Big Ten Basketball: Michigan & Michigan State Get Set For The Stretch Drive

The Big Ten basketball race got a little tighter this weekend, with Michigan and Michigan State each losing. The Wolverines and Spartans are still in control of the race though. TheSportsNotebook looks at nine key points to know in this conference, with a primary focus on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.

*Sparty and the Wolverines are each 9-2 in league play, two games ahead of the field. Michigan won the first meeting between the two, 80-75, in East Lansing on January 25. The rematch in Ann Arbor is on February 23. Michigan State played the first game without both of its key big men, Adrien Payne and Branden Dawson, and will likely still be missing Dawson on the 23rd.

*Michigan is built on perimeter shooting. Nik Stauskas averages 17 ppg and shoots 44 percent from three-point range. Zak Irvin is at 42 percent behind the arc and Caris Levert a solid 39 percent. Then you mix in slashing forward Glenn Robinson III, with perimeter shooting inside the arc, and you have an offense that can heat up in a hurry.

*Michigan State has the post players. Payne is healthy again and averages 16 points/8 rebounds. When Dawson is healthy, he’s the conference’s top rebounder. The Spartans have more overall floor balance though, with guard Gary Harris leading the league in scoring at 18 ppg and Keith Appling being one of its most productive distributors at five assists per game.

*The Wolverines have the tougher road between now and February 23, with a game at Ohio State on Tuesday and then hosting Wisconsin on Sunday. The Spartans face challenges on the far side of the 23rd, with Iowa at home and a road trip to Ohio State.

And in the rest of the league…

*Iowa impressed me a lot at the end of last season with their high-intensity play and this year they’re combining intensity and execution. Roy Devyn Marble is averaging 17 ppg, including 26 in Saturday’s win over Michigan that kept the Hawkeyes in the conference race. Iowa is 18-6 and was projected for a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi even before the Michigan win.

*I’m a Wisconsin fan, but they have been the opposite of Iowa. The Badgers have as talented a starting five as I’ve ever seen, but a lack of defensive intensity, uncharacteristic of this program under Bo Ryan, resulted in a 1-5 stretch that put them out of the Big Ten race. Bucky can still shoot the three-ball, with three players in the 40 percent neighborhood behind the arc.

*Ohio State had their own bad stretch, and has also lost five conference games. The Buckeyes got off the schneid last weekend with a 59-58 win at Wisconsin, and then won on the road at Iowa to essentially save their season. The Buckeyes were also pegged for a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament by Lunardi prior to the weekend.

*Minnesota and Indiana are the two interesting teams in the race for March Madness. Lunardi has the Gophers in at a #10 seed, with the Hoosiers narrowly missing. Then Minnesota rallied from a double-digit deficit to beat IU this weekend, no doubt widening the gap. But Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell is quietly as good as any guard in this league, scoring and distributing at a rate that make him a contender for league MVP. Keep an eye on Tom Crean’s young team if they can get in.

*Penn State isn’t going to make the NCAA Tournament, unless by some miracle they win the conference tournament. But they’re road win at Ohio State recently showed the Nittany Lions are a team that can absolutely spoil someone’s championship hopes or push for an NCAA bid. D.J. Newbill is another player who deserves to be in the MVP discussion, averaging 18 ppg, and combined with Tim Frazier, the conference’s leading assist man, this is the best backcourt in the Big Ten.