Down the stretch they come in the race for the 2009 Big Ten basketball championship. Michigan State still holds the driver's seat at 11-3, Purdue is in hot pursuit at 10-4 and Illinois is still viable at 10-5. Everyone else has at least seven conference losses.
It can be surprising, when you think about it, that the Spartans have not won even a piece of the conference title since 2001 and not taken it outright 1999 (though they are in the Wikipedia record book as an outright champ in 2000, since Ohio State forfeited its share due to NCAA sanctions). Surprising, because Tom Izzo has the league's most consistent program and the one that's shown it's capable of winning on the big stage, most notably its trifecta of Final Fours from 1999-2001, with a national title mixed in for 2000. The fact MSU made a Final Four run as recently as 2005 can also obscure how long the conference drought has been. As for Purdue, they haven't been on top since Gene Keady lead the program to the glorious heights of 1994-96, when they took three straight outright titles, a feat you have to go back to 1960-62 to find. Illinois has been in the winner's circle more recently, taking the title home with their great team in '05, that came within a couple baskets of winning the national title.
How does it all size up this year. Can Michigan State put it away? Right now, everything is pointing to the season finale on March 8 in East Lansing. Purdue comes to town. Izzo's team can have at least a share of the crown put away prior to that, but they have to go through a road game in Champaign this Sunday. Otherwise, feasting on Iowa at home and Indiana on the road shouldn't be too much of a problem.
What about Purdue, can they keep pace and at least control their destiny for a half of the prize that eluded them down the stretch last year? The stretch run doesn't start easy. They're in Ann Arbor tonight against a desperate Wolverine squad. While home games against Ohio State and Northwestern will see them favored, they aren't gimmes either.
Illinois has the most intriguing case. Since they play Michigan State, they can close to within a game of their own accord. But they have to get some help elsewhere, otherwise both the Spartans and Boilers would each showdown in the finale with 4 losses apiece, while Illinois would be stuck on 5. At least one of their rivals has to lose, and then the team that lost has to turn around and win the showdown game on the final Sunday of the regular season. Purdue, with their more difficult closing schedule, is the likeliest bet and the best shot comes tonight in Ann Arbor.
Even given all that, Illinois still has to take care of a home game with Minnesota, a team that's managed to win in Madison. And they have to go to Penn State, in a reprise of that 38-33 defensive brawl, the game that's sitting there like a huge black mark on Bruce Weber's championship hopes. All the other losses were on the road to good teams (Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota). Penn State's a good team too, but not the kind you can lose to at home if you want to win a title.
The betting here is that March 8 will see Michigan State and Purdue face off in the same situation they're at right now. With the Spartans having one foot in the door and the Boilers looking to share the wealth. It may be with 3 and 4 losses respectively, or it may be 4 and 5, but I'm guessing it will come down to that.
There's good conference race action going on across the nation. In the ACC, North Carolina's surprise loss to Maryland last Saturday opened the door for Clemson and Duke to pull within a game of the front-running Tar Heels. The Big 12 saw Kansas get a leg up on a Blake Griffin-less Oklahoma this week and they're one game ahead of both the Sooners and Missouri. It doesn't get easier for Bill Self, who has another championship-type battle on Sunday when he plays Mizzou. The Pac-10 is still up for grabs, as everyone has at least four conference losses. Washington and Arizona State are tied in the loss column, while slumping UCLA, along with Cal, are one game behind.
The Big East is also a free-for-all, with Louisville, UConn and Marquette tied with two losses apiece. But with 16 teams in the league, the Big East comes nowhere close to having its team play comparable schedules, making this the one conference I'm more inclined to give deference to the league tournament as the more prestigious prize. And the SEC is all put away, as LSU is three games ahead of the pack.