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    And down the stretch they come.

    It’s a three-horse race for the Big Ten men’s basketball crown – and Ohio State is in the lead by a full head – but there is still a lot of jockeying for position going on, especially in the middle of the pack.

    After the first-place Buckeyes took down Illinois on Tuesday night at the Schottenstein Center, Minnesota was trying to take down suddenly feisty Michigan State later that evening. A win by the Gophers would have created a five-team tie for fifth place as MSU and Minnesota would have joined Illinois, Penn State and Michigan with 7-8 conference records.

    That didn’t happen as Minnesota lost grip of a six-point lead and was outscored 12-1 in the final minutes of a 53-48 loss to the Spartans. That damaging defeat at Williams Arena dropped the Gophers to 17-10 overall and 6-9 in league play. Meanwhile, Michigan State (16-11, 8-7) inched up to fourth place.

    The following night, Wisconsin edged Michigan 53-52 as Josh Gasser banked in a three at the buzzer to turn Crisler Arena into a funeral home.

    The win kept faint hopes alive for the Badgers (21-6, 11-4) to grab a share of the Big Ten prize. Wisconsin needs to beat Northwestern at home on Sunday, take down Indiana in Bloomington on March 3 – and get some help from either IU or Penn State against Ohio State – to set up a showdown with OSU (26-2, 13-2) in Columbus on March 6.

    Ohio State, meanwhile, could secure a co-championship as soon as this weekend if Purdue (23-5, 12-3) loses at Michigan State on Sunday afternoon and the Buckeyes take care of Indiana, which hasn’t won a league road game all season, in a home game later that afternoon.

    The Boilermakers (23-5, 12-3), though, are still very much alive at the moment. They took down the rival Hoosiers (12-16, 3-12) on Wednesday night, 72-61, and can keep a lot of pressure on OSU with wins down the stretch at MSU Sunday and at home against Illinois (March 1) and Iowa (March 5).

    At this writing, though, no one team has locked down a particular spot in the standings, which, of course, corresponds to seeding in the Big Ten Tournament. Even Indiana and Iowa (10-17, 3-12) are in a battle to avoid last place.

    If Ohio State wins the regular-season title, either outright or shared, it would mark the fourth Big Ten championship for the program in six years. Only three conference teams have won as many titles in as sort a span: Ohio State (1960-64), Indiana (1973-76) and Michigan State (1998-2001).

    Paint By Numbers

    Also taking shape are some very interesting team and individual races for leadership in statistical categories for men’s basketball.

    For example, heading into Thursday night’s game between Penn State and Northwestern, PSU senior guard Talor Battle had a slight lead in scoring among Big Ten players at 20.8 points per game compared to Purdue center JaJuan Johnson’s average of 20.4 ppg. In the mix behind those players were Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer (19.1 ppg), Purdue guard E’Twaun Moore (18.6), Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor (17.9), Ohio State post man Jared Sullinger (17.8) and Northwestern forward John Shurna (17.3).

    In the rebounding department heading into the penultimate weekend of the regular season, Minnesota big man Trevor Mbakwe was the only Big Ten player in double figures (10.4 per game), but Sullinger was right behind at 9.9 rpg. Michigan State’s Draymond Green was third at 8.4 rpg.

    Michigan had some league leaders as well with center Jordan Morgan atop the conference in field-goal percentage (63.2) and point guard Darius Morris ranking first in assists per game (6.8).

    The battle for top free-throw percentage (minimum 2.0 made per game) was tight with Iowa swingman Matt Gatens in first at 87.5 but Leuer (86.3) and Penn State’s David Jackson (86.2) within striking distance.

    Interestingly, with three regular-season games to go teammates Aaron Craft and David Lighty of Ohio State ranked 1-2 in the league in steals per game, 1.89 to 1.82. Green was a hair behind at 1.81. Johnson appears on pace to lead the league in blocked shots per game (2.25) but Minnesota’s Ralph Sampson III is not far behind (2.07).

    Shurna was the only Big Ten player to that point making at least half his three-point attempts – he was a league-leading 56 of 112 for a percentage of 50.0 – but Illinois guard Demetri McCamey (61 of 127, 48.0), OSU’s Jon Diebler (76 of 159, 47.8) and Wisconsin forward Keaton Nankivil (48 of 101, 47.5) also were above 45 percent.

    As a team, Ohio is on pace to shoot right around 40 percent from long range. The Buckeyes lead the league at 202 of 506 for a mark of 39.9 percent. OSU also leads the league in overall field-goal percentage at 49.3 as a team. Minnesota was the only league team holding foes below 40 percent from the field (39.5) and Illinois was the only Big Ten squad holding teams under 30 percent from long range (29.7).

    Not surprisingly, Ohio State has led the conference in scoring (77.1 ppg) and scoring margin (+17.6) while Wisconsin was tops in scoring defense (57.4 ppg) and Minnesota, which has the biggest front line in the league, was best in rebounding margin (+5.4) and blocked shots (5.6).

    Spartan Women Claim Title

    The Michigan State women lost for the first time at home all season on Thursday night as the Spartans were nipped 54-53 at the Breslin Center, but there was still reason to celebrate that evening.

    By virtue of Penn State’s home loss to Purdue, 51-49, Michigan State had secured the outright Big Ten regular-season championship. It was the first such title for MSU, which shared the conference crown in 1997 and 2005.

    MSU clinched at least a co-championship with a win over Illinois on Sunday. The Spartans (24-4, 12-3) had a chance to win the league in style but missed a last-second shot against the Buckeyes (18-9, 9-6). Ohio State had its string of six straight league titles snapped but moved into a tie in the standing with Iowa (21-7, 9-6) and Michigan (16-11, 9-6), one game behind second-place teams Penn State (21-8, 10-5) and Wisconsin (15-12, 10-5).

    Purdue (19-10, 9-7) also has a winning record in league play, leaving just Northwestern (17-11, 6-9), Minnesota (12-16, 4-11), Indiana (9-18, 3-12) and Illinois (7-21, 2-13) on the wrong side of .500 in conference play.

    Michigan State advanced all the way to the NCAA title game in 2005 under head coach Joanne P. McCallie, who left in 2007 to take over the controls at Duke. The Spartans have found recent success under her replacement, fourth-year head coach Suzy Merchant.

    This season marked the eighth straight the Spartans have won 20 or more games and  it is also the ninth straight year they have won 10 or more conference games. The 24 wins are a program high under Merchant.

    The Spartans look to become the sixth No. 1 seed to win the Big Ten Tournament, which begins March 3.

    Football Fever

    Snow and freezing temperatures still blanket most of the Midwest, but that hasn’t quelled optimism for 2011 football across the Big Ten.

    Several programs will start their spring practice sessions in less than five weeks, including defending Big Ten co-champion Ohio State. The Buckeyes begin their 15-practice spring season on March 31 and have scheduled their annual Scarlet and Gray Game for April 23 in the Horseshoe. That is the Saturday of Easter weekend.

    Ohio State (12-1, 7-1 last season) has won at least a piece of the conference crown for a record six straight years and came through with a gutty 31-26 win over Arkansas in the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

    Still, the Big Ten finished just 3-5 in bowl games thanks to a rough New Year’s Day. League co-champion Wisconsin was nipped by TCU in the Rose Bowl while the other title sharer, Michigan State, was massacred by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. Likewise, Penn State and Michigan lost to SEC teams Florida and Mississippi State and Northwestern couldn’t get past Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.

    The league, however, should be noticeably stronger in the game of pigskin with Nebraska now set to join the conference. The arrival of the Cornhuskers swells the conference to 12 teams, which will now be split into two divisions. The new divisions will be The Leaders (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin) and The Legends (Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern).

    The new format brings a new outlook and hopes suddenly are high again at Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan with newly hired coaches in place. Minnesota canned Tim Brewster in October and after the season filled the void by hiring Northern Illinois’ Jerry Kill. Indiana ousted Bill Lynch in November and tabbed Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson as his replacement.

    Michigan waited until January, after the Wolverines were bombed 52-14 in the Gator Bowl and were still smarting from a seventh straight loss to Ohio State, to fire embattled head coach Rich Rodriguez. After a very unsuccessful three-year run under RichRod, UM is now putting its trust on former assistant Brady Hoke, who ushered turnarounds at Ball State and San Diego State.

    Also looking to turn their fortunes are the Iowa Hawkeyes. Head coach Kirk Ferentz thought he had a title contender but instead endured a disappointing 8-5 season that included losses in the final three games of the regular season. That includes a defeat at the hands of lowly Minnesota.

    After that, Iowa’s top receiver (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) and running back (Adam Robinson) were suspended for off-field issues, although the Hawkeyes did rally to upset No. 12 Missouri in the Insight Bowl, 27-24. Still, the bad news continued in the off-season as 13 Iowa players were hospitalized in January with a rare muscle disorder.

    Iowa will try to stay with Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan in The Legends division with the loss of several key players including defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn and quarterback Ricky Stanzi. James Vandenberg will be under the microscope at QB with Stanzi departed.

    Ohio State also lost a slew of starters on defense and some offensive linemen but the Buckeyes did not have a junior leave the program early to head off to the NFL for the first time in the Tressel era.

    Key underclassmen from the Big Ten who are now at the NFL combine or planning a professional career include Wisconsin running back John Clay, Indiana wide receiver Tandon Doss, Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, and three standouts from Illinois – running back Mikel Leshoure, defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson.

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Big10 RappUp

In our latest installment, we look at the state of the Big Ten men's basketball race, declare Michigan State as the winner on the women's side, begin to outline what lies ahead in football and more.

 
 
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