Mondays with Rasty: Badgers have upper hand in conference title race

The last time Wisconsin won a Big Ten regular season title, Traevon Jackson, Frank Kaminsky, Duje Dukan and Josh Gasser were the senior leaders. 

Image By: Gage Meyer

With roughly one-third of the Big Ten season now completed, the race for the conference title is starting to truly take shape. So far, things are looking up for the Wisconsin Badgers in their quest for a fifth Big Ten championship since the turn of the century.

As of Sunday night, Wisconsin and Maryland sit tied atop the Big Ten standings at 5-1, with both Northwestern and Purdue a half game behind with a 5-2 record in conference play. It has been a chaotic start to the Big Ten schedule—with seemingly every team capable of losing to each other on any given night—but the Badgers have powered through their first six games with a road loss to a very good Purdue team as their only blemish.

The Big Ten as a whole is a cluttered mess this season, a conference filled with teams that mostly range from mediocre to solid. No Big Ten team has won the national championship since Michigan State did it in 2000, and it certainly doesn’t look like this will be the year that drought comes to an end. Though predicting how the NCAA Tournament will pan out is somewhat of a crapshoot, especially when it’s two months away, the conference’s best teams like Wisconsin and Purdue look like they are a piece or two away from being a true national title contender.

Though the Big Ten is a far cry from the conference it has been in recent years, this isn’t really a bad thing for the Badgers. With potential contenders like Michigan State and Indiana struggling to find consistency, it’s looking like the Big Ten championship hunt will be a three-horse race between Wisconsin, Purdue and Maryland. While Northwestern is currently right in the mix, the Wildcats have a very tough road ahead and will likely have to settle with trying to secure the first NCAA Tournament berth in program history.

If it comes down to the Badgers, the Boilermakers and the Terrapins, who could be the slight favorite at this point? Looking at each team’s respective schedules, Wisconsin just might have the inside track.

The Badgers have earned key road wins against Indiana and Minnesota up this point and will not have to face Purdue again during the regular season. Looking ahead, they have six games that would be pretty bad losses (vs. Penn State, vs. Rutgers, at Illinois, at Nebraska, at Ohio State, vs. Iowa) and six games that should be a bit tougher (vs. Indiana, vs. Northwestern, at Michigan, vs. Maryland, at Michigan State, vs. Minnesota). If Wisconsin takes care of business in those arguably easier six games unscathed, winning just half of the other six matchups would leave the Badgers with a 14-4 record in conference play. They have the fortune of only needing to face Michigan State and Maryland once and getting the Terrapins, the only team remaining on their schedule that’s currently ranked, at the Kohl Center. Going 9-3 over these final 12 games is an entirely reasonable expectation for this Wisconsin team.

Meanwhile, the paths that lie ahead for both Maryland and Purdue aren’t quite as favorable.

The Terrapins currently sit at 17-2 overall and are led by their outstanding point guard Melo Trimble. They’ve certainly exceeded expectations up to this point and are having a stellar season, but they have also found themselves needing to escape by the skin of their teeth in more than a few games this year. Remaining on their schedule—in addition to the trip to Madison—are two games against Minnesota, a road game versus Northwestern and home matchups against Purdue and Michigan State.

It’s not necessarily a whole lot tougher than Wisconsin’s slate, but the Terrapins will likely have a thin margin for error in their bid for a Big Ten title if they fail to pull off an upset at the Kohl Center. And given their propensity for end-of-game tightrope acts this season, that could spell trouble for Mark Turgeon’s squad.

Then you have the Boilermakers, who boast one of the most formidable frontcourts in the entire country, including unstoppable force of nature and Big Ten Player of the Year favorite Caleb Swanigan. As the Badgers learned firsthand, Swanigan and the Purdue frontcourt are an absolute matchup nightmare for essentially every team in the country, and they are nearly unbeatable when they’re draining threes. However, Matt Painter’s team is a better backcourt away from being a bona fide Final Four contender and faces a very challenging remaining schedule.

Purdue still has two games remaining against both Michigan State, Northwestern and archrival Indiana left, along with road games against both Maryland and Michigan. The Boilermakers can certainly beat all those teams, but they already have two conference losses and keeping pace with Wisconsin and/or Maryland might be too much to ask with a schedule that tough.

Of course, this is all just hypothetical. Swanigan and the Boilermakers could go on an absolute tear through their remaining opponents. The Terrapins might continue to silence doubters by pulling rabbits out of their hats near the end of games. Wisconsin could very well drop a game or two that it has no business losing. Trying to predict the Big Ten has been a bit of a fool’s errand at times so far this season, and there is still a ton of basketball left to be played.

But with all that said, there is cause for optimism among Wisconsin fans. The race for the Big Ten title is starting to truly take shape, and the Badgers look poised to rise above the fray.

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