A lot riding on stretch run around the Big Ten
Wisconsin's Bo Ryan is not a huge believer in rowdy, home-court crowds taking over big games for their teams down the stretch.
When the Badgers were upset at Minnesota's old barn of a home arena last week, Ryan said the outcome was a result of the Golden Gophers simply playing well. Nothing more.
"The fans didn't play," he said Monday. "I didn't see them take any shots or defend anybody. I think it matters (more) what goes on between the lines."
Purdue coach Matt Painter seconds Ryan's opinion.
"(The home crowd) definitely helps you — if you play well," he said. "It's kind of been proven here in college basketball the past month that some real good teams have gotten beat at home, across the board."
That's instructive as the Big Ten enters what could be a wild and dramatic final two weeks of the regular season.
Painter's Boilermakers, almost an afterthought when they were in third place a week ago, now sit atop the standings at 11-3 with four pursuers nipping at their heels. Michigan State and Ohio State are each 11-4, Wisconsin is 10-5 and Illinois 9-5.
Several contenders will be tested by road games this week. Illinois visits Michigan on Tuesday night, No. 3 Purdue plays at Minnesota and ninth-ranked Ohio State visits Penn State on Wednesday. No. 17 Wisconsin travels to Indiana on Thursday.
No. 14 Michigan State takes a breather with a week between games, giving coach Tom Izzo some extra time to prepare for the make-or-break game on Sunday at Purdue.
"We do have a much-needed week off," Izzo said in a tired voice. "I don't know if that's the good news or the bad news."
The Spartans, seemingly in control of the league race three weeks ago, have lost their last two home games to Purdue and Ohio State. So maybe it's good that they'll be packing their bags for West Lafayette, Ind.
Izzo said his team played "very uninspired basketball" in a loss to the Buckeyes on Sunday, that reigning Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas had "one of his worst games" and that his team has struggled with distractions all season.
"It's always a negative, but it's not always somebody's fault," Izzo said. "As kids, whether it be NBA aspirations or things like that, it's hard to handle sometimes. I just think we've had some distractions, on the court and off the court, and we've had a hard time dealing with the high ranking. And sometimes we don't have as good a leadership. You go through that. But it's something that still can be fixed."
Other Big Ten leaders have issues, too.
Purdue may top the conference race but has had wildly inconsistent halves in recent games. Wisconsin is trying to blend in Jon Leuer, who missed nine games with a broken wrist. Ohio State is playing what Izzo calls an "iron five" — it's as if coach Thad Matta doesn't realize he has more than the starting lineup available.
"Guys would rather play games than practice," Matta said, shrugging off the fact that he usually plays at least three starters 40 minutes per game. "Hopefully we can get more guys in. But I really don't (worry). I tell the guys we'll worry about being tired in April."
As if a rabid and loud home crowd isn't enough of an equalizer between an elite visiting team and a struggling home squad, even the teams that are not fighting for the Big Ten title still have a lot still on the table.
Some are hoping for a decent first-round draw in the conference tournament in two weeks. Others, like Michigan (13-13), also want a winning record. And teams like Minnesota (16-10) and Northwestern (17-10) hold out hope of a strong finish and possibly an NCAA tournament berth.
"Any time you can win at this time of year, it's going to help you in a lot of ways," said Minnesota's Tubby Smith. "From recruiting, from momentum going into the Big Ten tournament, by giving a team confidence. But we've just got to focus in on Purdue, just on the shear passion of playing basketball. All the other stuff is gravy."