Easiest way to take Big Ten title: Win out

Tough game at Michigan begins stretch of eight winnable games

Tuesday's win against Michigan State did a lot of good for not only Wisconsin, but a number of other teams trailing the Spartans in the Big Ten standings as well. Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State all won their next game and closed the gap between them and MSU to two games.

Still, it's a very steep uphill battle for any team trying to catch the Spartans, who built a sizeable lead by winning their first nine conference games. The result is somewhat of a helpless feeling. Sure, a lot of good came from Wisconsin's win Tuesday night, but it doesn't compare to the bad that would have come from a Michigan State win.

The UW win helped three teams close to within a manageable two-game deficit, but a loss would have pushed the Badgers back to a four-game deficit -- one that would be nearly impossible to overcome.

The point is that Tuesday's win over Michigan State was very impressive, very important and very helpful, but there is still a lot of work to do.

The Spartans will lose again. I promise. But how many games will they lose? The back-nine is much tougher than the front-nine for Michigan State but Sparty did itself a favor by winning the kind of road games a Big Ten title contender has to win. The Spartans won at Northwestern, at Michigan and at Minnesota. They still have to play at Purdue and host the Boilermakers and Buckeyes. Saturday's night game at Illinois qualifies as one of those a Big Ten title contender has to win.

Those are the kind of games that Wisconsin has littered all over their back-nine, the first of which is Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor.

It's very possible the Spartans only have two losses left on their schedule, which means a total of three Big Ten losses. I never took a math class in college, but I'm pretty sure that means Wisconsin -- which already has three conference losses -- has to win out. 

Theoretically, the Badgers should win out. They'll be favored in every single game except maybe the regular season finale at Illinois, which is still a very winnable game. Add Jon Leuer into the mix and Wisconsin has the talent to finish the regular season on a nine-game win streak, one that could -- and probably will -- give the Badgers at least a share of the Big Ten title.

I know what you are thinking. And I'm thinking the same thing: Wisconsin is going to lose at least one of these winnable road games. It's just one of those unexplainable known facts. The Cubs will never win the World Series. Brett Favre will play another game in the NFL. The Badgers will lose a game it shouldn't on the road.

Unfortunately that loss could come as early as Saturday when UW plays at Michigan, an 11-11 team that has no excuse for only being .500. A team that beat UConn at Crisler Arena just a couple of weeks ago. A team that came into the Kohl Center and led the Badgers for 35 minutes before falling apart at the end.

John Beilein is 0-5 against Bo Ryan and Wisconsin is the better team, but we've seen this same Badger team come off a win over a Top Five team and lose at Green Bay four days later. We've also seen this same team come off a win over a Top Five team and win on the road at Northwestern four days later (the same type of road game that a Big Ten title contender has to win). 

So what will it be, Wisconsin?

Keys to the Game

  • Attack the zone defense. Wisconsin beat Michigan State because the guards penetrated into the zone and got good looks at the basket, whether they were layups, short jumpers or kick-outs to wide open shooters. Michigan will use a few different zones, including the 1-3-1 that UW played well against at Northwestern.
  • Hold Manny Harris in check. Michigan's best player is like a time bomb ready to blow. It's been a rough four game stretch for Harris, who was suspended for a game and played poorly in the other three. Now he returns home against a big-name opponent on CBS. Don't let Harris break out of his slump.
  • Get off to a good start. This has been a common theme for UW this season. When the Badgers fall behind on the road, they lose. When they fall behind at home, they find a way to win a poorly played game. When they get off to a good start no matter where they are playing, they win.

Prediction

Michigan 61, Wisconsin 56. The Wolverines last four home games have been very easy wins over Indiana and Iowa, a convincing win over UConn and one-point loss to Michigan State. This underachieving team is better than 11-11 and they will spring a surprising upset over Wisconsin.
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