest quite yet.

With the Big Ten title up for grabs, Purdue and Wisconsin have catapulted to the top of the conference standings, along with Indiana. With the Hoosiers, Badgers and Boilermakers posting two losses each, the final weeks of the Big Ten season should get exciting.

Wisconsin (21-4, 11-2) enters Wednesday’s match-up with the Illini at the second spot in the standings and a No. 11 ranking in the AP poll following wins over Indiana and Minnesota last week.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
Thank you for subscribing!

Wisconsin doesn’t have the elite talent of the Hoosiers, but the Badgers have multiple options, allowing the team to run a synchronized, balanced offense – they are the only team in the Big Ten with four different players averaging 10 or more points in Big Ten play. Wisconsin has also lived up to its nickname, badgering opponents defensively, leading the Big Ten in scoring defense at 55.4 points per game.

Wisconsin’s balance and success is the result of experience – a luxury many Big Ten teams don’t have. The Badgers start four upperclassmen, including seniors Brian Butch and Michael Flowers. The Badgers have used this experience to build an impressive NCAA tournament résumé, including wins against No. 7 Texas and No. 15 Indiana.

But one team the Badgers have been unable to conquer is Purdue. The Boilermakers (21-6, 12-2) rattled off an 11-game win streak during the Big Ten season, including two close victories over Wisconsin, before falling to the Hoosiers.

While the Badgers have won with experience, the Boilermakers have won with fresh faces. Purdue coach Matt Painter usually sends out a lineup comprised entirely of underclassmen. Three of the Boilermakers top four scorers are true freshmen: E’Twaun Moore (11.9 points per game), Robbie Hummel (11.3) and Scott Martin (8.7).

Like Wisconsin, Purdue has great balance on offense. Eight different players have led the team in scoring in at least one game this season, and four players (Hummel, Moore, Keaton Grant and Marcus Green) have scored more than 20 points in a game.

Painter has quickly turned the program around after taking over for Gene Keady. In his first season as head coach, Painter’s Boilermakers placed 10th in the Big Ten, finishing with a 9-19 overall record. Last season, Purdue improved to fourth in the conference and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2003.

Although they are young, Painter’s crew has played like seasoned veterans since losing three of five games during a stretch in mid-December. Eight of Purdue’s 11 Big Ten victories have been by seven points or less, a statistic uncharacteristic of a young team.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Illinois has either led, been tied or trailed by no more than three points with less than two minutes remaining in nine losses.

Painter, the most deserving of the NCAA’s Coach of the Year Award, was an assistant under Bruce Weber at Southern Illinois from 1998 to 2003, and said he learned most of his coaching ways from Weber. Following an 83-75 loss to the Boilermakers on Feb. 2, Weber said Purdue was playing the best basketball in the Big Ten. He even said they were the second best team the Illini have played this season, behind Duke.

“I don’t think anyone can anticipate how quick (Purdue has) kind of turned it around and you have to give Matt a lot of credit,” Weber said. “He’s done an amazing job, and it has been just amazing their turnaround after mid-December when they really hit some struggles.”

Purdue’s loss to Indiana was a heartbreaker, but with Ohio State as the only remaining opponent with a conference winning record, the Boilermakers are very much alive. In fact, Indiana and Wisconsin also have the Buckeyes on the schedule, along with Michigan State.

Although the Badgers, Hoosiers and Boilermakers all have played extremely well this season, Thad Matta’s Buckeyes will ultimately decide who will be crowned Big Ten champion.

Jeremy Werner is a junior in communications and can be reached at [email protected].