Big (Ten) finish in offing

EAST LANSING, Mich. – The race is on in the Big Ten, the contenders pretty much who we thought they would be.

JaJuan Johnson dominated the middle for Purdue, scoring 19 points and grabbing seven rebounds in Tuesday's victory against Michigan State.
(AP Photo)

How they got here, that’s a whole different story.

Developments in mid-Michigan and in Madison, Wis., have set up what promises to be one of the most intriguing conference finishes in a long time, maybe ever. The twists and turns at Kohl Center and Breslin Center on Tuesday night were perhaps the most improbable moments in what has already been a topsy-turvy season.

The evening began with recently left-for-dead Illinois stunning No. 11 Wisconsin in Madtown 63-56. A couple of hours later, right here, under 10 inches of snow, No. 6 Purdue beat No. 10 Michigan State 76-64, its first win at MSU since 1998.

Homecourt advantage be damned. The Illini ended the Badgers’ 18-game home winning streak and a 51-game run at Kohl against unranked Big Ten foes. At Breslin, despite a raucous “White Out” crowd, a nine-game Spartan skein against the Boilers was blown up.

The end result: a jumbled bunch at the top of the conference with MSU, Purdue, Ohio State and Illinois all with three league losses. Just a game behind, always dangerous Wisconsin.

It’s almost anyone’s conference to win with three weeks left of regular-season play.

“Some idiot told you a long time ago that four or five losses would win the league and we’re getting closer to that number unfortunately,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, referring to his own self-effacing, self-fulfilling prophecy.

So who’s stock are you buying? Is it Purdue, the team that began league play with three losses but has won six straight? Is it MSU, which reeled off nine consecutive conference wins, but has dropped its last three?

How about Ohio State, winners of four in a row and seven of eight, the lone loss coming out of conference to West Virginia? And then there’s the Illini, on a five-game roll in the wake of three consecutive stumbles.

Michigan State looked to be the team to beat with a three-game lead in the standings eight days ago. But their inability to defend anyone wearing black on this night and an uncharacteristic lack of hustle had Izzo searching for answers.

“When we’re jogging back on defense and they’re going in for layups and dunks off the fastbreak … that’s effort-related and that’s just unacceptable,” said Izzo, whose team trailed by 18 points, pulled within three with 4:29 remaining, then faded. “But it’s still my team and I’ve got to straighten it out. We’re still tied for first.”

Anyone who witnessed the way Purdue shot the ball in the first half has to be banking on the Boilers. They fired at a sizzling 65.2 percent clip from the field in building a 14-point advantage that grew in the second half. On the night they made good on 56.8 percent of their shots.

The Illini's Demetri McCamey was in a festive mood after scoring 27 points to lead Illinois past Wisconsin in Madison.
(AP Photo)

E’Twaun Moore was the main catalyst, striking for 25 points and knocking down four 3-pointers. JaJuan Johnson was a force inside, scoring 19 points and pulling down seven rebounds. Robbie Hummel did his own modest amount of damage, collecting 15 points and five boards.

“It was a huge win for us and a great atmosphere,” said a smiling Hummel, huddled with family at midcourt after snapping the Breslin hex. “But we know we have a lot of work to do.”

A look at the remaining schedules for the contenders reveals that Purdue (20-3, 8-3) still has to go to Ohio State, Minnesota and protect home court against the Spartans and Illini. MSU (19-6, 9-3) gets Ohio State at home, travels to Purdue and closes against archrival Michigan. The Buckeyes (18-6, 8-3) have a home and away with Illinois, play host to Purdue and come to East Lansing. Illinois (17-8, 9-3) gets the Buckeyes twice, goes to West Lafayette and finishes in Champaign with Wisconsin.

The deciding factors may well be heart and health. Purdue seems to have plenty of both with their big three of Moore, Johnson and Hummel surging. The recent return of speedy point guard Lewis Jackson from surgery on a broken foot should help.

“I think guys have stepped up and rebounded,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said, speaking literally and figuratively. “It really has been a team effort, not anyone single-handedly filling that void. And we’ve shot the ball better and that goes a long way.”

The Spartans welcomed back their point man, Kalin Lucas, who sprained his right ankle in their Feb. 2 loss to the Badgers and missed the entire defeat at Illinois. Lucas, who hadn’t practiced, managed 12 points and an assist in 29 minutes, but clearly wasn’t 100 percent. He shot just 2-for-6 from the field. Then there’s MSU’s defensive deficiencies that need to be cured and fast. Durrell Summers disappearing act (he was benched in the second half) is another concern.

The heartiest and healthiest squad might be Ohio State. Evan Turner has come back from an early back injury with a fury, and is averaging 19.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists. He’s gone off for 32 and 27 points his last two games.

Nobody wants to play the Buckeyes right now.

Red-hot Illinois has to be taken seriously but still has a lot to prove. Demetri McCamey has been a scoring stalwart with 27 against the Badgers, 22 against the Spartans.

So buckle up for a wild ride to decide who’s the boss in the Big Ten.

As Tuesday night’s homewrecking losses attest, anything’s possible.

Gerry Ahern is the Managing Editor/Colleges for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Gerry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Feb 10, 2010