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DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME: ANALYZING THE CLOSING RUNS FOR IOWA AND THE REST OF THE BIG TEN

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The finish line is in sight for Iowa and the rest of the Big Ten -- how are things shaping up?

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

We're two-thirds of the way through the Big Ten season (well, mostly -- a few teams are still on 11 games), so let's take a look at how things are setting up for the stretch run.  Iowa, of course, is part of a three-way deadlock atop the Big Ten at 11-2 with Indiana and Maryland.  Indiana and Maryland each have head-to-head tiebreakers over Iowa now, though, which puts Iowa in the #3 seed at the Big Ten Tournament for now.

GAME IOWA (10-2) INDIANA (10-2) MARYLAND (10-2)
GAME 13 Minnesota (WIN 98%) at Michigan State (WIN 22%) Wisconsin (WIN 85%)
GAME 14 at Penn State (WIN 86%) Nebraska (WIN 86%) at Minnesota (WIN 90%)
GAME 15 Wisconsin (WIN 88%) Purdue (WIN 62%) Michigan (WIN 85%)
GAME 16 at Ohio State (WIN 73%) at Illinois (WIN 74%) at Purdue (WIN 42%)
GAME 17 Indiana (WIN 79%) at Iowa (WIN 21%) Illinois (WIN 94%)
GAME 18 at Michigan (WIN 66%) Maryland (WIN 54%) at Indiana (WIN 46%)


Iowa's loss at Indiana this week removed some breathing room, but they remain in very good position to win at least a share of the Big Ten title.  Only Michigan State has an easier closing kick to the season -- Iowa has an 80% win probability in four of their final six games and they have very good probabilities in the other two games as well.  The trickiest games look like the final two against Indiana and at Michigan, but the three games before that all have their worries: the moribund atmosphere for games at Penn State can lull teams into poor play, Wisconsin has been a bogeyman team for Iowa in recent years, and Ohio State figures to be desperate to claim a signature win to help their NCAA hopes. Still, Iowa is in good shape if they take care of business.

Indiana is actually the only one of the Big Ten co-leaders who completely controls their own destiny -- they play both Iowa and Maryland in their final six games, so if they win out, they'll finish all alone in first place.  That said, they also have by far the most challenging final stretch of games -- in addition to those games with Iowa and Maryland, they also have to play Michigan State and Purdue. If they win out, they'll certainly deserve the Big Ten championship.  A loss or two seems like a more likely outcome, particularly since two of those four tough games (Iowa, Michigan State) are on the road, where the Hoosiers have looked far less invincible.

Maryland's remaining six games are a mix of very winnable games (Minnesota, Illinois) and very challenging games (Indiana, Purdue), plus a few games in-between those two poles (Wisconsin, Michigan).  In order for Iowa to win an outright Big Ten title, they need Maryland to lose at least one of their remaining games (or two, if Iowa loses another game); the games against Indiana and Purdue (both on the road) look like the best bets for that to happen.  Iowa will definitely want to root on Indiana and Purdue in those two games.

Barring some pretty unexpected upsets elsewhere, it does look very likely that the Big Ten regular season title will come down to the final weekend, when Iowa plays at Michigan on Saturday night and Maryland plays at Indiana on Sunday. Hopefully Iowa has locked up at least a share of the Big Ten title by that point -- the odds are still in their favor to do so. (KenPom is still projecting them to win the Big Ten outright at 15-3, actually, with Maryland right behind at 14-4 and Indiana at 13-5.)

There's a chance that one of those teams (though likely not Iowa, given the tiebreakers) could fall all the way out of the Top 4, but ultimately it seems likely that all three will finish in the Top 4.  That leaves just one spot remaining in the Top 4 (and the double-bye until Friday), with two teams seriously vying for it.

GAME PURDUE (8-4) MICHIGAN STATE (7-5)
GAME 13 at Michigan (WIN 53%) Indiana (WIN 78%)
GAME 14 Northwestern (WIN 88%) Wisconsin (WIN 86%)
GAME 15 at Indiana (WIN 38%) at Ohio State (WIN 71%)
GAME 16 Maryland (WIN 58%) Penn State (WIN 95%)
GAME 17 at Nebraska (WIN 67%) at Rutgers (WIN 96%)
GAME 18 Wisconsin (WIN 80%) Ohio State (WIN 90%)


Michigan is technically 8-4, same as Purdue and better than Michigan State, but their closing stretch makes genuine Top 4 contention look unlikely (see below). Purdue won the only head-to-head match-up between these two teams, so Michigan State will have to finish ahead of Purdue in order to lock up a Top 4 spot -- which seems very possible, given these schedules. Sparty's toughest remaining games are at home against Indiana this week and a road game against Ohio State. They have a great shot at winning out.

Purdue, on the other hand, has some real tricky games ahead, starting with today's road game against Michigan. Back-to-back games against Indiana and Maryland will be challenging, too -- although as Iowa fans we'll need to set aside our loathing for Our Most Hated Rival and root for them to get wins, given our need for Maryland and Indiana to stumble. That road game against Nebraska has definite trap game potential and Wisconsin is good enough to give the Boilermakers trouble in the season finale. Purdue has the edge in the race for the Top 4 between their extra win and head-to-head tiebreaker over Michigan State, but it's not too hard to see them losing two of these six games.

Three other teams are on the fringe of the Top 4 and are looking to secure a finish in the top half of the Big Ten:

GAME MICHIGAN (8-4) WISCONSIN (7-4) OHIO STATE (7-5)
GAME 12 at Minnesota (WIN) at Maryland (WIN 15%) Northwestern (WIN)
GAME 13 Purdue (WIN 47%) at Michigan State (WIN 14%) at Rutgers (WIN 82%)
GAME 14 at Ohio State (WIN 42%) Illinois (WIN 85%) Michigan (WIN 58%)
GAME 15 at Maryland (WIN 15%) at Iowa (WIN 12%) at Nebraska (WIN 41%)
GAME 16 Northwestern (WIN 77%) Michigan (WIN 66%) Michigan State (WIN 29%)
GAME 17 at Wisconsin (WIN 34%) at Minnesota (WIN 75%) Iowa (WIN 27%)
GAME 18 Iowa (WIN 34%) at Purdue (WIN 20%) at Michigan State (WIN 10%)


Wisconsin has been the hottest team in the Big Ten, winning six in a row since a 1-4 start to league play.  That streak has included narrow wins over Michigan State and Indiana (both at home), but three of the other four wins came against the conference's soft underbelly: Penn State, Illinois, and Nebraska.  (The other win came against Ohio State.)  Shit is about to get real again for the Badgers, though -- three of their next four games are against Maryland, Michigan State, and Iowa. They also host Michigan after that and close the year at Purdue.

Michigan is 8-4 in the league, but their only really good win in league play was a home win over Maryland. Aside from that they have wins over Penn State (2x), Minnesota (2x), Rutgers, Illinois, and Nebraska -- not exactly murderer's row there. The KenPom probabilities have them winning just one of their final six games (against Northwestern), although the Purdue and Ohio State games are close to toss-ups.

Ohio State's best wins in Big Ten play are their two wins over Northwestern -- no, really. Other than that, they have wins over Illinois (2x), Minnesota, Rutgers, and Penn State. Their next three games look winnable and they'd do well to win them because after that they close with two games against Michigan State sandwiched around a home game against Iowa.  Those final three games could be vital for their bubble hopes, too -- Ohio State could badly use a signature win or two to improve their resume.

KenPom projects Michigan and Wisconsin to finish 10-8 and Ohio State to go 9-9; there are a few head-to-head match-ups between these teams, but ultimately it may come down to which team is best able to get the big wins that have (mostly) eluded them so far in Big Ten play.

Meanwhile, in the bottom half of the league four teams (Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State, and Illinois) are trying to claw together enough wins to finish 9th and 10th and avoid having to play on Wednesday at the Big Ten Tournament.

GAME NEBRASKA (5-7) NORTHWESTERN (4-8) PENN STATE (3-8) ILLINOIS (3-8)
GAME 12 at Wisconsin (LOSS) at Ohio State (LOSS) at Nebraska (WIN 23%) at Northwestern (WIN 23%)
GAME 13 Penn State (WIN 77%) Illinois (WIN 77%) Iowa (WIN 14%) Rutgers (WIN 89%)
GAME 14 at Indiana (WIN 14%) at Purdue (WIN 12%) at Rutgers (WIN 67%) at Wisconsin (WIN 15%)
GAME 15 Ohio State (WIN 59%) at Michigan (WIN 23%) Nebraska (WIN 52%) Indiana (WIN 26%)
GAME 16 at Penn State (WIN 48%) Rutgers (WIN 93%) at Michigan State (WIN 5%) Minnesota (WIN 78%)
GAME 17 Purdue (WIN 33%) at Penn State (WIN 49%) Northwestern (WIN 51%) at Maryland (WIN 6%)
GAME 18 at Northwestern (WIN 34%) Nebraska (WIN 66%) Illinois (WIN 64%) at Penn State (WIN 36%)


There are a lot of games remaining between the teams in this group.  Nebraska plays Penn State home and away and ends the year at Northwestern. Northwestern has a game against each of the other three. Penn State plays Nebraska home and away and closes out the year hosting Northwestern and Illinois. And Illinois has a game with Northwestern and a game with Penn State. Penn State and Illinois are currently in the Wednesday game slots, but they'll each have a good opportunity to escape there -- in addition to their games against the other teams in this group, Penn State has a game with Rutgers, while Illinois has games with Rutgers and Minnesota. KenPom projects Illinois and Penn State to finish at 6-12, just behind Northwestern at 7-11 and Nebraska at 8-10; that seems reasonable, but with so many games against one another, there are still a few different ways for this group to shake out.

Finally, in the race for 0-18:

GAME MINNESOTA (0-12) RUTGERS (0-11)
GAME 12 Michigan (LOSS) Ohio State (WIN 18%)
GAME 13 at Iowa (WIN 2%) at Illinois (WIN 11%)
GAME 14 Maryland (WIN 10%) Penn State (WIN 33%)
GAME 15 Rutgers (WIN 81%) at Minnesota (WIN 19%)
GAME 16 at Illinois (WIN 22%) at Northwestern (WIN 7%)
GAME 17 Wisconsin (WIN 25%) Michigan State (WIN 4%)
GAME 18 at Rutgers (WIN 54%) Minnesota (WIN 46%)


The race for the bottom is careening toward a potential 0-14 showdown between Minnesota and Rutgers on Tuesday, February 23.  Zero wins!  28 combined losses!  Feel the excitement! Really, though, there's a very good chance that two 0-14 teams have never met before, so this could be a bit of history.  Rutgers' home game with Penn State looks like the biggest potential impediment to that piece of history becoming reality -- that game is one of only two remaining where Rutgers has a win probability over 20% (the other is their home game against the Gophers to end the season).  Hopefully Brandon Taylor & Co. don't get tripped up in the RAC and deny us a glimpse of history.

As for who actually will finish dead last in the Big Ten... KenPom projects Minnesota to go 2-16 and Rutgers to go 1-17. If Minnesota can sweep the series against Rutgers they'll lock up 13th place.  If they split they'll need to find another win somewhere else to avoid tying Rutgers for the bottom of the league... maybe at Illinois?  They had Illinois on the ropes in the game in Minneapolis.  Rutgers... well, they just need to beat Minnesota in one of their two tries to avoid the ignominy of 0-18.