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Badgers start crucial stretch with win

Big Ten title hopes could ride on next four games

In a conference as loaded as the Big Ten, these are the games you have to win.

The UW men's basketball team did just that Sunday with a convincing 63-46 win at Penn State to start a five-game stretch that includes four road contests and four games against teams that are currently ranked.

It's hard to predict how many losses the eventual Big Ten Champion will have, but Michigan State won the Big Ten last season with a 15-3 record in a similarly talented year across the conference. Somewhere around three or four losses seems like a good magic number, but if that is the case, anything worse than a 3-2 record in UW's current five-game stretch would arguably knock them out of the conference title chase.

With a game at No. 11 Michigan State on Wednesday and home game against No. 4 Purdue looming on Saturday, grabbing a win at Penn State was crucial. Senior Trevon Hughes led the way again with 18 points, 7 assists and five rebounds, as he picked up the slack for forward Jon Leuer who was stricken with foul trouble for the second straight game.

The win gave No. 23 Wisconsin a 2-0 start in Big Ten play and should boost them well into the national rankings. The question is, can the Badgers maintain a plus-.500 record and stay in the rankings over the next four games? After playing Michigan State and Purdue, UW travels to Northwestern and Ohio State the following week.

Spliting those four games and finishing the most grueling part of its schedule with a 4-2 Big Ten record would be nothing short of a success, considering UW would still have seven of its final 12 conference games at home.

This is when the true colors of the 2009-10 Wisconsin basketball team will show. At 12-2, its already been an impressive start to the season, even with the mind-boggling loss at Green Bay. And the Badgers know they can compete with any team left on the schedule, having already topped Duke at home.

There will be losses, however, and Wednesday night's contest at Michigan State might very well be UW's first Big Ten loss of the season. But a Big Ten title contender needs to win games like Saturday's home contest against still undefeated Purdue. And a Big Ten title contender most certainly needs to win games like Sunday's at Penn State and the always tough challenge at Northwestern.

The next four games will decide whether Wisconsin is a real darkhorse in what will surely be an incredibly exciting Big Ten Championship race and 2-2 would be enough to keep the Badgers in the mix of the top contenders.